University of Chicago “celebrates” the first controlled nuclear fission reaction

As I mentioned in yesterday’s Hili Dialogue, Sunday was the 75th anniversary of the first controlled nuclear fission reaction, which it took place here at the University of Chicago. On December 2, 1942, in an old racketball court beneath the stands of the Stagg Field football stadium, Chicago Pile-1 was activated by Enrico Fermi and his team, producing gazillions of neutrons from cans of uranium oxide that were allowed to reach critical mass. Wikipedia describes the moment, which lasted less than five minutes:

[On] 2 December 1942, everybody assembled for the experiment. There were 49 scientists present.  Although most of the S-1 Executive Committee was in Chicago, only Crawford Greenewalt was present, at Compton’s invitation.  Other dignitaries present included Szilard, Wigner and Spedding. Fermi, Compton, Anderson and Zinn gathered around the controls on the balcony, which was originally intended as a viewing platform. Samuel Allison stood ready with a bucket of concentrated cadmium nitride, which he was to throw over the pile in the event of an emergency. The startup began at 09:54. Walter Zinn removed the zip, the emergency control rod, and secured it.  Norman Hilberry stood ready with an axe to cut the scram line, which would allow the zip to fall under the influence of gravity.[95][96] While Leona Woods called out the count from the boron trifluoride detector in a loud voice, George Weil, the only one on the floor, withdrew all but one of the control rods. At 10:37 Fermi ordered Weil to remove all but 13 feet (4.0 m) of the last control rod. Weil withdrew it 6 inches (15 cm) at a time, with measurements being taken at each step.

The process was abruptly halted by the automatic control rod reinserting itself, due to its trip level being set too low. At 11:25, Fermi ordered the control rods reinserted. He then announced that it was lunch time.

The experiment resumed at 14:00. Weil worked the final control rod while Fermi carefully monitored the neutron activity. Fermi announced that the pile had gone critical (reached a self-sustaining reaction) at 15:25. Fermi switched the scale on the recorder to accommodate the rapidly increasing electrical current from the boron trifluoride detector. He wanted to test the control circuits, but after 28 minutes, the alarm bells went off to notify everyone that the neutron flux had passed the preset safety level, and he ordered Zinn to release the zip. The reaction rapidly halted. The pile had run for about 4.5 minutes at about 0.5 watts. Wigner opened a bottle of Chianti, which they drank from paper cups.

Compton notified Conant by telephone. The conversation was in an impromptu code:

Compton: The Italian navigator has landed in the New World.
Conant: How were the natives?

Chianti! There might as well have been fava beans.  This of course led to the atomic bomb (I’m not going to argue whether or not our dropping it twice on Japan was the right thing to do), and the nuclear powderkeg that is today’s world.  One could make a case that nuclear fission also has benefits, like the generation of nuclear power. But we’ll never know whether fission was a good or bad thing until humanity is gone, with or without a nuclear annihilation.

But somehow the celebration of nuclear fission by calling attention to atomic bombs seems, well, a bit weird. Yes, we must be mindful of the mixed legacy of nuclear fission, but showing a bomb?

For instance, Henry Moore’s famous sculpture just a block from where I sit, called “Nuclear Energy” certainly represents a mushroom cloud. It sits atop the exact spot where Fermi’s group created the fission reaction.

Henry Moore: “Nuclear Energy,” 1967, placed near the site of the first self-sustaining chain reaction, Dec. 2, 1942, University of Chicago campus, on Ellis.

What is even weirder is that often Japanese tourists descend on that sculpture in packs, with tour buses disgorging people who can’t wait to pose for selfies in front of the bomb statue. Are they mindful of the irony? It always gives me a shiver to see it, and I see it often.

Yesterday and the day before, the University celebrated the Fermi team’s work with a series of lectures, symposia, and, to cap the “celebration”,  a daytime fireworks display by Cai Gu-Quian, a 59 year old Chinese artist who lives in New York and stages ephemeral art based on fireworks and gunpowder. For yesterday’s grand finale, right across the street from me, he created a colorful mushroom cloud firework that went off over Regenstein Library. Here’s a video of Gu-Quian describing the event, which begins with 75 peals of a tower bell at Rockefeller chapel. If you want to skip the preliminaries and the bells, start at 7:21.

