[FOUNTAIN]Physics tests and a world unsettlingOne day in 1896, Antoine Henri Becquerel, to his surprise, discovered that uranium left a trace on photographic plate in his drawer. On top of the plate was a crust of uranium salt. He presumed that the uranium salt had emitted an unknown kind of radiation. A professor at Ecole Polytechnique in France, he asked Marie Curie, an immigrant Polish graduate student, to investigate what had happened. Along with her husband, Pierre Curie, Madame Curie discovered in her research that uranium constantly emitted a considerable amount of energy without altering any other characteristics. Madam Curie named the phenomenon, “radioactivity.” Ten years later, Albert Einstein explained that uranium converted mass into energy. Professor Becquerel, Marie Curie and Pierre Curie were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1903 for their joint research on the radiation phenomena.
Ernest Rutherford of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, immediately applied radiation to academic research. A Nobel Prize laureate in chemistry, he discovered the phenomenon of “half-life,” that in a sample of radioactive material, it invariably took the same amount of time for half the sample to decay. In 1904, he announced that he had found a lode of uranium that was 700 million years old using the half-life calculation method. According to “A Short History of Nearly Everything” by Bill Bryson, Mr. Rutherford claimed that the age of the earth was at least 700 million years. At the time, most people believed that the earth was 24 million to 100 million years old. Today, the earth is estimated to be 4.5 billion years old with a margin of error of 70 million years.
The Manhattan Project, which was launched in 1942, developed the first atomic bomb by using the power locked in uranium. Richard Feynman, a physicist and Nobel Prize winner in 1965, joined the project when he received his master’s degree. John Gribbin and Mary Gribbin’s “Richard Feynman: A Life in Science” says he was traumatized by the terror of nuclear war.
The Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute is at the center of controversy because of a uranium enrichment experiment four years ago. The panic of Mr. Feynman looms again. What is more dreadful is the atmosphere that keeps us concerned about nuclear issues.
by Lee Se-jung
The writer is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.