Otto Robert Frisch

Otto Robert Frisch

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Otto Robert Frisch Austria
Austria , officially the Republic of Austria , is a landlocked country of roughly 8.4 million people in Central Europe. It is bordered by the Czech Republic and Germany to the north, Slovakia and Hungary to the east, Slovenia and Italy to the south, and Switzerland and Liechtenstein to the...

United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandIn the United Kingdom and Dependencies, other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages...

A physicist is a scientist who studies or practices physics. Physicists study a wide range of physical phenomena in many branches of physics spanning all length scales: from sub-atomic particles of which all ordinary matter is made to the behavior of the material Universe as a whole...

. With his collaborator Rudolf Peierls
Rudolf Peierls
Sir Rudolf Ernst Peierls, CBE was a German-born British physicist. Rudolf Peierls had a major role in Britain's nuclear program, but he also had a role in many modern sciences...

 he designed the first theoretical mechanism for the detonation of an atomic bomb in 1940.


Frisch was Jewish, born in Vienna, Austria in 1904, the son of a painter and a concert pianist. He himself was talented at both but also had inherited his aunt Lise Meitner
Lise Meitner
Lise Meitner FRS was an Austrian-born, later Swedish, physicist who worked on radioactivity and nuclear physics. Meitner was part of the team that discovered nuclear fission, an achievement for which her colleague Otto Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize...

's love of physics and commenced a period of study at the University of Vienna, graduating in 1926 with some work on the effect of the newly discovered electron
The electron is a subatomic particle with a negative elementary electric charge. It has no known components or substructure; in other words, it is generally thought to be an elementary particle. An electron has a mass that is approximately 1/1836 that of the proton...

 on salts. After some years working in relatively obscure laboratories in Germany
Germany , officially the Federal Republic of Germany , is a federal parliamentary republic in Europe. The country consists of 16 states while the capital and largest city is Berlin. Germany covers an area of 357,021 km2 and has a largely temperate seasonal climate...

, Frisch obtained a position in Hamburg
-History:The first historic name for the city was, according to Claudius Ptolemy's reports, Treva.But the city takes its modern name, Hamburg, from the first permanent building on the site, a castle whose construction was ordered by the Emperor Charlemagne in AD 808...

 under the Nobel Prize
Nobel Prize
The Nobel Prizes are annual international awards bestowed by Scandinavian committees in recognition of cultural and scientific advances. The will of the Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, established the prizes in 1895...

 winning scientist Otto Stern
Otto Stern
Otto Stern was a German physicist and Nobel laureate in physics.-Biography:Stern was born in Sohrau, now Żory in the German Empire's Kingdom of Prussia and studied at Breslau, now Wrocław in Lower Silesia....

. Here he produced novel work on the diffraction of atoms (using crystal surfaces) and also proved that the magnetic moment of the proton
The proton is a subatomic particle with the symbol or and a positive electric charge of 1 elementary charge. One or more protons are present in the nucleus of each atom, along with neutrons. The number of protons in each atom is its atomic number....

 was much larger than had been previously supposed.

The accession of Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler was an Austrian-born German politician and the leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party , commonly referred to as the Nazi Party). He was Chancellor of Germany from 1933 to 1945, and head of state from 1934 to 1945...

 to the chancellorship of Germany in 1933 made Otto Robert Frisch make the decision to move to London, England where he joined the staff at Birkbeck College
Birkbeck, University of London
Birkbeck, University of London is a public research university located in London, United Kingdom and a constituent college of the federal University of London. It offers many Master's and Bachelor's degree programmes that can be studied either part-time or full-time, though nearly all teaching is...

 and worked with the physicist Patrick Maynard Stuart Blackett on cloud chamber
Cloud chamber
The cloud chamber, also known as the Wilson chamber, is a particle detector used for detecting ionizing radiation. In its most basic form, a cloud chamber is a sealed environment containing a supersaturated vapor of water or alcohol. When a charged particle interacts with the mixture, it ionizes it...

