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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

French Contributions to the Atomic Age

Marie Curie

In November 2017, the Atomic Heritage Foundation was awarded a grant by the Richard Lounsbery Foundation to produce a “Ranger in Your Pocket” program on French scientists’ contributions to the Atomic Age.

The “Ranger” program will explore how French scientific discoveries in the early 20th century contributed to the harnessing of nuclear energy and the Atomic Age. The pioneering work on radioactivity of Henri BecquerelMarie and Pierre Curie, and Irene and Frederic Joliot-Curie revolutionized modern physics.

In 1940, Frédéric Joliot-Curie was directing research at the College de France on the feasibility of a controlled nuclear reaction. In June as the Nazis were closing in on Paris, he sent his colleagues Lew Kowarski and Hans Halban on a daring escape by boat to England with France’s entire supply of heavy water to prevent the precious material from falling into Nazi hands. As Kowarski recalled: “We were led on the boat in the middle of the night. Staff officers, colonels and possibly the generals carried our suitcases, because at this moment of despair, they had the dim impression that we were carrying some kind of hope.”

With first-hand accounts and expert interviews, the program will highlight how French scientists contributed to nuclear research and the Manhattan Project. After the war, France was in the vanguard of nuclear power, nuclear medicine, and other peaceful applications. French and American experts will address today’s nuclear issues, stimulating informed public consideration of nuclear power, nuclear weapons and other important issues.

As part of the project, we plan to interview members of French scientists’ families, including the Curie family. AHF’s Cindy Kelly interviewed Phillippe Halban, son of physicist Hans Halban, in December 2017 for the project, and will interview Hélène Langevin-Joliot, daughter of the Joliot-Curies, in May 2018. We are very grateful to the Lounsbery Foundation for its support of this project.

We plan to launch the “Ranger” program in the fall. In addition, we are working to raise funds to produce a complementary “Ranger” program to highlight the contributions of scientist refugees, many of them Jewish, who fled Europe and worked on the Manhattan Project.