Story by Andrew Bauld and Louise Lerner | Photo by Jean Lachat

No one could see the moment on Dec. 2, 1942 that changed history. Its subatomic drama was invisible to the naked eye, buried inside a pile of graphite bricks, shrouded by government secrecy and hidden under the football stands at the University of Chicago.

Neutrons collided inside Chicago Pile-1, each one splitting atoms that released more neutrons to split even more atoms. Enrico Fermi calmly called the first human-made, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction to a halt 28 minutes after he and his fellow scientists had confirmed their predictions.

The little reactor and the knowledge they gained from it began a revolution that reshaped the latter half of the 20th century. The experiment’s impact on the world has been sweeping, and it continues to shape science, energy, medicine and foreign policy today.

Scholars discuss the complex legacy of nuclear energy and the discovery that profoundly changed warfare, science, medicine, energy and geopolitical relationships. Video Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jvpD8iAr0pA (Video by UChicago Creative)

“We defined an entire era, the Atomic Age, by this single event at the University of Chicago,” said Eric D. Isaacs, executive vice president for research, innovation and national laboratories at the University of Chicago.

The University’s commemoration of the historic experiment culminated Dec. 1-2 with two days of talks, panels and artistic performances. The symposium concluded more than two months of public lectures and artworks, College classes and small-group discussions to examine the magnitude of what the chain reaction set in motion 75 years ago.

For many, including UChicago students, it was their first real reckoning with the enormous power of the Manhattan Project, and its potential for good or ill.

Dec. 1-2 events culminate commemoration

To commemorate the moment when the chain reaction succeeded, on Dec. 2 the bells of Rockefeller Memorial Chapel tolled 75 times. Then a 250-foot-tall pyrotechnic piece by artist Cai Guo-Qian rose above Regenstein Library, adjacent to the site of the Chicago Pile-1 experiment, where Enrico Fermi ushered in the Nuclear Age at 3:25 p.m. on Dec. 2, 1942.

The multicolored artwork began as flashes of red, orange and blue before a thick cloud of white formed. The display lasted less than a minute against the blue afternoon sky, but it left an indelible reminder of the power unlocked by the world’s first nuclear reaction occurred under the stands of Stagg Field.

“Your pyrotechnic works have been described as opening a tunnel through space and time,” said Bill Brown, senior advisor to the provost for arts and the Karla Scherer Distinguished Service Professor in American Culture, in his introductory remarks. “Today when the essential paradox of nuclear fission, the combined promise and threat, has never been more acute, we are honored by the imperative for reflection and aspiration that your work inspires.”   

Hundreds of students, faculty and community members from across Chicago gathered to hear Cai discuss the meaning of his work before the display. “Through the complexity and paradoxes found in this artwork, I hope to express both concern and hope for developments in science and human civilization,” Cai said through an interpreter, standing in front of the Henry Moore sculpture Nuclear Energy.

A piece for carillon entitled “The Curve is Exponential,” by UChicago PhD candidate Ted Moore, followed Cai’s art piece. Performed from Rockefeller Chapel by University Carillonneur Joey Brink, it lasted 28 minutes—commemorating the length of time of the CP-1 experiment on Dec. 2.  

Cai’s display was the culmination of a two-day UChicago program commemorating the anniversary of the nuclear reaction’s complex legacy. It included a world-premiere composition entitled “Plea for Peace” by Prof. Augusta Read Thomas, panel discussions on different aspects of the nuclear legacy, and numerous arts and musical performances.

Ernest Moniz, former U.S. Secretary of Energy, delivers a keynote address Dec. 1 in Mandel Hall as part of UChicago's commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the first chain reaction. (Photo by Jean Lachat)

A keynote address Dec. 1 by former Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz detailed the complex challenges posed by nuclear weapons in the current global security landscape as well as continued ways to harness benefits from nuclear technologies. In his current work heading the nonprofit Nuclear Threat Initiative, Moniz said, he’s focusing on practical steps toward managing risk and reducing threats. “It is for us to think clearly about those, and to work at solutions to be ready when the opportunity appears,” said Moniz, a physicist and professor emeritus at MIT.

On Dec. 1, Cai sat down with Prof. Wu Hung, UChicago scholar and curator, to discuss his artwork and career. During the talk, Cai described how he was able to “represent the invisible world through visible materials” through his signature use of gunpowder and fireworks.

“His thinking is global, like fireworks themselves,” Wu said during the discussion. “And he used the sky as his canvas, which also belongs to everybody.”

The arts played an important role throughout the University’s 75th anniversary commemoration of CP-1. Earlier in the fall, a temporary architectural installation from Ogrydziak Prillinger Architects titled Nuclear Thresholds was installed at the site of Chicago Pile-1, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Nuclear Energy sculpture.

“Art’s job is to materialize the unimaginable,” Brown said. “Art is particularly well-suited to exploring the legacy of CP-1 because it is capable simultaneously expressing fear and hope, of representing destructivity and creativity at the same time.”