 technology and artificial radioactivity. He followed this with a five year stint in Copenhagen
Copenhagen is the capital and largest city of Denmark, with an urban population of 1,199,224 and a metropolitan population of 1,930,260 . With the completion of the transnational Øresund Bridge in 2000, Copenhagen has become the centre of the increasingly integrating Øresund Region...

 with Niels Bohr
Niels Bohr
Niels Henrik David Bohr was a Danish physicist who made foundational contributions to understanding atomic structure and quantum mechanics, for which he received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922. Bohr mentored and collaborated with many of the top physicists of the century at his institute in...

 where he increasingly specialised in nuclear physics
Nuclear physics
Nuclear physics is the field of physics that studies the building blocks and interactions of atomic nuclei. The most commonly known applications of nuclear physics are nuclear power generation and nuclear weapons technology, but the research has provided application in many fields, including those...

, particularly in neutron physics.

During the Christmas holiday in 1938 he visited his aunt Lise Meitner
Lise Meitner
Lise Meitner FRS was an Austrian-born, later Swedish, physicist who worked on radioactivity and nuclear physics. Meitner was part of the team that discovered nuclear fission, an achievement for which her colleague Otto Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize...

 in Kungälv
Kungälv is a city and the seat of Kungälv Municipality in Västra Götaland County, Sweden. It had 21,139 inhabitants in 2005.-History:According to Swedish official sources the city was founded in 1612, when the former settlement at Kungahälla was moved to the Bohus Fortress...

. While there she received the news that Otto Hahn
Otto Hahn
Otto Hahn FRS was a German chemist and Nobel laureate, a pioneer in the fields of radioactivity and radiochemistry. He is regarded as "the father of nuclear chemistry". Hahn was a courageous opposer of Jewish persecution by the Nazis and after World War II he became a passionate campaigner...

 and Fritz Strassmann
Fritz Strassmann
Friedrich Wilhelm "Fritz" Strassmann was a German chemist who, with Otto Hahn in 1938, identified barium in the residue after bombarding uranium with neutrons, which led to the interpretation of their results as being from nuclear fission...

 in Berlin
Berlin is the capital city of Germany and is one of the 16 states of Germany. With a population of 3.45 million people, Berlin is Germany's largest city. It is the second most populous city proper and the seventh most populous urban area in the European Union...

 had discovered that the collision of a neutron
The neutron is a subatomic hadron particle which has the symbol or , no net electric charge and a mass slightly larger than that of a proton. With the exception of hydrogen, nuclei of atoms consist of protons and neutrons, which are therefore collectively referred to as nucleons. The number of...

 with a uranium
Uranium is a silvery-white metallic chemical element in the actinide series of the periodic table, with atomic number 92. It is assigned the chemical symbol U. A uranium atom has 92 protons and 92 electrons, of which 6 are valence electrons...

 nucleus produced the element barium
Barium is a chemical element with the symbol Ba and atomic number 56. It is the fifth element in Group 2, a soft silvery metallic alkaline earth metal. Barium is never found in nature in its pure form due to its reactivity with air. Its oxide is historically known as baryta but it reacts with...

 as one of its byproducts. Hahn, in a letter to Meitner, called this new reaction a "bursting" of the uranium nucleus. Frisch and Meitner hypothesized that the uranium nucleus had split in two, explained the process, estimated the energy released, and Frisch coined the term fission
Nuclear fission
In nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry, nuclear fission is a nuclear reaction in which the nucleus of an atom splits into smaller parts , often producing free neutrons and photons , and releasing a tremendous amount of energy...

 to describe it. (Very soon afterward, Stan Ulam theorized that nuclear fission could lead to a chain reaction
Chain reaction
A chain reaction is a sequence of reactions where a reactive product or by-product causes additional reactions to take place. In a chain reaction, positive feedback leads to a self-amplifying chain of events....

