Neglected Science: The Ignored Influence of the Manhattan Project

This video provides background on the research done for the Manhattan Project. It discusses  som influence at 9:22 

Everyone knows about the Manhattan Project. Everyone knows how the bombs it created ended World War II. What almost no one seems to know is just how incredibly influential the Project really was, and how influential it remains to this day.

Prior to the Manhattan Project, next to nothing was known about the properties or uses of the atom, or the applications of radioactivity. The height of knowledge was found in Enrico Fermi’s team at the University of Chicago, which created the first nuclear reactor. The reactor went critical on December 2, 1942, and was the first instance of a self-sustaining nuclear reaction. To put this into perspective, the neutron, which, as catalyst for the reaction, is obviously a very important part, had only been discovered 10 years earlier.

Nearly all knowledge of the atom, apart from its basic structure, is a direct result of the Manhattan Project. Any knowledge of its use can easily be tied to the research done to create the atomic bomb. Any use of the atom, therefore, is a direct result of the Manhattan Project. The atom’s uses are nearly limitless, too, so that’s a lot of results.

From powering the U.S. Navy to three-quarters of France, from the creation of entire fields of physics to nuclear medicine, the legacy of the Manhattan Project cannot be overstated. The greatest minds of the century came together to give us new research that is still at the upper limits of human knowledge 70 years later, and to create technology that will not only make huge advances in literally every field possible, but will define entire generations for the foreseeable future.

The entire field of physics was redefined by the Manhattan Project. This is pretty well documented. Modern physics deals almost exclusively with problems that arose as the research done for the Manhattan Project delved into new areas and encountered problems they couldn’t solve, and then problems the researchers that came after them couldn’t solve, and so on. All of it ties back to the Manhattan Project. Particle physics, in particular, has a vast majority of research that can be tied back to the Manhattan Project, as the field was created as a direct result of their research. Nuclear chemistry was also profoundly influenced by the Manhattan Project, as you can see here. The entire field essentially amounted to nothing before the Manhattan Project, but with the knowledge gathered by the Project it has grown significantly and is doing relevant and helpful research in modern times, as can be seen just by looking at the table of contents of this textbook.

The most influential invention of the Manhattan Project was probably the electronic computer, though. Now, you can look up the invention of the computer, and you’ll probably find something on the Turing Machine, used to crack the Enigma code used by the Nazis in the European Theatre. If you look further, you’ll find something called the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, or ENIAC, which was invented to calculate artillery fire tables. However, it’s important to note that the ENIAC was not electronic the way that modern computers are electronic. The electronic computer is different from the first computers in that it has software. Originally, if you wanted to change the function of a computer, you would have to actually physically change the computer, which could be done by exchanging parts. This process was expensive, inefficient, and tedious, so a better way was devised. The Fermiac, or Monte Carlo trolley, was an analog computer designed to perform the Monte Carlo method of reliably predicting outcomes of neutron diffusion and other problems of mathematical physics. It was able to use multiple mathematical functions without physical change to the machine, which was revolutionary at the time. It led to the EDVAC, which was able to perform addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division without physical change to the computer. This was the first instance of computer software, and thus the first instance of a true electronic computer. The computer undoubtedly changed life forever, and will continue to do so. After all, how would we see this quality content without it?

Seriously, though, the influence of the Manhattan Project is unbelievably widespread, and the way most of us learn it is a drastic misrepresentation of its actual influence. The way it’s taught needs a total overhaul. There was so much more to the Manhattan Project than its legacy of ruin.

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