The show is over in about 30 seconds, but I suspect someone paid the artist a lot of dosh to create and stage this “performance art.” Note the clapping afterwards. Cai as well as other University people explain it further in the University announcement of the events:

Cai Guo-Qiang said: “In the 1990s, I used black gunpowder to create mushroom clouds, humankind’s most iconic visual symbol for the 20th century. These mushroom clouds formed part of my Projects for Extraterrestrials. Today, the color mushroom cloud symbolizes the paradoxical nature of employing nuclear energy: Who is it for?”

“The work dramatizes the creative and destructive forces of nuclear fission,” said Steward [Laura Steward, curator at the Smart Museum of Art on campus]. “It takes the iconic shape of nuclear energy’s most destructive form and animates it with color as a profound symbol of creativity and peace.”

“Cai’s artwork reflects the yin-yang nature of the December 2, 1942 experiment’s impact. Its dualism places medicine and energy on one side, and weapons and massive destruction on the other side,” said Young-Kee Kim, the Louis Block Distinguished Service Professor of Physics and the College and chair of the Department of Physics at the University of Chicago.

There’s that dualism again. Where’s the medicine and energy bit? Is that the fireworks themselves, which have nothing to do with nuclear energy?

Now maybe I’m curmudgeonly about this, but do we really need to celebrate nuclear fission by showing mushroom clouds? Yes, it’s a complex legacy, but it’s like celebrating chemistry by displaying cans of Zyklon-B. I found this “highlight” of the events here bizarre and tasteless.

Here’s Robert Oppenheimer describing the reaction of himself and others who witnessed the successful Trinity bomb test on July 16, 1945 in New Mexico. Oppenheimer was the head of the Los Alamos lab that created the first atomic bomb—the one dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  There wasn’t much celebration then. (Oppenheimer’s quote of course has become quite famous.)


  1. Craw
    Posted December 3, 2017 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    Nuclear power is the best approach to fight CO2 emission. This was also fundamental science. There is no discovery that does come with dangers. On the next Darwin anniversary should I bring up eugenics? On the Crick anniversary bring up bioweapons?

    • BJ
      Posted December 3, 2017 at 11:29 am | Permalink

      Well said.

    • rickflick
      Posted December 3, 2017 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

      I have read a few references to the updated design of nuclear plants. Much safer, they say, and now a viable alternative to carbon. It will take a little persuading to bring around the populace that remembers WWII, 3 Mile Island, Chernobyl…

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted December 3, 2017 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

        … Fukushima, the current leak going on in the S. Urals …
        OTOH, the only person I have met who has died because of radiation did it by working huge amounts of overtime (not regulated for the self-employed) and keeping his dosimeters in his toolbox whenever possible, to avoid exceeding his recorded dose. And it’s still debatable whether his flagrant evasion of radiation control measures was the cause of his fatal cancer.

    • eric
      Posted December 3, 2017 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

      I agree, but I think Jerry’s point is very pertinent. Why do these celebrations of nuclear advances seems to always reference bombs? Granted, an image of a reactor or something like that doesn’t seem too sexy, but isn’t that what we pay artists for? To take difficult concepts and re-imagine them into sculptor, or paint, or whatever? I agree with Jerry that referencing mushroom clouds seems the easy way out.

      Now, to play devil’s advocate, Fermi’s reactor was basically part of the early bomb work. Yes he wanted to show the potential for power, but he was one of the scientists who authored the famous “Einstein” letter to the President and that reactor was used to produce the first plutonium. He was essentially fully invested in the war work. So while the reactor opened up a huge non-military application, arguably the intent was indeed the military production of bigger bombs.

      • phil
        Posted December 5, 2017 at 12:07 am | Permalink

        That sounds like a reverse of Werner von Braun’s motivation: his original goal was to send people into space (so he claimed).

  2. Posted December 3, 2017 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  3. Posted December 3, 2017 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    “Yes, we must be mindful of the mixed legacy of nuclear fission, but showing a bomb?”