). Political restraints of the Nazi era forced the team of Hahn and that of Frisch and Meitner (both of whom were Jewish) to publish separately. Hahn's paper described the experiment and the finding of the barium byproduct. Meitner's and Frisch's paper explained the physics behind the phenomenon. Frisch went back to Copenhagen, where he was quickly able to isolate the fragments produced by fission reactions. As Frisch himself later recalls, a fundamental idea of the direct experimental proof of the nuclear fission was suggested to him by George Placzek
George Placzek
Georg Placzek was a Czech physicist.Born in Brno, Moravia, Placzek studied physics in Prague and Vienna. He worked with Hans Bethe, Edward Teller, Rudolf Peierls, Werner Heisenberg, Victor Weisskopf, Enrico Fermi, Niels Bohr, Lev Landau, Edoardo Amaldi, Emilio Segrè, Leon van Hove and many other...


In the Summer of 1939 Frisch left Denmark for what he anticipated would be a short trip to Birmingham
Birmingham is a city and metropolitan borough in the West Midlands of England. It is the most populous British city outside the capital London, with a population of 1,036,900 , and lies at the heart of the West Midlands conurbation, the second most populous urban area in the United Kingdom with a...

, but the outbreak of World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

 precluded his return. With war on his mind, he and the physicist Rudolf Peierls
Rudolf Peierls
Sir Rudolf Ernst Peierls, CBE was a German-born British physicist. Rudolf Peierls had a major role in Britain's nuclear program, but he also had a role in many modern sciences...

 produced the Frisch-Peierls memorandum
Frisch-Peierls memorandum
The Frisch–Peierls memorandum was written by Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls while they were both working at the University of Birmingham, England. The memorandum contained new calculations about the size of the critical mass needed for an atomic bomb, and helped accelerate British and U.S...

, which was the first document to set out a process by which an atomic explosion could be generated; their process would use separated Uranium-235, which would require a fairly small critical mass and could be made to achieve criticality using conventional explosives and create an immensely powerful detonation. The memorandum went on to predict the effects of such an explosion — from the initial blast to the resulting fallout
Nuclear fallout
Fallout is the residual radioactive material propelled into the upper atmosphere following a nuclear blast, so called because it "falls out" of the sky after the explosion and shock wave have passed. It commonly refers to the radioactive dust and ash created when a nuclear weapon explodes...

. This memorandum was the basis of British work on building an atomic device (the Tube Alloys
Tube Alloys
Tube Alloys was the code-name for the British nuclear weapon directorate during World War II, when the development of nuclear weapons was kept at such a high level of secrecy that it had to be referred to by code even in the highest circles of government...

 project) and also that of the Manhattan Project
Manhattan Project
The Manhattan Project was a research and development program, led by the United States with participation from the United Kingdom and Canada, that produced the first atomic bomb during World War II. From 1942 to 1946, the project was under the direction of Major General Leslie Groves of the US Army...

 on which Frisch worked as part of the British delegation. He went to America in 1943 having been hurriedly made a British citizen.

In 1944 at Los Alamos
Los Alamos National Laboratory
Los Alamos National Laboratory is a United States Department of Energy national laboratory, managed and operated by Los Alamos National Security , located in Los Alamos, New Mexico...

, one of Frisch's tasks as the leader of the Critical Assemblies group was to accurately determine the exact amount of enriched uranium
Enriched uranium
Enriched uranium is a kind of uranium in which the percent composition of uranium-235 has been increased through the process of isotope separation. Natural uranium is 99.284% 238U isotope, with 235U only constituting about 0.711% of its weight...

 which would be required to create the critical mass
Critical mass
A critical mass is the smallest amount of fissile material needed for a sustained nuclear chain reaction. The critical mass of a fissionable material depends upon its nuclear properties A critical mass is the smallest amount of fissile material needed for a sustained nuclear chain reaction. The...

