Rutherford was a New Zealander, who came to Manchester in to take up the the position of Chair of Physics at the University. He was already a notable scientist, winning the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his work on the disintegration of elements and the chemistry of radioactive substances in Canada. But in Manchester, he was quickly on his way towards greater discoveries, aided by one of the finest teams of scientists ever assembled. Included in his 'nuclear family' were Hans Geiger, who would go on to invent the radiation counter; Lawrence Bragg, who won the Nobel Prize for his work on X-ray crystallography; Ludwig Wittgenstein, the analytic philosopher; and the great Niels Bohr, seen by many as the most gifted scientist of the 20th Century.
Little wonder then that the city became a global centre for scientific research focussed on Rutherford, a man of such brilliance and repute that Albert Einstein would later call him "a second Newton". It was one particular line of investigation though that would eventually put Rutherford alongside Darwin and Einstein in the great pantheon of science - his studies of the atom. Shortly after arrival, along with Hans Geiger, he invented the Rutherford-Geiger detector which allowed him to detect individual nuclear particles by electrical means. Through a series of experiments conducted at his laboratory just off Oxford Road, he determined that the the mass of an atom was concentrated in its nucleus - a particle 1, times smaller than the atom itself - with the rest being made of a cloud of orbiting electrons.
Prior to that, the atom had been presumed to be the smallest particle in the universe. Now, Rutherford was on the verge of 'splitting the atom'. In , he presented his new model of atomic structure and then set about planning the experiments that would prove the idea that, just like the atom, the nucleus itself had smaller components.
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The outbreak of war in interrupted Rutherford's research and saw his talents re-directed towards submarine technology and underwater acoustics, rather than physics. But in , he was allowed to resume his atomic work at his laboratory on Bridgeford Street where he carried out hundreds of experiments using radioactive material.
A year later, he discovered that he could disintegrate the nuclei of nitrogen atoms by firing particles from a radioactive source which, in turn, resulted in the release of fast protons. This was the first ever artificially-induced nuclear reaction, a breakthrough that would lead ultimately to nuclear power and the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II.
It was a crucial moment in the history of the physical sciences—proof positive of the immense forces at work in the heart of atoms—and inevitably changed the world.
In , a team at the J. They demonstrated that this new cell with its man-made genome was capable of surviving and reproducing [ 1 ]. It was a colossal achievement for biology, and its significance might well rank alongside the detonation of the first atomic bomb in terms of scientific advance. There are several similarities between twentieth century physics, and twentieth and twenty-first century biology. The nuclear explosion in New Mexico was the result of decades of research and the first splitting of an atom in Otto Hahn's laboratory in It ushered in an era of new ideas and hopes for a brighter future built on the power of the atom, but the terrible potential of nuclear weapons and the threat of nuclear warfare ultimately overshadowed these hopes and changed the course of science and politics.
The crucial achievement of synthetic life is a strikingly similar event; the culmination of decades of research that started with its own atom-splitting moment: It promises to bring forth a new era for biology and enable a huge variety of applications for industry, medicine and the military. However, as with post-war physics, synthetic biology's promises of a brighter future might not all materialize and could have far-reaching effects on society, science and politics.
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Biology should therefore take note of the consequences of nuclear physics' iconic event in for science, politics and society. To appreciate the similarities of these breakthroughs and their consequences for society, it is necessary to understand the historical perspective. The pivotal discoveries for both disciplines were related to fundamental elements of nature.
The rise of nuclear physics can be traced back to the discovery of neutrons by James Chadwick in [ 2 ]. Neutrons are essential to the stability of atoms as they insulate the nucleus against the repulsive forces of its positively charged protons.
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However, the addition of an extra neutron can destabilize the nucleus and cause it to split, releasing more neutrons and a tremendous amount of energy. This nuclear fission reaction was first described by Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann in Leo Szilard realized the possibility of using the neutrons released from the fission of heavy atoms to trigger a nuclear chain reaction to release huge quantities of energy. These first nuclear reactors provided the proof of concept for using a nuclear chain reaction as a source of energy. Roosevelt in , suggesting that the US government should develop a new powerful bomb based on nuclear fission.
President Roosevelt created the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bomb in Similarly to nuclear physics, the advent of rDNA technology has concerned the public…. The Cold War and the mutually assured nuclear destruction between the USA and the USSR fanned widespread fears about a nuclear Third World War that could wipe out human civilization; Robert Oppenheimer, one of the physicists who developed the atomic bomb, was actually among the first to warn of the spectre of nuclear war.
By contrast, the civilian use of nuclear physics, mainly in the form of nuclear reactors, promised a brave new future based on harnessing the power of the atom, but it also generated increasing concerns about the harmful effects of radioactivity, the festering problems of nuclear waste and the safety of nuclear power plants.
The nuclear disasters at the Chernobyl reactor in and the Fukushima power plant in heightened these concerns to the point that several nations might now abandon nuclear energy altogether. The fundamental discovery in biology, crucial to the creation of synthetic organisms was the double helix structure of DNA in by Francis Crick and James Watson [ 3 ].
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The realization that DNA molecules have a universal chemical structure to store and pass on genetic information was the intellectual basis for the development of recombinant DNA rDNA technology and genetic engineering. This early toolkit was later expanded to include DNA sequencing and synthesizing technologies as well as PCR, which culminated in the creation of the first artificial organism in Craig Venter's team synthesized a complete bacterial chromosome from scratch and transferred it into a bacterial cell lacking a genome: This proof of concept experiment now enables scientists to pursue further challenges, such as creating organisms with fully designed genomes to achieve agro-biotechnological, commercial, medical and military goals.
Similarly to nuclear physics, the advent of rDNA technology has concerned the public, as many fear that genetically modified bacteria could escape the laboratory and wreak havoc, or that the technology could be abused to create biological weapons. Unlike with nuclear physics, the scientists working on rDNA technology anticipated these concerns very early on.
In , a group of scientists led by Paul Berg decided to suspend research into rDNA technology to discuss possible hazards and regulation.
This discussion took place at a meeting in Asilomar, California, in [ 5 ]. A pertinent similarity between these two areas of science is the confluence of several disciplines to create a hybrid technoscience, in which the boundaries between science and technology have become transient [ 6 ]. This convergence was vital for the success of both nuclear physics and later synthetic biology, which combines biotechnology, nanotechnology, information technologies and other new fields that have been created along the way [ 7 ].
In physics, technoscience received massive support from the government when the military potential of nuclear fission was realized. Although the splitting of the atom took place before the Manhattan Project, the Second World War served as a catalyst to combine research in nuclear physics with organized and goal-directed funding. As most of this funding came from the government, it changed the relationship between politics and research, as scientists were employed to meet specific goals. In the wake of the detonation of the first atomic bombs, the post-war period was another watershed moment for politics, technoscience, industry and society as it generated new and more intimate relationships between science and governments.
These included the appointment of a scientific advisor to the President of the USA, the creation of funding organizations such as the National Science Foundation, or research organizations such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and large amounts of federal funding for technoscience research at private and public universities. It also led to the formation of international organizations such as the civilian-controlled International Atomic Energy Agency [ 6 ].