JF Ptak Science Books LLC Post 598
In the history of science there are a number of instances where discoveries get passed by, or un-noticed, or un- (or under-) appreciated. Gregor Mendel’s 1865/6 paper embodying the discovery of genetics didn’t get noticed (for real) until 1899. The Alpher-Gamow-Herman paper (1948) postulating the background radiation for the Big Bang went unnoticed even after Penzias and Wilson found it (by accident) right where it was supposed to be. And so on. There’s another whole category of names associated with discoveries that have faded into obscurity even though their idea has not: Walter Pitts (neural networks), Vannevar Bush (the internet), Michael Servetus (pulmonary circulation, Rosalind Franklin (DNA), Robert Hooke (too much to mention), and so trippingly on.
I had this second category in mind while grazing through the year 1940 in the Physical Review. I came across a very significant paper—a paper of exceptionally high standing, of direct interest to hundreds of working nuclear physicists—that, after publication, became invisible—or actually publicly invisible. The problem was that it was also of very high interest to the war effort, and it was published by a Russian. By a Soviet. The paper was by G.N. Flerov and K.A. Petrzhak (Spontaneous fission of uranium volume 58, page 89, 1940), and it addressed isotopes U-238, U-235 and U-234 and the influence of neutrons of different energies; their experiments revealed a new type of nuclear transmutation and observed the world’s first occurrence of spontaneous fission. And this of course was a big deal because of the military applications of the continuing series of discoveries on nuclear fission, and so the paper—as monumental as it was—passed without comment and without notice. Not because the paper didn’t merit it, of course, but because the powers that be thought it most prudent not to tip the very secret developmental hand of creating an atomic bomb.
Years later in his book The Advisers, Oppenheimer, Teller and the Superbomb, Herbert York recorded the thoughts of Igor Golovin, who supported the work of Kurchatov who sponsored the research of Flerov and Petrazhak: “the complete lack of any American response to the subject of this discovery was one of the foundations which convinced the Soviets that the Americans were developing the bomb”. As was everyone else, probably. Peter Kapitza, one of the greatest Russian physicists of the century noted (on 12 July 1941) that—based on this work— it was entirely possible that a bomb could be developed that could kill millions of people. And it was right after this that these papers were no longer published in the Physical Review—for national security reasons.
There was another reason for not responding to the Soviet paper. On August 14, 1939, Josef Stalin started a letter so:
To the chancellor of the German Reich, Herr A. Hitler.
And finished it thus:
I thank you for your letter. I hope that the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact will mark a decisive turn for the better in the political relations between our two countries. .
The Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact was a pretty good reason for not wanting to "share" with the Soviets.
The Soviets wouldn’t see the light until the Nazis ripped off the curtains
with the start of their June 1941 offensive in Operation Barbarossa, beginning
a brutal attack on Mother Russia that wouldn’t end until the Germans where
defeated by Winter. Keeping the Soviets
out of the loop was a good policy decision.
In a way though it may not have mattered. The only country on earth that had the facilities and resources to develop the bomb was the United States--the sheer amount of energy alone would've consumed something like the majority of all energy resources needed to fight the conventional war for both the Japanese and the Germans. This list goes well on, but that's another story.