In the history of science and technology, there are some cases when scientists did not believe something that later turned out to be real.

For example, Bill Gates was saying 640K is sufficient to any computer :)

Did such thing happen in the history of nuclear weapon? Did someone famous not believe nuclear weapons were possible?


Maybe some problems were regarded as unsolvable initially, for example obtaining pure enough fuel or handling undercritical masses?


Urban legends also ok. For example, if it was popular opinion that A said something impossible.


Let's try to narrow the time. Let it be before the discovery of neutron and fission (1932). Wasn't it possible to understand that that the nucleus contain a lot of binding energy, but not knowing about fission to doubt that it can be extracted?

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    $\begingroup$ Bill Gates never said that. $\endgroup$ Oct 31, 2017 at 6:59
  • $\begingroup$ @JoséCarlosSantos okay, what about nuke? $\endgroup$
    – Dims
    Oct 31, 2017 at 7:03
  • $\begingroup$ Your Bill Gates story is on a completely different topic: engineering needs, not physical possibilities. $\endgroup$ Oct 31, 2017 at 19:10
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    $\begingroup$ Earlier than Bill Gates, Von Neumann thought the world was most likely to need at most three or four computers. $\endgroup$ Nov 3, 2017 at 5:15
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    $\begingroup$ There is a supposed quote by Rutherford, "The energy produced by breaking down the atom is a very poor kind of thing. Anyone who expects a source of power from the transformations of these atoms is taking moonshine." But this may be apocryphal, and probably doesn't refer specifically to nuclear weapons. See en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Talk:Ernest_Rutherford . $\endgroup$
    – user466
    Nov 18, 2017 at 1:32

2 Answers 2


I've never heard of a physicist denying the possibility of building atomic weapons. The closest thing that I am aware of is Werner Heisenberg's statement “I don't believe a word of the whole thing,” concerning the use of atomic weapons in Japan. But he was not denying the possibility of building the weapons. He just did not believe that the Americans had actually been able to do it.


The question really hangs on when nuclear energy was thought possible; because once it is thought possible it's easy enough to speculate whether it could be weaponised.

Now, in 1896 Wilhelm Rontgen and Henri Bequerel discovered radioactivity, and then in 1903 Pierre Curie announced that Radium salts radiated heat without cooling down and thus revealing a new source of energy; a year later, Ernest Rutherford showed that alpha particle radiation released enormous amounts of radiation, he wrote:

The discovery of the radioactive elements which in their disintegration liberate enormous amounts of energy increases the possible limit of the duration of life on this planet, and allows the time claimed by the geologist and biologist for the process of evolution.

Here, he was referring to a controversy between Darwin & Kelvin of the age of the earth; Darwin had come up with an estimate of 200 million years by considering the process of erosion on the earths surface, whereas Kelvin had estimated only 30 million years by supposing gravitational contraction powered the sun.

The discovery of radioactivity freed theorists from considering gravity as the source of the suns energy, but it was shown that the sun had very little radioactive elements being mostly composed of hydrogen so some other process was required.

In 1905, Einstein had established his famous equation relating energy and mass; this fueled speculation that this could be the process that fueled the sun. Empirical evidence for such a claim came in 1919 when FW Aston demonstrated that four hydrogen atoms weighed more than a helium atom; then Sir Arthur Eddington, leveraging Einsteins insight, argued that this mass difference was what powered the sun. He said:

If, indeed, the sub-atomic energy in the stars is being freely used to maintain their great furnaces it seems to bring a little nearer fulfillment our dream of controlling this latent power for the well-being of the human race - or it's suicide.

This must be one of the earliest acknowledgements that nuclear energy could be hugely destructive; this it's probable that a debate had been circulating amongst scientists between the discovery of a new energy source by Pierre Curie in 1903 and Eddingtons speech in 1920 to whether such a source could be weaponised.

  • $\begingroup$ Could you please elaborate on the quoted part from your answer, "The discovery of radioactivity freed theorists from considering gravity as the source of the suns energy..."? $\endgroup$
    – PG1995
    Dec 5, 2022 at 4:17

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