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1932 Was a Wonderful Year

An article in Physics Today describes a very rich year for physics discoveries.
Figure 1

Charles Clark at the Davey Laboratory, Pennsylvania State University, February 28, 2013, where a commemorative plaque honoring Brickwedde's production of deuterium is displayed. Brickwedde joined Penn State as the Dean of the College of Chemistry and Physics in 1956. (photo credit: Ken O'Hara, former NRC postdoc at NIST, now associate professor of physics at Penn State)

NIST Fellows Joseph Reader and Charles Clark (who is also JQI co-director) have published an article in the March 2013 issue of Physics Today, the membership magazine of the American Institute of Physics with a circulation of 120,000.

"1932, a watershed year in nuclear physics," recounts the remarkable events of that year, which led to six Nobel Prizes. One of these, given in 1934 to Harold Urey of Columbia University, was for the discovery of deuterium, the heavy stable isotope of hydrogen. NIST, then the National Bureau of Standards (NBS), played a key role in this discovery and its applications.

First, it was at NBS that the samples of distilled hydrogen were prepared by Ferdinand Graft Brickwedde, then Chief of the NBS Low Temperature Laboratory, which were used by Urey and George Murphy to discover deuterium using atomic spectroscopy at Columbia University. In 1931, Brickwedde had led the NBS team that was the first to produce liquid helium in the USA.

Second, just months after the initial discovery of deuterium, Edward Wight Washburn, the Chief Chemist of NBS, devised a method for economical production of deuterium using electrolysis, in collaboration with Urey. This led to production of deuterium in industrial quantities within two years, and sparked the development of nuclear science and technology.

The low-temperature physics programs of NIST in Boulder, CO originate from the decision of the U.S. Government to pursue a thermonuclear bomb. In the first instance, this required the production of large quantities of deuterium. Brickwedde was put in charge of building a cryogenic production plant in Boulder that could deliver this. The first demonstration of a thermonuclear device, Ivy Mike, was conducted on November 1, 1952, about 21 years after Brickwedde had first produced milligram quantities of deuterium in the NBS Low Temperature Laboratory. Brickwedde was awarded the Gold Medal of the Department of Commerce for his contributions in this matter.

Read the full article at Physics Today