I teach a general education class on the history of nuclear physics and the Manhattan Project. About halfway through the course we come to the discovery of fission and Niels Bohr's insight that it is the rare isotope of uranium, U-235, which fissions under slow-neutron bombardment as opposed to the much more common U-238 isotope. As an “explanation” of the differing responses of the two isotopes to bombarding neutrons, I use the known (measured) masses of the various isotopes involved to compute the energies released upon neutron capture and then compare them to the fission barriers of the “compound” nuclei so formed (U-236 and U-239). The energy released in the (neutron + U-235) reaction exceeds the fission barrier by about one million electron-volts (1 MeV), while that for the (neutron + U-238) case falls about 1.6 MeV short. (The fission barriers are respectively about 5.7 and 6.5 MeV.)

1.
Nuclides and Isotopes Chart of the Nuclides
, 17th ed. (
2010
), p.
29
; www.nuclidechart.com/.
2.
M. S.
Kazimi
, “
Thorium fuel for nuclear energy
,”
Am. Sci.
91
(
5
),
408
415
(
2003
).
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