When Hans Suess chose to study physical chemistry, he went nuclear, apparently overturning two generations of family tradition. Hans was born in 1909, just as his father Franz succeeded his grandfather Eduard as a geology professor at the University of Vienna. Hans got his PhD from the same university in 1936, but in studying heavy water he was set to aid the historic advances in nuclear science of the time. Yet a transatlantic scientific coincidence would bring him back to more environmental science, and see him help pioneer radiocarbon measurements. With that expertise, Hans showed humans were raising atmospheric CO2 levels, and revealed another surprising source of variations in climate.
The common theme to these achievements was how neutrons and protons combine in an atom’s nucleus. For example, hydrogen atoms found in conventional water have just a single proton in their nuclei. In heavy water, some of these atoms are replaced by a rarer form of hydrogen, known as deuterium, whose atoms have an extra neutron in their nuclei. That gives heavy water properties that can help nuclear reactors, which Nazi Germany notoriously hoped to exploit to make nuclear weapons.
With Hitler’s armies occupying Austria just two years after Hans finished his PhD, his expertise brought him to the attention of the Nazi regime. They called him in to advise a hydroelectric power plant in Vemork, Norway, that was making heavy water. Hans visited several times, reporting that it couldn’t make heavy water quickly enough for military use. Allied forces destroyed it in 1943 anyway, in audacious raids fictionalised in the film “Heroes of Telemark”.
Alongside working with heavy water, Hans studied why the chemical elements exist in the amounts that they do. The answer laid in how stable different numbers of protons and neutrons are when they come together in nuclei. He continued this work after the Second World War in West Germany, helping develop the “Nuclear Shell Theory” explanation, which other scientists won the Nobel Prize for Physics for in 1963. Suess missed out on this acclaim partly because two teams came up with the explanation at the same time. But when the other team, based at the University of Chicago, invited him to visit, Hans’ life changed course towards unravelling the secrets of Earth’s history. Read the rest of this entry »