Research for safer, more efficient nuclear energy plants continues today at Argonne National Laboratory, an outgrowth of Chicago Pile-1. (Photo courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory)

Upending science

In public lectures as well as the Nuclear Age class, scholars discussed how the first chain reaction transformed science.

In the years that followed World War II, reactors gave science a powerful new tool to explore the world around us. Scientists at the University and around the globe set out to explore the possibilities in fields from chemistry to biology. Doctors, including those at the University of Chicago hospitals, began to explore radiation for disease diagnosis and treatment.

The reaction also fundamentally changed how science is done. It introduced the idea of “big science,” that a group of scientists from multiple disciplines could come together in an intensive environment to make a massive breakthrough—an idea that underlies the way institutes and laboratories are organized even now, said Isaacs at a Nov. 16 lecture.

Eric Isaacs, executive vice president for research, innovation and national laboratories, discusses the ramifications for Chicago Pile-1 on science at a Nov. 16 lecture. (Photo by Jean Lachat)

Chicago Pile-1 also spurred a sea change in the way that science was funded—from primarily philanthropically to federally funded. “There was this awakening in the country,” Isaacs said, “that scientists could solve important challenges facing the nation through research.”

Shortly after the war ended, the National Science Foundation and the Atomic Energy Commission (now the Department of Energy) were founded. The Manhattan Project directly gave rise to the 17 national laboratories, two of which—Argonne and Fermilab—that are affiliated with the University of Chicago.

These new capabilities allowed scientists to conduct research on a much grander scale. Nine years after Chicago Pile-1, scientists at Argonne lit a string of four lightbulbs with the first electricity from atomic power. Within another decade, atomic-powered submarines were crossing beneath the polar ice cap and power plants were springing up around the country. At a Sept. 26 symposium at Argonne, as part of the 75th anniversary, experts from industry, the Department of Energy, and foreign institutions discussed these breakthroughs and the future of nuclear energy.

Moreover, today’s large facilities to explore the universe and advance understanding—including giant particle colliders such as the Tevatron at Fermilab and the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, massively powerful supercomputers, synchrotron light sources and the LIGO gravitational wave experiment—are in many ways all intellectual descendants of that first multidisciplinary effort, Isaacs said.

The University's fall-long commemoration of CP-1 began with an Oct. 1 panel discussion on the nuclear landscape and national security. It included (from left) Rachel Bronson, executive director of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; former CIA director Michael Morell, Congressman Bill Foster and Prof. Robert Rosner. (Photo by Jean Lachat)

Changing how we look at the future

The other awakening, said Rachel Bronson, executive director of the Bulletin of The Atomic Scientists, was among scientists themselves.

Many of the Manhattan Project scientists were deeply shaken by the success of their work. “They gathered here in Chicago, and create a bulletin to alert the public that everyone was needed to help manage the consequences of their work,” she said. “The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists quickly became the authoritative platform for scientists speaking to and engaging with the public about their research. It provided an outlet for scientists to join, and in many cases lead, the national conversation about their own work.”

The iconic Doomsday Clock, an idea created from the Bulletin’s offices on the University of Chicago campus, first debuted in 1947 at seven minutes to midnight—the time signifying threats to humanity and the planet. The clock reached a low of 17 minutes to midnight in 1991, and as of January 2017, it stands at two-and-a-half minutes to midnight.

“The Bulletin’s mission today is to continue to bring the best of science to public policy debates about existential threats to our planet,” Bronson said. “Today we focus on nuclear risk, climate change and disruptive technologies, like artificial intelligence and genetic manipulation. New breakthroughs demand answers to the same set of questions that our founders asked: How can we best manage Pandora’s box of modern science?”

Prof. Debbie Nelson speaks at her College class, 'The Nuclear Age,' a ring lecture on the legacy of Chicago Pile-1. (Photo by Robert Kozloff)

A new generation

The 75 students in “The Nuclear Age,” Prof. Debbie Nelson’s class this fall on the legacy of the Manhattan Project, were born well after the end of the Cold War and a quarter-century after construction on the last new nuclear reactor built in the United States was begun. But the legacy is theirs too; as their generation matures, they will uphold nuclear treaties, document history and shape energy policy.

“Most of the students came in with very little background on nuclear issues, and they’re stunned by how much it affects the world they live in,” said Nelson, who chairs the Department of English.

The Nuclear Age was designed as a ring lecture: Each week, a different UChicago scholar whose work touches on nuclear subjects explained the ramifications for their particular fields.

It is, Nelson said, intended to be a dialogue of sorts between the many reverberations from Chicago Pile-1. Chin-Tu Chen, associate professor in radiology, spoke about medical advances opened up by nuclear sciences; Joseph Masco, professor of anthropology and social sciences, discussed the flowering of secrecy within American government based on nuclear technology.

It was a fitting set of lecturers for a group of students across the spectrum of fields; the class ranged from first- to fourth-year students across 20 different majors.

“We’re trying to give students tools from many disciplines to come to terms with very complex questions with far-ranging implications,” Nelson said. 

Originally published on November 28, 2017.