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On the 2nd of December 1942 in a small lab in the center of Chicago, human beings tapped into a fundamental force of the universe and crossed a threshold as a species.

Physicist Enrico Fermi stood in front of his creation, Chicago Pile 1. The world’s first nuclear reactor.

The same technology would be used 3 years later to drop two bombs to end the second world war, and would escalate post-war tensions into a question of global catastrophe or survival.

All of the conventional bombs dropped during WWII (i.e. prior to the atomic bombs) are estimated to have had the equivalent force of 3 megatons of TNT. 16 years later with the technology that Fermi demonstrated, the Soviet Union tested an atomic bomb with the force of over 50 megatons of TNT in a single explosion.

Declassified footage of an atomic explosion

Fermi had unleashed a new energy source.

From a physicist’s point of view, Fermi had discovered the power of the ‘Strong Nuclear Force’, one of two nuclear forces that describe the fundamental interactions within the atom.

The strong nuclear force is what binds quarks together to create protons and neutrons, and from residual force left over it also binds protons and neutrons to form the nucleus of the atom.Β The force comes from a particle known in Quantum Mechanics as the ‘gluon’ – the ‘glue’ that holds everything together.

When the atom of an element heavier than iron is split into pieces, a small fraction of the energy of the gluons escapes and is converted into heat and radiation.

Fermi achieved this by using neutrons to bombard a heavy element, uranium. Some of the neutrons would stick to the uranium atoms, making them so heavy that they became unstable and would break apart, letting a few gluons and their energy escape.

Put a different way, what Fermi unlocked wasΒ a tiny portion of the strong nuclear force of the atom, and this portion is the origin of all nuclear power.

But it also comes with side effects. Unstable atoms cast off different particles which we call radiation. There are aΒ few different types:

  • Alpha particles (Two protons and two neutrons in a bundle, which is a helium ion)
  • Beta particles (An electron and antineutrino, or a positron and neutrino)
  • Gamma radiation (Highly energetic photons, which is part of the electromagnetic spectrum)

It is with beta radiation that the second nuclear force is observable, called the ‘Weak Nuclear Force’. It determines if the nucleus emits either an electron and an antineutrino, or a positron or neutrino. Therefore unlike the other forces, like the strong nuclear force orΒ gravity, the weak nuclear force is unique in that it does not hold matter apart. It changes it.

Almost 80 years on from Fermi’s breakthrough experiment, nuclear power provides over 10% of the world’s electricity, though what do with its waste is a growing problem.

It is possible that in the future we may have the technology toΒ fuse together elements that are lighter than iron, which also releases gluons but without the nuclear waste. This is called ‘nuclear fusion’.Β It is the same process by which stars produce their heat and light, as it occurs naturally in their cores as a result of their tremendous gravity.

Developing a machine that can create and control a nuclear fusion reaction would mean a clean source of clean energy that uses the nearly limitless amount of hydrogen in the air and oceans as its fuel. It is considered to be a holy grail in civil engineering, and if an experiment were successful, it would be as impactful for our species as Fermi’s original nuclear reactor.

Nuclear power comes from converting the strong nuclear force within Uranium into heat, and then into electrical energy. Nuclear power provides 10.8% of the world’s electricity as of 2017.

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Ben McCarthy

Ben McCarthy

Ben is the Founder of Discover Earth and the author of the Big Ideas Network.