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The Dayside : Rutherford, Bohr, and the rise of Nature

By: Charles Day
29 August 2014

Lise Meitner spent the Christmas of 1938 at the house of her friend and fellow nuclear physicist Eva von Bahr-Bergius, who lived in the small town of Kungälv on Sweden's west coast. Joining the holiday party was another nuclear physicist, Meitner's nephew Otto Frisch.

During their visit, Frisch and Meitner went for a walk to discuss a letter that she had received from a her former colleague, the chemist Otto Hahn. Hahn described the puzzling results of an experiment that he and another former colleague, Fritz Strassmann, had performed at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry in Berlin: Bombarding uranium with neutrons transformed it into barium.

By the time Frisch and Meitner had returned to Bahr-Bergius's house, they had figured out that the uranium nucleus had split into barium and krypton, which, being a gas, escaped detection. Their model for the process treated the uranium nucleus like a drop of liquid whose surface tension barely contains the protons' mutual electrostatic repulsion.

Fully aware of the importance of their work, Frisch and Meitner opted for speedy publication. They decided to submit a one-page letter to Nature. Their model predicted that fission fragments would repel each other and fly apart with an energy of around 200 MeV. To strengthen the case for their explanation, Frisch performed an experiment at the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen, where he was working at the time.

Frisch found the high-energy fragments on 15 January 1939. The next day, he submitted two letters to Nature: one describing the model; the other describing the experiment. Both were accepted. The first, "Disintegration of Uranium by Neutrons: A New Type of Nuclear Reaction," appeared on 11 February. The second, "Products of the Fission of the Uranium Nucleus," appeared on 18 March.

Frisch and Meitner were Jewish Austrians who had fled Nazi Germany for Scandinavia. Why did they submit their momentous discovery to a British journal? Ruth Lewin Sime's engrossing biography, Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics (1996), cites publication speed as the principal criterion. Nature was, and remains, a weekly magazine. But how did it acquire the cachet to attract such an important paper?

Thanks to research by Melinda Baldwin of Harvard University, we have an answer. Her recent paper, "‘Keeping in the race’: Physics, publication speed and national publishing strategies in Nature, 1895–1939" links the rise of Nature as a destination for fast-breaking physics research to the competitive spirit of Ernest Rutherford.

Niels Bohr (left) and Ernest Rutherford (right) sit outdoors at what might be a rowing regatta. CREDIT: Niels Bohr Archive, courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives

Niels Bohr (left) and Ernest Rutherford (right) sit outdoors at what might be a rowing regatta. CREDIT: Niels Bohr Archive, courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives

In 1898, at the age of 26, Rutherford took up a professorship at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. His lab was well-funded and well-equipped. Among his collaborators at McGill was Frederick Soddy, with whom he discovered that alpha particles are helium nuclei and that radioactivity entails the disintegration of atoms.

But Canada's distance from Europe slowed the publication of Rutherford's research. His discovery in 1899 that radioactivity from one element could induce radioactivity in others was scooped by Marie and Pierre Curie. Baldwin quotes in her paper from a letter that Rutherford wrote to his mother in 1900:

I have to keep going as there are always people on my track. I have to publish my present work as rapidly as possible in order to keep in the race. The best sprinters in this road of investigation are Becquerel and the Curies in Paris, who have done a great deal of very important work in the subject of radioactive bodies during the last few years.

Rutherford began submitting his discoveries to Nature in 1901. To establish priority as quickly as possible, he wrote the papers as one-page letters to the editor, which at the time could appear as soon as a week after their arrival at Nature's London offices. Between 1901 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Rutherford published 28 such letters.

Rutherford returned to the UK in 1906 to take up a position at Manchester University. In 1911 he invited Niels Bohr to join him there as a postdoc. Bohr evidently acquired Rutherford's predilection for submitting letters to Nature. From 1913 to 1923, Bohr published 11 letters in Nature. And when he became the head of the newly established Institute for Theoretical Physics, he encouraged his research staff, including Frisch, to submit letters to Nature. By the time Frisch and Meitner's fission papers appeared in 1939, Frisch had already published 9 letters in Nature.

Not all Rutherford's and Bohr's Nature publications were about discoveries. For the 21 July 1934 issue, Rutherford wrote an obituary for his rival Marie Curie. And for the 30 October 1937 issue, Bohr wrote an obituary for his mentor Rutherford.

For more on Rutherford's life and research, see the online exhibit Rutherford's Nuclear World.

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