    Perhaps it is a “two cultures” thing. Moore, being an artist, did not understand the difference between controlled and uncontrolled nuclear fission.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted December 3, 2017 at 11:43 am | Permalink


      It’s a rather strange thing really but I’d already done the idea for this sculpture before Professor McNeill and his colleagues from the University of Chicago came to see me on Sunday morning to tell me about the whole proposition. They told me (which I’d only vaguely known) that Fermi, the Italian nuclear physicist, started or really made the first successful controlled nuclear fission in a temporary building. I think it was a squash court – a wooden building – which from the outside looked entirely unlike where a thing of such an important nature might take place. But this experiment was carried on in secret and it meant that by being successful Man was able to control this huge force for peaceful purposes as well as destructive ones. They came to me to tell me that they thought where such an important event in history took place ought to be marked and they wondered whether I would do a sculpture which would stand on the spot.

      When I had made this working model I showed it to them and they liked my idea because the top of it is like some large mushroom, or a kind of mushroom cloud. Also it has a kind of head shape like the top of the skull but down below is more an architectural cathedral. One might think of the lower part of it being a protective form and constructed for human beings and the top being more like the idea of the destructive side of the atom. So between the two it might express to people in a symbolic way the whole event.

      [Henry Moore, Art Journal, New York, Spring 1973]

  4. BJ
    Posted December 3, 2017 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    Of course, there is a very familiar argument in all of this: are nuclear weapons inherently bad for the world?

    Nuclear weapons ended the bloodiest war the world has ever seen. If the US had been forced to invade Japan, many more people would have died on both sides — probably millions. Since that event, the world has not seen another war even close to that size, nor the use of nuclear weapons.

    Nuclear weapons may have kept the Cold War cold because of the threat of mutually assured destruction.

    How many other wars have been avoided because of nuclear weapons? I think it’s likely that Pakistan and India would have gone to war at some point if it wasn’t for the fact that each country knows the other has nukes. The same may be true of North and South Korea, as NK may very well have invaded at some point if SK didn’t have nuclear weapons by proxy. What about Israel? I think it’s likely that many of its enemies might have destroyed it if it wasn’t for the threat of nuclear destruction in response (though, at least in this case, the threat of Israel’s allies may also be a deterrent).

    Nuclear weapons have the potential to destroy the world, but, so far, I think have deterred the deaths of millions and precluded chaos in many regions.

    I also think that nuclear energy is the best, easiest, and most efficient possible replacement for fossil fuels and the production of energy in poor nations. It could be one of the keys to dealing with global warming.

    • Historian
      Posted December 3, 2017 at 11:53 am | Permalink

      “Nuclear weapons ended the bloodiest war the world has ever seen. If the US had been forced to invade Japan, many more people would have died on both sides — probably millions. Since that event, the world has not seen another war even close to that size, nor the use of nuclear weapons.”

      You state with certainty that the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan ended the war. This is far from the case. Whether this is true or not has been debated before on this site and many others. Reputable historians debate the issue, realizing that it is extremely complex. Unlike, for example, the causes of the Civil War, consensus among historians seems nowhere in sight. Scholarly writings on the dropping of the bomb are voluminous and growing. We many never know if it was THE necessary event that ended the war. That is, could the war have been ended without dropping the bombs? All too often we see assertions of historical “facts” when in reality that may not be the case at all.

      Your first sentence would have been more accurate if you inserted “arguably” as the first word.

      • Craw
        Posted December 3, 2017 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

        No. Hirohito imposed peace on a still divided cabinet in response to the bombs and fear of more of them. That is indisputable. Some argue that the war might have ended without the bomb, but that is not your position here.

        Kennedy might have died in office anyway but the bullet killed him.

        • Kiwi Dave
          Posted December 3, 2017 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

          Alas, it is not indisputable.

          The atom bombs gave Japanese leaders a face-saving reason for ending the war – defeated by superior technology – and Japanese military leaders probably realised that the death of Hirohito in a nuclear attack would end the imperial system which justified their own hold on power.

          But the Soviet declaration of war, itself brought forward by the Hiroshima attack, came as a huge shock to Japanese leaders, whose plan to end the war and retain power was to fight the invasion of the home islands to a bloody stalemate and then negotiate a satisfactory peace through a neutral Soviet Union.

