Scientific thinking on Atomic Energy in 1929
A fond dream of scientists – the hope of some day obtaining energy in tremendous quantities by releasing forces known to exist within the atoms of matter – was given a Christian burial on the recent occasion of the award to the scientists Michelson and Millikan of the gold medal of the Society of Arts and Sciences in New York. To quote from Dr Millikan’s address, “There is no appreciable energy available to tap through atomic disintegration.”
Every one who reads popular articles about science is familiar with the statement that there is enough energy in the atoms contained in a single dime to drive the Leviathon to Europe and back, if we could only get it out, and that this is only a matter of time. In round numbers this “intra-atomic” energy of matter is about one million times the energy obtained when an equal amount of combustible matter like coal or oil is burned. For more than a decade physicists have expected a way to be found to release these incomprehensible stores of locked up energy. This would multiply modern man’s muscle power not merely by a factor of about 20 as the steam and gas engines have done, but by virtually any desired amount; it would certainly revolutionize human existence.
Millikan’s statement that we must be content with what we have – at least that we cannot expect any such fabulous accession of power as that referred to – is based upon recent research done by the British physicist Aston, taken in connection with certain recondite parts of the Einstein theory, or rather inferences these parts demand.
We shall now be faced with the necessity of surrendering this great expectation of stupendous future wealth of energy, an idea which has frequently led to the careless assurance that there is no need unduly to conserve our coal, because long before the coal can be used up intra-atomic energy will have taken its place. At present the coal is the best that is in sight.
Source: Outlook Magazine, March 13, 1929