Oral History Interviews

Interviews that offer unique insights into the lives, works, and personalities of modern scientists

Philip Abelson on his experiments with how to separate isotopes in potassium and uranium salt.

Oral history audio excerpt

Philip Abelson on his experiments with how to separate isotopes in potassium and uranium salt.

Crumpton:

I see. So you were running your own experiments late at night or something?

Abelson:

What I did, first of all I reviewed the literature about methods of separating isotopes. I went to the Library of Congress and found that there’d been success in some separations but they were separations involving elements such as lithium and carbon. But, finally I found an article by two Germans in which they had been able to separate isotopes of zinc to a degree, not perfectly, but to a degree and they had done in aqueous solution and they had used what was called liquid thermal diffusion to do it. I decided this was for me because I would see what I could do about liquid thermal diffusion. So, I more or less duplicated, the apparatus they had used. I didn't have a mechanism for doing isotope analysis of zinc isotopes, but there was someone at the Bureau of Standards who could measure isotope separation in potassium. So, I conducted an experiment with some potassium salt in solution and found I could verify that this method gave rise to a partial separation of the potassium. The next step was to try a solution of uranium salt. When I did this, what did I find in the bottom of my column, but a dirty mess!