          I have no doubt that the two nuclear attacks were justified and contributed to the Japanese surrender, but they weren’t the only factor. The bombs and the Russian attack came on top of a succession of Japanese defeats from mid 1942, the total blockade of all imports to the home islands, worsening starvation, eight million (IIRC) civilians displaced from their homes, growing disruption of internal transport infrastructure, the destruction of the cities by incendiary attacks.

          An imperial confidant said that Hirihito told him several hours before news of the Soviet attack that he would accept Allied surrender terms. If true, this implies that Hioshima was the deciding factor for Hirihito, but would he have intervened if his war cabinet had not split equally, and what decided some of his war cabinet to reverse their position – the second nuclear attack or the Soviet attack?

          • Historian
            Posted December 3, 2017 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

            You have presented some of the complex issues that are involved in trying to tease out why Japan surrendered. In terms of trying to understand “turning points” in history, the reasons for the Japanese surrender have bedeviled historians since 1945. I do not claim to be an expert on the topic. To make that claim I would have had to read several dozen books and hundreds of articles.

            In the public mind, the answer is simple. The dropping of the bombs was a necessity to force Japan to surrender, thereby negating a land invasion and the saving of perhaps hundreds of thousands of American lives and millions of Japanese. This “necessity” view may be true, but the state of current research only allows it to be one explanation among several. Unfortunately, unlike much of science, we cannot rerun historical events. We can only resort to alternative history to speculate what would have happened if the bombs were not dropped.

        • Historian
          Posted December 3, 2017 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

          Did you miss this sentence of mine: “That is, could the war have been ended without dropping the bombs?” ? Would you have been happier if I asked: “Were there other ways to get Japan to surrender without the necessity of dropping the bombs?”

          • colnago80
            Posted December 3, 2017 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

            Certainly the war would have ended in a Japanese defeat if nuclear weapons had never been developed. That’s not the issue. The issue is, how much longer would the war have lasted in their absence.

            • Historian
              Posted December 3, 2017 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

              There is no doubt that the war would have ended in Japanese defeat if nuclear weapons had not been used. You are correct that the question is at what cost. Those that argue that the bombs should not have been dropped try to buttress this contention by providing reasons why the war would have ended quickly without an invasion and relatively few casualties. In this case, historians are playing “what-If” or “alternative” history. This is why the debate over the necessity of dropping the bomb as the sole or best means for ending the war quickly will probably never be settled.

      • Steve Pollard
        Posted December 3, 2017 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

        As usual on this site, a discussion such as this is conducted with rigour and nuance on all sides – for which, many thanks.

        I would simply add a personal perspective. In the war, my father was an RAF meteorological specialist, in charge of a unit attached to a British Army survey regiment. In 1945 he was in Burma, fully expecting to be deployed in support of the next stage of the war, which would have been the invasion of Japan.

        Without the two atomic bombs, I guess there is a non-trivial chance that he would not have made it back, and would therefore not have been in a position to engender a son capable of posting tiresome personal details on intelligent scientific websites.

        From my own point of view, therefore, the bombs were entirely justified.

      • BJ
        Posted December 3, 2017 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

        Here’s the big question: what else could have possibly made Hirohito surrender? At the time the US dropped the bombs, the only other option on the table was a full-scale invasion of Japan. There is no doubt that an invasion would have cost hundreds of thousand to millions of lives, depending on how long it took for Japan to finally surrender. It’s possible that Japan wouldn’t have surrendered at all.

        So, what else could the US have done that would have (1) cost less lives, and (2) forced Japan to surrender?

        • Historian
          Posted December 3, 2017 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

          One possibility is that the entry of the Soviet Union into the Pacific war could have induced Japan to surrender without the necessity of using nuclear weapons.

          • BJ
            Posted December 3, 2017 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

            That seems like the only possibility, but I imagine Japan was aware that the US and Russia were drawing up plans for a joint invasion, or at least assumed they were. Meanwhile, Japan was planning their defense of the mainland. By all accounts, they were ready to fight on their own soil.

            • phil
              Posted December 5, 2017 at 12:42 am | Permalink

              That’s an interesting idea, because I seen it suggested that part of the motivation for nuking Japan was that the USSR was preparing to invade, and the US wanted to have Japan surrender before the USSR could make any claims in the terms of surrender.

