University home |A-Z|

Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine

Nuclear science

CHSTM 044-bomb-(2)
WE-177 free-fall bomb, the longest-serving weapon in Britain's independent nuclear arsenal, commissioned in the 1960s and withdrawn in 1998. The unit is on display at Hack Green Secret Nuclear Bunker, a former radar and emergency administration post outside Nantwich, Cheshire, now transformed into a family-friendly tourist attraction.

For hundreds of years, the quest for the underlying structure of matter has held an extraordinary fascination for scientists and the public alike.  The discovery of the 'ultimate' nature of reality has often been seen as offering the ability to explain everything else in the universe from life to the cosmos.  During the twentieth century, nuclear physics became the science which promised to reveal these secrets.  Through theory and experiment, nuclear scientists charted the underlying structure of matter, offering exciting new insights into the fundamental nature of things.

In the mid-twentieth century, nuclear scientists demonstrated their power with the creation of nuclear weapons and the technology to exploit nuclear energy.  Nuclear physics delved ever more deeply into the atom with larger and larger machines constituting what came to be known as 'Big Science' - a characteristic form of late twentieth-century science.  In the Cold War, the applications of nuclear physics spawned a dangerous nuclear arms race and national nuclear power programmes producing both energy and nuclear waste.  'Nuclear' became a word of dread.

In many ways, the history of nuclear science defines the twentieth century, from pioneering investigations of atomic structure to life in the shadow of the mushroom cloud.  It epitomises the changes which took place in science across the century.  And it exemplifies science's paradoxical capacity to produce beneficial and hazardous outcomes.

Nuclear science was born in Manchester, and has been central to the history of science in the North West.  Ernest Rutherford invented the nuclear theory of the atom when he was Professor of Physics in Manchester, and he made the first studies of nuclear structure here in 1917.  The University of Manchester continued to play a leading role in nuclear science, and the area houses important postwar regional nuclear science facilities like the Daresbury laboratory.  The North West also became a key region in Britain's postwar nuclear weapons and nuclear energy projects, with most of the fissile material production sites based in the area.

CHSTM's work on the history of nuclear science brings together research on the social and cultural history of nuclear physics and its civil and military applications across the twentieth century.  Jeff Hughes is one of the UK's leading historians of physics, and he and his research group are exploring many aspects of the nuclear age and of its impact in Britain and elsewhere.

Recent Publications by CHSTM Staff

Simone Turchetti, "Atomic Secrets and Government Lies: nuclear science, politics and security in the Pontecorvo case," British Journal for the History of Science 36:4, 2003, 389-416.

Jeff Hughes, The Manhattan Project and the Birth of Big Science.  Cambridge: Icon 2002.

Jeff Hughes, "Craftsmanship and Social Service: W H Bragg and the Modern Royal Institution" in Frank James, ed, "The Common Purposes of Life": essays on the history of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, 1799-1999.  Aldershot: Ashgate 2002, 225-247.

Jeff Hughes, "Radioactivity and Nuclear Physics" in Mary Jo Nye, ed, The Cambridge History of Science, Volume V: The Modern Physical and Mathematical Sciences. Cambridge University Press 2002, 350-374.

Jeff Hughes, "Interactions and Comparisons Between France and Britain: Joliot, Chadwick and Blackett" in Monique Bordry and Pierre Radvanyi, eds, Oeuvre et Engagement de Frédéric Joliot-Curie. Paris: EDP Sciences 2001, 153-162.

Jeff Hughes and Jon Agar, "Open Systems in a Closed World: ground and airborne radar in the UK, 1945-90" in Robert Bud and Philip Gummett, eds, Cold War, Hot Science: applied research in Britain's defence laboratories 1945-1990. Amsterdam: Harwood 1999, 219-250.

Top of page

Disclaimer | Privacy | Copyright notice | Accessibility | Freedom of information |