"E = mc2"
THE PHYSICAL REVOLUTIONS OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
SHORTLY BEFORE WORLD WAR I, some members of the international scientific community were dazzled by a vision: the release of unimaginable amounts of energy from small quantities of ordinary matter. The English science-fiction writer H. G. Wells spoke for them in his prophetic novel The World Set Free ( 1914) through the fictional Professor Rufus, lecturing on radioactivity at the University of Edinburgh. Holding up a beaker of uranium oxide, Rufus declared:
In the atoms in this bottle there slumbers at least as much energy as we could get by burning a hundred and sixty tons of coal. If at a word, in one instant I could suddenly release that energy here and now it would blow us and everything about us to fragments; if I could turn it into the machinery that lights this city, it could keep Edinburgh brightly lit for a week.
Professor Rufus and his audience became carried away at the thought of the ways in which atomic energy might change their society.
Not only should we have a source of power so potent that a man might carry in his hand the energy to light a city for a year, fight a fleet of battleships or drive one of our giant liners across the Atlantic; but we should also have a clew that would enable us at last to quicken the process of disintegration in all the other elements, where decay is still so slow as to escape our finest measurements. Every scrap of solid matter in the world would become an