, the mass of uranium which would sustain a nuclear reaction. He did this by stacking several dozen 3 cm bars of enriched uranium hydride at a time and measuring rising neutron
The neutron is a subatomic hadron particle which has the symbol or , no net electric charge and a mass slightly larger than that of a proton. With the exception of hydrogen, nuclei of atoms consist of protons and neutrons, which are therefore collectively referred to as nucleons. The number of...

 activity as the critical mass was approached. The hydrogen
Hydrogen is the chemical element with atomic number 1. It is represented by the symbol H. With an average atomic weight of , hydrogen is the lightest and most abundant chemical element, constituting roughly 75% of the Universe's chemical elemental mass. Stars in the main sequence are mainly...

 in the metal bars increased the time that the reaction required to accelerate. This was dubbed "tickling a sleeping dragon's tail" by Richard Feynman
Richard Feynman
Richard Phillips Feynman was an American physicist known for his work in the path integral formulation of quantum mechanics, the theory of quantum electrodynamics and the physics of the superfluidity of supercooled liquid helium, as well as in particle physics...

, as too many bars would cause a runaway reaction that would have melted the bars and killed everyone nearby with neutron radiation. One day Frisch almost caused a runaway reaction by leaning over the stack. The hydrogen in his body reflected neutrons back into the stack. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the flashing red counter light go solid on. Realizing what was happening, Frisch quickly scattered the bars with his hand. In two seconds he received, by the generous standards of the time, a full day's permissible dose of neutron radiation. In this way his experiments determined the exact masses of uranium required to fire the Little Boy
Little Boy
"Little Boy" was the codename of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 by the Boeing B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay, piloted by Colonel Paul Tibbets of the 393rd Bombardment Squadron, Heavy, of the United States Army Air Forces. It was the first atomic bomb to be used as a weapon...

 bomb over Hiroshima
is the capital of Hiroshima Prefecture, and the largest city in the Chūgoku region of western Honshu, the largest island of Japan. It became best known as the first city in history to be destroyed by a nuclear weapon when the United States Army Air Forces dropped an atomic bomb on it at 8:15 A.M...


In 1946 he returned to England to take up the post of head of the nuclear physics division of the Atomic Energy Research Establishment
Atomic Energy Research Establishment
The Atomic Energy Research Establishment near Harwell, Oxfordshire, was the main centre for atomic energy research and development in the United Kingdom from the 1940s to the 1990s.-Founding:...

 at Harwell, though he also spent much of the next thirty years teaching at Cambridge
The city of Cambridge is a university town and the administrative centre of the county of Cambridgeshire, England. It lies in East Anglia about north of London. Cambridge is at the heart of the high-technology centre known as Silicon Fen – a play on Silicon Valley and the fens surrounding the...

 where he was Jacksonian Professor of Natural Philosophy and a fellow of Trinity College
Trinity College, Cambridge
Trinity College is a constituent college of the University of Cambridge. Trinity has more members than any other college in Cambridge or Oxford, with around 700 undergraduates, 430 graduates, and over 170 Fellows...


Before he retired he designed a device, SWEEPNIK
SWEEPNIK was a device designed by Otto Frisch that used a sweeping laser to follow bubble chamber tracks. It was later used to follow roads as an aid to the digitisation of maps.There is a good description of SWEEPNIK at Cambridge Physics....

, that used a laser and computer to measure tracks in Bubble chamber
Bubble chamber
A bubble chamber is a vessel filled with a superheated transparent liquid used to detect electrically charged particles moving through it. It was invented in 1952 by Donald A. Glaser, for which he was awarded the 1960 Nobel Prize in Physics...

s. Seeing that this had wider applications, he helped found a company, Laser-Scan Limited, now known as 1Spatial, to exploit the idea.


He retired from the chair in 1972 as required by University regulations. He died in 1979. His son, Tony Frisch, is also a physicist and in the 1980s worked for BT Labs. He currently has surviving relatives in the United States of America including Adam Frisch, a former lobbyist in the state of Georgia
Georgia (U.S. state)
Georgia is a state located in the southeastern United States. It was established in 1732, the last of the original Thirteen Colonies. The state is named after King George II of Great Britain. Georgia was the fourth state to ratify the United States Constitution, on January 2, 1788...


External links