I used to be terrified of Nuclear War. As a preteen, I would avoid even looking at the cover of magazines because at that time – the mid 1980’s; the threat of Nuclear War was all over the news – both TV and print. Remember the Doomsday clock? It is a theoretical clock used to show us how close we are to Nuclear War; with Midnight being all out war. In the years between 1984 and 1988, it was the closets it had ever been to midnight since the 1950’s. I remember lying awake in bed at night, gripped with fear, too terrified to sleep. Eventually, I grew out of the fear. I am not quite sure how or why – maybe I was the one case where a teenage girl’s hormones actually saved her grief instead of causing it!
Now for the layperson’s nitty gritty. I am not a Physicist and I suspect most people reading this article are not either, or else you would not need to be doing the research in the first place.
An atomic bomb’s blast energy comes from the splitting of atoms – uranium-235 or plutonium. Massive amounts of energy are released when this happens: in other words, an explosion. This reaction of atoms splitting is called nuclear fission.
A Hydrogen bomb’s explosion, on the other hand comes from fusion – literally, the fusing of two hydrogen atoms to create a helium atom – the same process that occurs on our Sun. This reaction needs a tremendous amount of heat to occur, but it creates a much bigger blast by orders of magnitude. The catalyst (heat source) used to detonate a Hydrogen bomb is created by an Atomic bomb. Once the initial fusion reaction is underway, no further Atomic catalyst is needed; the heat and energy created is enough to sustain the reaction.
So; in summary – an Atomic bomb uses nuclear fission (splitting of atoms) whereas a Hydrogen bomb using nuclear fusion (the joining of two hydrogen atoms) with an atomic bomb as the catalyst.