The Age of Innocence: Nuclear Physics between the First and Second World Wars
The two decades between the first and second world wars saw the emergence of nuclear physics as the dominant field of experimental and theoretical physics, owing to the work of an international cast of gifted physicists. Prominent among them were Ernest Rutherford, George Gamow, the husband and wife team of Frederic and Irene Joliot-Curie, John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton, Gregory Breit and Eugene Wigner, Lise Meitner and Otto Robert Frisch, the brash Ernest Lawrence, the prodigious Enrico Fermi, and the incomparable Niels Bohr. Their experimental and theoretical work arose from a quest to understand nuclear phenomena; it was not motivated by a desire to find a practical application for nuclear energy. In this sense, these physicists lived in an 'Age of Innocence'. They did not, however, live in isolation. Their research reflected their idiosyncratic personalities; it was shaped by the physical and intellectual environments of the countries and institutions in which they worked. It was also buffeted by the political upheavals after the Great War: the punitive postwar treaties, the runaway inflation in Germany and Austria, the Great Depression, and the intellectual migration from Germany and later from Austria and Italy. Their pioneering experimental and theoretical achievements in the interwar period therefore are set within their personal, institutional, and political contexts. Both domains and their mutual influences are conveyed by quotations from autobiographies, biographies, recollections, interviews, correspondence, and other writings of physicists and historians.