What Hap­pened Next…

Cre­at­ing a nu­clear chain re­ac­tion ...........

History Revealed - - CONTENTS -

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.


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.

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