In The Nuclear Express by Thomas C. Reed and Danny B. Stillman, they explain that the term "nuclear fission" was first used in Physics by Lisa Meitner in a letter to Otto Hahn on December 19, 1938. How quickly did the term spread? How did this term spread?

  • Is this possibly a better fit for English Language & Usage? Jun 30, 2016 at 15:19
  • @called2voyage It might be, but I thought I would start here.
    – Benjamin
    Jun 30, 2016 at 15:19
  • 2
    Interestingly enough, it looks like the term "nuclear fission" was already in use prior to being given this new meaning. It referred to the division of the nucleus of a cell. I wonder if that usage affected the adoption of "nuclear fission" in the context of physics. Jun 30, 2016 at 15:24
  • @called2voyage Thak you for pointing that out. How old was that usage by 1938?
    – Benjamin
    Jun 30, 2016 at 15:26
  • At least as early as the 1880s: books.google.com/… Jun 30, 2016 at 15:29

1 Answer 1


From the book, Before the Fallout: From Marie Curie to Hiroshima there is this comment:

Bohr urged Frisch to write a paper with Lise Meitner as soon as possible and promised to say nothing until it was published. By dint of long-distance telephone calls, aunt and nephew drafted a short note to the editor of the British journal Nature, describing the splitting of a nucleus and the theory underlying it. They also found a name for their new phenomenon. Frisch asked an American biologist, William A. Arnold, working in Bohr's institute, what he called the process by which single cells divide into two. He replied, "Fission".

(this was in Dec. 1938).

Certainly by the end of 1939 the term was used a lot. Some papers:

  • The Mechanism of Nuclear Fission. Niels Bohr and John Archibald Wheeler. Phys. Rev. 56, 426, 1 Sept 1939.

  • Resonance in uranium and thorium disintegrations and the phenomenon
    of nuclear fission. Niels Bohr, Phys. Rev. 55, 418, 15 Feb. 1939 (!)

  • The Fission of Uranium. H. L. Anderson, E. T. Booth, J. R. Dunning, E. Fermi, G. N. Glasoe, and F. G. Slack. Phys. Rev. 55, 511, 1 Mar. 1939

  • Number of Neutrons Liberated in the Nuclear Fission of Uranium. H.
    Von Halban Jun., F. Joliot and L. Kowarski. Nature 143, p. 680, 22
    April 1939.

  • Stability of Uranium and Thorium for Natural Fission. W. F. Libby,
    Phys. Rev. 55, 1269, 15 June 1939.

  • Products of the Fission of the Uranium Nucleus. L. Meitner, O. R. Frisch, Nature 143, 471-472. 18 March 1939.

Actually, DOZENS of papers on nuclear fission came out in 1939. Just try Google Scholar, Fission and 1939. Probably immediately after Rosenfeld's talk at the Princeton physics club in mid Jan 1939 where he passed on word about nuclear fission (that he got from Bohr and Wheeler) the phrase spread throughout the physics community.

  • Awesome, so the biological term was directly related! Jul 5, 2016 at 15:29

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