          • Posted December 4, 2017 at 11:36 am | Permalink

            The SU did declare war on Japan towards the end, with little consequence. I think some smallish islands were affected somehow.

        • phil
          Posted December 5, 2017 at 12:25 am | Permalink

          What else? How about just letting the naval blockade starve them out, or continue fire bombing Japanese cities?

          Would that have forced Japanese surrender? Well we don’t know, and we don’t really know that the A-bomb strikes did.

          According to some figures more than twice the number of people were killed in the bombing of Tokyo than either at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By the end of the war the USAAF had air superiroity and there was little the Japanese could do to stop bombing raids.

    • mikeyc
      Posted December 3, 2017 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

      So nuke bombs kept us safe from war? hmmmm. There didn’t seem to be any lack of them.

      Still, I don’t have any real issue with what you’ve written here, BJ, but holy FSM we really placed a huge bet (with no margin at all) on there being rational -or at least sane- people in charge of those weapons.

      What does that say about us? What about now? Today? We risked unimaginable horror with a willingness to inflict unimaginable horror and now we have a psychopath in charge. Who are the wise people here?

      • Historian
        Posted December 3, 2017 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

        Yes, nuclear weapons have not been used in war since 1945. It is possible to make a rational argument that Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) staved off World War III. But, it has only been 72 years since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is the blink of an eye in human history. Can the world’s luck hold out for the indefinite future? Maybe madmen will not need nuclear weapons. Other more fearsome weapons, such as biochemical, may make them obsolete. The real concern is whether the use of a weapon of mass destruction, of whatever its specific nature, can be avoided for essentially ever. I am not optimistic. For a long time, I thought that if such a weapon should be used, I will be dead. With Trump and Dear Leader threatening each other, I am not so sure of that any more.

      • BJ
        Posted December 3, 2017 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

        Yes, we’ve had many wars, but they’ve been very small,cost very little, and were geographically contained in comparison to the two World Wars.

        It’s still to be seen whether the bet will pay off (not that it really was a bet. Nobody was thinking this far into the future when the atomic bomb was created), but, so far, it seems to be a positive development.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted December 3, 2017 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

          “Yes, we’ve had many wars, but they’ve been very small,cost very little …”

          There are millions of people in Southeast Asia (and 57,939 names on a wall in Washington) who would beg to differ. The US dropped more ordinance there than it did in all of WW2. And it still wasn’t enough for the hawks who wanted to bomb them “back to the stone age.”

          • BJ
            Posted December 3, 2017 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

            This doesn’t contradict what I said. I said “in comparison.” Nothing that has happened since the bombs were dropped approaches comparison to World Wars One and Two.

            • Ken Kukec
              Posted December 3, 2017 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

              Nor did anything that came before.

              The treaty negotiated by Talleyrand, Metternich, and their fellow diplomats at the Congress of Vienna in 1814 established a balance of power that gave Europe a century of relative peace, with a nary a nuke needed.

              • phil
                Posted December 5, 2017 at 12:53 am | Permalink

                In The Better Angels of Our Nature The An Lushan Rebellion “is presented as proportionally the largest atrocity in history with the loss of a sixth of the world’s population at that time, though Pinker noted that the figure was controversial” acording to Wikipedia.

                It is also sobering to remember that Hanibal Barca led the Carthaginians to kill an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 Romans at the Battle of Cannae more than two thousand years before the advent of nukes. It is possible that the combined initial death toll in both nuclear strikes was less.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted December 3, 2017 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

      If the US had been forced to invade Japan

      Yeah, that word “forced” is highly loaded.
      I know there was much apprehension that fighting on the beaches of Japan would be bloody. Whether that would have been necessary is a different question. Japan, as a landmass, is notoriously short of indigenous energy sources (still true today, hence the high amounts of nuclear power). No hydrocarbons. One coal field (mined mostly from a small island). Given the naval and aerial supremacy which the US Pacific command had by mid-1945, effectively shutting down Japanese domestic armament production was within reach. The US and UK were already participating in the development of defoliants (Agent Orange, it’s predecessors and components), which could have lethally impacted domestic food production. Starving the nation to death was an achievable target, if they decided to go that way. As victors, the question of whether this was genocide or not wouldn’t have arisen. Whether the body count would have been higher or lower than with the bombs … that’s one for the historians to fight over – probably using splurge guns. But “forced” implies someone doing the forcing.

