Hahn, Otto (1879-1968), German physical chemist and Nobel laureate, best known for his contributions in the field of radioactivity. Hahn was born in Frankfort am Main and educated at the universities of Marburg and Munich. In 1911 he became a member of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry in Berlin. He served as director of the institute from 1928 to 1945, when it was taken into Allied custody after World War II. In 1918 he discovered, with Austrian physicist Lise Meitner, the element protactinium. Hahn, with his coworkers, Meitner and German chemist Fritz Strassmann, continued the research started by Italian physicist Enrico Fermi: bombarding uranium with neutrons. Until 1939 scientists believed that elements with atomic numbers higher than 92 (known as transuranium elements) were formed when uranium was bombarded with neutrons. In 1938, however, Hahn and Strassmann, while searching for transuranium elements in a sample of uranium that had been irradiated with neutrons, found traces of the element barium. This discovery, announced in 1939, was irrefutable evidence, confirmed by calculations of the energies involved in the reaction, that the uranium had undergone fission, splitting into smaller fragments consisting of lighter elements. Hahn was awarded the 1944 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work in nuclear fission. It was proposed in 1970 that the newly synthesized element number 105 be named hahnium in his honor, but another naming system was adopted for transuranium elements with atomic numbers 104 and higher.
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b. March 8, 1879, Frankfurt am Main, Ger.
d. July 28, 1968, Göttingen, W.Ger.
German chemist who, with the radiochemist Fritz Strassmann, is credited with the discovery of nuclear fission. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1944 and shared the Enrico Fermi Award in 1966 with Strassmann and Lise Meitner.
Hahn was the son of a glazier. Although his parents wanted him to become an architect, he eventually decided to study chemistry at the University of Marburg. There Hahn worked hard at chemistry, though he was inclined to absent himself from physics and mathematics lectures in favour of art and philosophy, and he obtained his doctorate in 1901. After a year of military service, he returned to the university as chemistry lecture assistant, hoping to find a post in industry later on.
In 1904 he went to London, primarily to learn English, and worked at University College with Sir William Ramsay, who was interested in radioactivity. While working on a crude radium preparation that Ramsay had given to him to purify, Hahn showed that a new radioactive substance, which he called radiothorium, was present. Fired by this early success and encouraged by Ramsay, who thought highly of him, he decided to continue with research on radioactivity rather than go into industry. With Ramsay's support he obtained a post at the University of Berlin. Before taking it up, he decided to spend several months in Montreal with Ernest Rutherford (later Lord Rutherford of Nelson) to gain further experience with radioactivity. Shortly after returning to Germany in 1906, Hahn was joined by Lise Meitner, an Austrian-born physicist, and five years later they moved to the new Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry at Berlin-Dahlen. There Hahn became head of a small but independent department of radiochemistry.
Feeling that his future was more secure, Hahn married Edith Junghans, the daughter of the chairman of Stettin City Council, in 1913; but World War I broke out the next year, and Hahn was posted to a regiment. In 1915 he became a chemical-warfare specialist, serving on all the European fronts.
After the war, Hahn and Meitner were among the first to isolate protactinium-231, an isotope of the recently discovered radioactive element protactinium. Because nearly all the natural radioactive elements had then been discovered, he devoted the next 12 years to studies on the application of radioactive methods to chemical problems.
In 1934 Hahn became keenly interested in the work of the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, who found that when the heaviest natural element, uranium, is bombarded by neutrons, several radioactive products are formed. Fermi supposed these products to be artificial elements similar to uranium. Hahn and Meitner, assisted by the young Strassmann, obtained results that at first seemed in accord with Fermi's interpretation but that became increasingly difficult to understand. Meitner fled from Germany in July 1938 to escape the persecution of Jews by the Nazis, but Hahn and Strassmann continued the work. By the end of 1938, they obtained conclusive evidence, contrary to previous expectation, that one of the products from uranium was a radioactive form of the much lighter element barium, indicating that the uranium atom had split into two lighter atoms. Hahn sent an account of the work to Meitner, who, in cooperation with her nephew Otto Frisch, formulated a plausible explanation of the process, to which they gave the name nuclear fission.
The tremendous implications of this discovery were realized by scientists before the outbreak of World War II, and a group was formed in Germany to study possible military developments. Much to Hahn's relief, he was allowed to continue with his own researches. After the war, he and other German nuclear scientists were taken to England, where he learned that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize for 1944 and was profoundly affected by the announcement of the explosion of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima in 1945. Although now aged 66, he was still a vigorous man; a lifelong mountaineer, he maintained physical fitness during the enforced stay in England by a daily run.
