By Prof. Monish Gunawardana
Energy is the ability to do work or the ability to move objects. It is very essential to meet our day-to-day needs, extending life expectancy and raising living standards. A human being (Homo sapiens) is an energy inventor as well as extraordinary energy user. Around 200 000
years ago, our distant ancestors (Neanderthals) invented stone tools and discovered fire. These courageous and innovative hunters found meat, cooked it by fire, and enjoyed the family dinner in warm caves.
The Neanderthal economy was primarily progressed by two energies –
muscle power and fire. The current global economy (neo-Homo sapiens economy) is born and thrives on brainpower and modern fires such as coal, oil and natural gases. Today’s article examines the signature of an extraordinary genius on another emerging fire – atomic (nuclear) power.
Around 2 600 years ago, when Indian Jain philosophers discussed “Matter”, they considered the atom or paramanu as the absolute element in the universe. Like Einstein, Jain monks used mathematics (sankayyana) to explain the universe. Just about 2 400 years ago, Democritus, an early Greek philosopher, had discussed the concept of the atom.
The atomic theory of “Matter” is the cornerstone of modern science. In 1900, Max Plank tried to understand the electromagnetic radiation of atomic energy. Einstein was the first to recognize Plank’s work that was known as the quantum theory. Ernest Rutherford (1909) explained what happens to an atom during radioactive decay.
The modern quantum theory on the atom was developed by Werner Heisenberg (1925). Neils Bohr (1913) modified Rutherford’s model of the atom to include the ideas of quantum physics. James Chadwick’s (1932) discovery of the neutron, a subatomic particle making up the nucleus of the atom, was a giant step for nuclear science. Finally, Einstein’s personal genius and rigorous application of mathematics allowed him to solve key problems of physics, including atomic structure.
Everything is made of atoms in our world and universe. Nuclear energy is the energy which resides in the nucleus (centre) of an atom. There are 92 kinds of atoms with different types of chemical properties, in our planet. They are chemical elements like oxygen, hydrogen, gold and uranium. The nucleus consists of protons and neutrons. Besides that, the nucleus is surrounded by lighter charged particles or waves known as electrons. Atoms are bound together by electrostatic charge. These electrostatic forces draw electrons to the protons in a nucleus.
One way to generate nuclear energy is to split the atom’s nucleus into two by a heavy element such as uranium. It is ‘Nuclear Fission’. Another way to generate nuclear energy is ‘Nuclear Fusion’. Here, two nuclei of an atom will be combined. In addition, this will form a bigger atom that releases or absorbs energy. In 1932 Douglas Cockroft and Ernest Walton developed a machine (Cockroft-Walton Particle Accelerator), the first man-made nuclear transformation.
With his unkempt hair and untidy clothes, Einstein (1879-1955) was hardly glamorous. However, his name has become a synonym for “genius”. Einstein ranks together with Socrates, Isaac Newton and Leonardo da Vinci, as one of the greatest intellectuals of all time.
His fourth scientific paper of 1905 offered the world the well-known equation – E=mc2. He proved that energy and mass are interconvertable. Once he quipped: “We never cease to stand like curious children before the great Mystery into which we are born.” He believed that science must be explained in the simplest terms that ordinary people understand. His famous equation has provided the theoretical guidance to nuclear energy, space science and much more scientific breakthroughs. However, he knew that the enormous energy packed within the atom might, one day, be released and would be used for good purposes, as well as for destruction.
Banish Hoffmann was a student of Einstein who appraised the theory of relativity that has unlocked the secrets of physics in the following way: “Every cloud of earth, every feather, every speck of dust is becoming an unusual reservoir of untapped energy. There is no way of verifying it at this time. Yet in presenting his equation in 1907, Einstein spoke it as the most consequence of his theory of relativity.”
Einstein taught us to see Earth as a huge untapped energy entity – a nuclear power house. This is how the genius opened the door to the nuclear renaissance. Einstein did not directly get involved in the development of nuclear energy. However, his explanation on the anatomy of the atom, specially his relativity theories, laid the foundation for nuclear science.
Hungarian scientist Leo Szilard, an expatriate in the USA, figured out the atomic chain reaction and Einstein highly commended that scientific breakthrough.
Einstein’s equation laid a firm foundation for the modern science, technology and nuclear power industry. As of now, nuclear energy acts as a major mover of the global economy. Nuclear energy does not contribute to global warming. When nuclear energy teams up with renewable energies, it can fuel the global economic machine. Thus, developing nations should be refreshed by this nuclear dawn.