      • Posted December 3, 2017 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

        Whether the body count would have been higher or lower than with the bombs … that’s one for the historians to fight over

        No it isn’t. The body count would certainly have been higher.

        The two atomic bombs killed between them between 130,000 and 220,000 people. That may seem like a lot but it’s in the same ballpark as the more effective conventional air raids. The Tokyo raids in March 1945, for example, killed around 100,000 people and levelled most of the city. This bombing would have continued – except the British would have joined in.

        But the casualties from the bombing would probably be dwarfed by the casualties from starvation, if the allies had destroyed domestic food production as you speculate.

      • Posted December 4, 2017 at 11:38 am | Permalink

        The “no hydrocarbons” is often given as an excuse for the Japanese belligerence at the beginning. (And as far as the Vietnamese and Koreans are concerned, WWII started before 1939!)

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted December 3, 2017 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

      The issue is by no means as clear as you contend, BJ. There is a vast historical record regarding the end of the War, and traditional and revisionist interpretations of it. Unfortunately, people on both sides too often merely scour the record for facts that support their chosen interpretation.

      And the best deterrent to another world war isn’t mutually assured destruction but the promotion of democracy and human rights across the globe. To my knowledge two functioning democracies have never gone to war with each other.

      • Jon Gallant
        Posted December 3, 2017 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

        “To my knowledge two functioning democracies have never gone to war with each other.” True on the whole, but at least one exception constitutes an embarrassment for liberal optimism. In 1652, Cromwell’s Commonwealth in England and the Dutch Republic were the only two countries in the world not ruled by the principle of monarchy. Yet they went to war against one another.

        The origin of the first Anglo-Dutch War of 1652-54 is described as follows by Wiki: “The English, trying to revive an ancient right they perceived they had to be recognised as the ‘lords of the seas’, demanded that other ships strike their flags in salute to their ships, even in foreign ports. On 29 May 1652, Lieutenant-Admiral Maarten Tromp refused to show the respectful haste expected in lowering his flag to salute an encountered English fleet. This resulted in a skirmish, the Battle of Goodwin Sands, after which the Commonwealth declared war on 10 July.”

        • Historian
          Posted December 3, 2017 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

          Non-monarchies need hardly to be democracies. One needs only to look at Hitler and Stalin and possibly, not so far in the future, Trump. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t it somewhat of a stretch to call Cromwell’s government a democracy? I have no idea how the government of the Dutch Republic functioned.

        • Posted December 3, 2017 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

          Britain under Cromwell was not a democracy in the sense I think you mean. For a start, only (male) land owners had the vote and Cromwell was more dictator than president.

      • BJ
        Posted December 3, 2017 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

        “And the best deterrent to another world war isn’t mutually assured destruction but the promotion of democracy and human rights across the globe.”

        Starting from the end of WWII, I wonder how long it will take until we reach this worldwide democracy and respect for human rights…

        In the meantime, a meaningful deterrent is needed. One can argue whether the bomb is the best one, but it’s certainly one.

        And I still ask: if it wasn’t for dropping the bombs on Japan, what would have spurred surrender? As Historian says, Russia joining an invasion probably would have brought surrender faster, but it’s extremely unlikely that the mere threat of invasion from the north and south would have ended the war. I’m sure that, when Japan first refused to surrender, Hirohito was very aware that the US and Russia were drawing up joint plans for the invasion. Meanwhile, the Japanese government was planning its defense, including arming all citizens. They were ready for more war.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted December 3, 2017 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

          The Soviets invaded Manchuria on August 9, 1945. One might well query how indispensable the second atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki was to ending the War.

          Many more nations might be among the democratic (and human-rights respecting) had the US made that a foreign policy priority. Hell, the US actually subverted democratically elected governments in some instances — Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954 spring readily to mind.

      • Posted December 3, 2017 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

        And the best deterrent to another world war isn’t mutually assured destruction but the promotion of democracy and human rights across the globe. To my knowledge two functioning democracies have never gone to war with each other.