On his return to Germany he was elected president of the former Kaiser Wilhelm Society (renamed the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science) and became a respected public figure, a spokesman for science, and a friend of Theodor Heuss, the first president of the Federal Republic of Germany. He campaigned against further development and testing of nuclear weapons. Honours came to him from all sides; in 1966 he, Meitner, and Strassmann shared the prestigious Enrico Fermi Award. This period of his life was saddened, however, by the loss of his only son, Hanno, and his daughter-in-law, who were killed in an automobile accident in 1960. His wife never recovered from the shock. Hahn died in 1968, after a fall; his wife survived him by only two weeks.
The 1920s witnessed further advances in nuclear physics with Rutherford's discovery of induced radioactivity. Bombardment of light nuclei by alpha particles produced new radioactive nuclei. In 1928 the Russian-born American physicist George Gamow explained the lifetimes in alpha radioactivity using the Schrödinger equation.
The constitution of the nucleus was poorly understood at the time because the only known particles were the electron and the proton. It had been established that nuclei are typically about twice as heavy as can be accounted for by protons alone and thus have to contain more than just such particles. A consistent theory was impossible until the English physicist James Chadwick discovered the neutron in 1932. He found that alpha particles reacted with beryllium nuclei, ejecting neutral particles with nearly the same mass as protons. Almost all nuclear phenomena can be understood in terms of a nucleus composed of neutrons and protons. Surprisingly, the neutrons and protons in the nucleus behave to a large extent as though they were in independent wave functions, just like the electrons in an atom. Each neutron or proton is described by a wave pattern with peaks and nodes and angular momentum quantum numbers. The theory of the nucleus based on these independent wave functions is called the shell model. It was introduced in 1948 by Maria Goeppert Mayer of the United States and J. Hans D. Jensen of West Germany, and it developed in succeeding decades into a comprehensive theory of the nucleus.
The interactions of neutrons with nuclei had been studied during the mid-1930s by the Italian-born American physicist Enrico Fermi and others. Nuclei readily capture neutrons, which, unlike protons or alpha particles, are not repelled from the nucleus by a positive charge. When a neutron is captured, the new nucleus has one higher unit of atomic mass. If a nearby isotope of that atomic mass is more stable, the new nucleus will be radioactive, convert the neutron to a proton, and assume the more stable form.
Nuclear fission was discovered by the German chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann in 1938. In fission, a uranium nucleus captures a neutron and gains enough energy to trigger the inherent instability of the nucleus, which splits into two lighter nuclei of roughly equal size. The fission process releases more neutrons, which can be used to produce further fissions (see the article nuclear fission). The first nuclear reactor, a device designed to permit controlled fission chain reactions, was constructed at the University of Chicago under Fermi's direction, and the first self-sustaining chain reaction was achieved in this reactor in 1942. In 1945 American scientists produced the first atomic bomb, which used uncontrolled fission reactions in either uranium or the artificial element plutonium.
The basic principle of the fusion weapon (also called the thermonuclear or hydrogen bomb) is to produce ignition conditions in a thermonuclear fuel such as deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen with double the weight of normal hydrogen, or lithium deuteride. The Sun may be considered a thermonuclear device; its main fuel is deuterium, which it consumes in its core at temperatures of 18,000,000 to 36,000,000 F (10,000,000 to 20,000,000 C). To achieve comparable temperatures in a weapon, a fission triggering device is used.
Following the discovery of artificial radioactivity in the 1930s, the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi performed a series of experiments in which he exposed many elements to low-velocity neutrons. When he exposed thorium and uranium, chemically different radioactive products resulted, indicating that new elements had been formed, rather than merely isotopes of the original elements. Fermi concluded that he had produced elements beyond uranium (element 92), then the last element in the periodic table; he called them transuranic elements and named two of them ausenium (element 93) and hesperium (element 94). During the autumn of 1938, however, when Fermi was receiving the Nobel Prize for his work, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann of Germany discovered that one of the "new" elements was actually barium (element 56).
The Danish scientist Niels Bohr visited the United States in January 1939, carrying with him an explanation, devised by the Austrian refugee scientist Lise Meitner and her nephew Otto Frisch, of the process behind Hahn's surprising data. Low-velocity neutrons caused the uranium nucleus to fission, or break apart, into two smaller pieces; the combined atomic numbers of the two pieces--for example, barium and krypton--equalled that of the uranium nucleus. Much energy was released in the process. This news set off experiments at many laboratories. Bohr worked with John Wheeler at Princeton; they postulated that the uranium isotope uranium-235 was the one undergoing fission; the other isotope, uranium-238, merely absorbed the neutrons. It was discovered that neutrons were produced during the fission process; on the average, each fissioning atom produced more than two neutrons. If the proper amount of material were assembled, these free neutrons might create a chain reaction. Under special conditions, a very fast chain reaction might produce a very large release of energy; in short, a weapon of fantastic power might be feasible.