Seventy-Five Years Ago, France-Amérique Explained the Atomic Bomb

The Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed by an incredibly powerful bomb on August 6 and 9, 1945. In its August 19, 1945, issue, France-Amérique published a front-page feature and a rare popular science article by Jacques Errera. The Belgian physicist discussed nuclear fission and shared his vision of the future of the atomic age.
Nagasaki, August 9, 1945. © Library of Congress

“The atomic bomb uses energy emitted during the reaction of atom disintegration,” wrote Jacques Errera, who fled Belgium at the start of World War II and directed a New York laboratory that collaborated with the American military. To give readers an idea of the power of atomic energy, he compared it to the coal burned in stoves and train engines. “A gram of uranium can release 20,000 kilowatt-hours of energy, two million times more” than a gram of coal.

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The scientist went on to say that nuclear energy was a cheap, compact source of energy capable of replacing coal, providing cities with electricity, and powering a plane around the world. If the chain reaction (which he compared to “chain mail copied infinitely by superstitious people”!) could be controlled, this new energy would lead to a “profound shift in how people live.” Nuclear planes never made it past the prototype phase, but history proved Errera’s other predictions to be accurate.

A Colleague of Marie Curie and Einstein

Born into an influential Jewish family in Brussels, Errera (1896-1977) was one of the most renowned scientists in Europe during the 1930s. After completing his doctorate in chemistry, he worked at the Free University of Brussels where he shared a laboratory with Albert Einstein, and they both took part in the prestigious Solvay Conferences. During these events, he met Marie Curie, Auguste Piccard, Erwin Schrödinger, and Werner Heisenberg, the German physicist who later led the Nazi nuclear program and inspired the pseudonym of the main character in the Breaking Bad television series.

Errera was personally awarded the Francqui Prize by the Belgian King Leopold II on April 7, 1938 for his work on the composition of molecular matter. After the war, he was appointed Belgian counsellor to the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission and permanent Belgian representative at the International Atomic Energy Agency.

In 1945, the scholar saw the danger inherent in the spread of nuclear power and the tragic paradox of the Cold War, which made global safety dependent on weapons of mass destruction. “If this was not the last world war, then it will have been the penultimate one,” he wrote. “Today, war waged with a combination of atomic bombs and [ballistic missiles] will bring about the destruction of the earth.”

Chernobyl and Fukushima

However, barely ten days after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, at a time when social media and real-time images did not yet exist, Errera’s reaction lacked perspective. He was thrilled by the immense potential for scientific and technological progress offered by this discovery, which he compared to the advent of “electricity, steam power, and even fire itself,” but gravely underestimated the consequences. He never mentioned the survivors contaminated by radiation, nicknamed hibakusha (“those affected by the explosion”) in Japanese, and failed to foresee the Three Mile Island accident, the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters, and the problems with radioactive waste.

Driven by scientific optimism, he predicted that atomic energy would “offer the human race infinitely greater possibilities for peace than its application in warfare.” Errera also saw a sign of hope in the explosions of Little Boy and Fat Man – the nicknames given to the two bombs dropped on Japan. He believed it was the triumph of an endeavor that had united “100,000 scholars, engineers, and workers” and the promise of science made to serve humanity. Let’s just say it was his point of view. In stark opposition, Albert Camus wrote in the newspaper Combat that “mechanical civilization” had reached its “final degree of savagery.”