        That’s all well and good, but the Soviet Union was not a functioning democracy. Neither was North Korea nor either North or South Vietnam. What if they decided to start a war before the promotion of democracy had worked. What if their leaders had decided to start a war because the promotion of democracy looked like working? I can certainly think of a case where the leaders of a country started a war because they were losing their grip.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted December 3, 2017 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

          I’m not sure of your point, Jeremy. Are you saying what the world needs are more nuclear weapons instead of democracies? Nuclear weapons didn’t prevent the wars in Korea and Vietnam. And if the right-wing hawks in the US (who advocated the use of tactical nuclear weapons in both conflicts) would have had their way, either of those conflicts could have easily escalated into an all-out nuclear holocaust.

          It also bears noting that the US prevented the democratic election that was scheduled in 1956 under the Geneva accords to reunify North and South Vietnam (because we knew Ho Chi Minh had the popular support of the Vietnamese people, North and South, and would have won).

          Your scenario of “the leader[] of a country start[ing] a war because they were losing their grip” and launching nuclear weapons is the greatest existential threat in the world today. Unfortunately, it’s our leader, and our nukes.

          • Posted December 4, 2017 at 11:57 am | Permalink

            I’m disputing your idea that the best deterrent to war is promoting democracy. In fact, it’s nonsense in a world that contains non democracies.

            I’m not making any claim as to the efficacy of nuclear weapons (although it can be argued that nuclear weapon prevented the Korea War from going global). I’m just saying that your assertion, whilst being a wonderful ideal, would have failed utterly in the geopolitical situation of the second half of the twentieth century.

            • Posted December 4, 2017 at 11:59 am | Permalink

              By the way, the example of leaders starting a war to save themselves was the Argentinian Junta that started the Falklands War. It’s just occurred to me that the war failed to save them, but it did save the then British Government of Margaret Thatcher.

    • phil
      Posted December 5, 2017 at 12:37 am | Permalink

      “I think it’s likely that Pakistan and India would have gone to war at some point if it wasn’t for the fact that each country knows the other has nukes. The same may be true of North and South Korea, as NK may very well have invaded at some point if SK didn’t have nuclear weapons by proxy.”

      Pakistan and India in fact did go to war when they had nukes, in 1999.

      Also, North Korea DID invade South Korea, and the USA came to SK’s aid. Remember the Korean War? China and Russia also backed NK against the coalition forces, which (IIRC) included France and Britain.

      It is arguable that the possession of nukes motivated the USSR and USA to fight a whole slew of proxy wars in other countries, in Africa and Vietnam for example.

  5. Posted December 3, 2017 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    Highly recommended reading re Oppenheimer:
    American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer
    Book by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin

  6. Posted December 3, 2017 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    Moore’s sculpture, which was put in place while I was a graduate student there, is a great one. It looks like a mushroom cloud and also like a skull, and that is no accident.

    The thing to remember is that the contribution to physics was done as an integral, and secret, part of the project to make atomic bombs. In that way it is not analogous to other 20th-century advances in physics.

    Kudos to Jerry for being concerned that “celebration” is not the right response.

    • Posted December 3, 2017 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

      If we can celebrate the end of the war we shouldn’t celebrate the means by which it was ended.

      Whether of not the war could have been ended without it we’ll never know. The bombs were dropped, the Japanese surrendered. That’s not a coincidence.

  7. Posted December 3, 2017 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    Somebody oughta nuke that hideous statue.

  8. KD33
    Posted December 3, 2017 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    I cannot recommend enough the Oppenheimer Biography “American Prometheus (by Bird and Sherwin).” It gives by far the most detailed and enthralling account of the man that I have read. More, of the development of the bomb (which most people are familiar with), but also the complicated relationship between Communism in the US and that in Russia, and with the U.S. government; the complex and daily-evolving politics at the end of WWII that influenced the decision to drop one and then two bombs (by far the best account of that time I have ever read); and of course the government witch hunt to revoke Oppenheimer’s. security clearance after the war. After reading it, Oppenheimer leapt to the top of my list of historical figures that I wish I could meet (or at least grab lunch with).
    Viewing the whole thing cements the sense of inevitability that, once Meitner and Frisch showed fission was theoretically possible, the atomic “pile,” followed by a bomb, were inevitable, and it all came down to a race in the face of rising fascism.

