December 2, 2017

An Atomic Anniversary

On this day, December 2, 1942, 75 years ago, Chicago Pile-1 produced the world’s first artificial self-sustained nuclear chain reaction. CP-1 (see picture below) was built of uranium, graphite, and wood. Control rods, which were intended to prevent a runaway reaction, were fabricated of cadmium. The pile was developed under the direction of physicist Enrico Fermi and was an early part of the Manhattan Project, the secret government program to develop the atomic bomb.

Chicago Pile-1
Chicago Pile-1 (Click on this and the picture below for larger images.)

CP-1 was built under the West Stands of Stagg Field on the University of Chicago campus. By the time I entered the university, CP-1 was long gone. The site is now marked by the massive bronze sculpture “Nuclear Energy” created by English artist Henry Moore.

Nuclear Energy
“Nuclear Energy” by Henry Moore

More information about Chicago Pile-1 can be found on Wikipedia.

It need hardly be said that learning how to create nuclear chain reactions has been a mixed blessing. Its ultimate effect on humanity—indeed on the entire planet—remains to be seen. For now, the concluding words of Stephen Vincent Benét’s John Brown’s Body seem appropriate:
If you at last must have a word to say,
Say neither, in their way,
“It is a deadly magic and accursed,”
Nor “It is blest,” but only “It is here.”

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