What Happened Next…
Creating a nuclear chain reaction ...........
Underneath the bleachers of a University of Chicago football stadium, scientists watched in wonderment as the first self-sustaining nuclear reactor, Chicago Pile-1, pumped out energy. Inside its graphite blocks, the splitting of uranium atoms meant that nuclear energy was being artificially produced for the very first time. When news of the experiment’s success got out, everyone wanted a piece of the action.
Dr Enrico Fermi began his career as a professor at the University of Florence. Fermi worked in radioactivity and nuclear physics, and had become renowned in his home country of Italy for it. So much so that in 1938, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics. Unusually, he was permitted to leave Mussolini’s fascist Italy to collect his prize in Sweden, but Fermi never returned. After all, his wife was Jewish, and the couple were eager to leave the growing antiSemitism at home and begin a new life in New York.
Fermi’s reputation quickly found him work at Columbia University. He and his fellow scientists, while generating ideas on nuclear power, realised the military implications of such vast amounts of energy, especially as World War II was going on around them. The US government decided that they had to produce an A-bomb for themselves, launching the Manhattan Project. Fermi was tasked with working out how to produce the key mechanism for the bomb – the nuclear chain reaction.
THE ITALIAN HAS LANDED
As his nuclear reactor reached critical status, the atmosphere in his makeshift laboratory was filled with excitement. The team phoned the Chairman of the National Defence Research Committee and spoke in code to announce their success: “The Italian navigator [a reference to Fermi] has landed in the New World,” they said, followed by “everyone landed safe and happy”.
Following this resounding success, the Manhattan Project kicked off in earnest. Within a few years, the first atomic bombs were being developed and tested – with devastating results. Meanwhile, nations were putting Fermi’s findings to use and constructing nuclear power plants. Some even believed that nuclear fission would render fossil fuels useless. The Atomic Age had begun.