During the research that led to production of the two atomic bombs used against Japan in World War II, different mechanisms for obtaining a supercritical mass of fissionable material were investigated. In one type of bomb, a “gun” shot one piece of fissionable material into a cavity containing another piece of fissionable material. In the second type of bomb, the fissionable material was surrounded with a high explosive that, when detonated, compressed the fissionable material into a smaller volume. Discuss what is meant by critical mass, and explain why the ability to achieve a critical mass is essential to sustaining a nuclear reaction.

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