  9. Jake Sevins
    Posted December 3, 2017 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if bin Laden’s body had been made into a shrine (instead of being dumped into the sea), if Americans would flock to it and pose for pictures? You know, I think some might, much like the Japanese tourists do with the bomb sculpture. And I think it helps that so much time has passed since 1945.

  10. Posted December 3, 2017 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    Fermi and his colleagues were lucky not to have caused a criticality accident. Other early nuclear researchers were less fortunate, and paid a terrible price. Harry Daghlian and Louis Slotin both died from lethal radiation during experiments at Los Alamos in 1945 and 1946 respectively. When you tweak the tail of the dragon …

  11. Jon Gallant
    Posted December 3, 2017 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    There is a story that one day at the University of Chicago Fermi and Szilard discussed calculating the probability of intelligent extra-terrestrial life somewhere in the universe. For any one instance, multiple p values have to be multiplied together—the chance of an earth-like planet, the chance of life beginning, the chance of evolution toward consciousness, and so on. On the other hand, Fermi pointed out, the number of opportunies for this combination of events somewhere in the universe is so enormous, that the summed probability of its happening SOMEWHERE else in the universe must approach 1.0. “Therefore,” Fermi concluded, “the alien beings almost certainly exist. Where are they?” “They are already among us,” Szilard replied, “and they are called Hungarians.”

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted December 3, 2017 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

      There’s a lot of shaggy dog mixed in there Jon!

      The conversation about “where is everybody” didn’t occur in the early 40s in Chicago, it happened years later during a walk to lunch & at the lunch, which was at Fuller Hall, Los Alamos, New Mexico [probably 1950]. No source, but you, gives the venue as Chicago.

      The jest about Hungarians [or some Hungarians] being Martians using Hungary as a beachhead for the invasion of Earth is an older story from 1945 or ’46, also at Los Alamos. That flight of fancy was invented by the American physicist Phil Morrison & it became a standing joke over the years, but I don’t think Leo Szilard would recycle something that stale. A lot of reports have tied together the events of the Fermi query & the Hungarian Martians into one neat bundle – I smell journalistic artistic licence or one of the Hungarian crew sowing disinformation!

      Also I’m not sure Leo Szilard was at that lunch – he might have been, but it depends which report one reads.

  12. simonchicago
    Posted December 3, 2017 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    As usual, the story of what the Moore sculpture represents is complicated, and far from clear. For example, it is possible that the model for it was made by the sculptor *before* he was commissioned to make a monument. It may have been simply an abstract piece, inspired in part by the form of a skull.
    For more info,
    [BTW, it seems he called it “Atom Piece” until Chicago faculty objected to the closeness of “piece” and “peace.”]

  13. Posted December 3, 2017 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always been a queasy foot-dragger in re the study of warfare, whether in history books, news media, poems, novels, biographies, personal recollections, etc. Nonetheless, I have read and seen more in this regard than I wish. Would that brutality and warfare no longer existed.

    As a youngster in school, I was taught that one reason Japan went to war with us was due to our restricting their access to metals and other necessary elements. Since Japan was already at war with China several years before WWII began, I can imagine there may be an element of truth in this.

    I had always been against the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I still wish it hadn’t happened. But, the Japanese homeland was geared up at all levels to fight to the death if invaded. Regular citizens including school children and housewives, etc, were mobilized to fight if necessary. Plans were made. Training took place. There were numerous caves used to store aircraft, military weaponry and food supplies. I truly believe the loss of lives would have been even more horrendous if we had militarily invaded Japan, fighting their soldiers and citizenry.

    I have been to Hiroshima and seen maps of what the city was like before and after the devastation. I’ve been to the Peace Park and the museum. A shadow of a human being left on masonry due to the blast is a sight I won’t forget. I’ve talked to people who lost family
    directly and indirectly due to the bombing.

    Remember, that many members of the military committed hara kiri after the emperor conceded defeat as it was considered dishonorable. And a few Japanese soldiers on the Pacific Islands were still hiding out there until relatively recently. They would not give up.

    Many of the Japanese who lived in and around Hiroshima have written their stories of what happened, what they saw, and what they did.
    I have only been able to make myself read one, but it made me weep for them and us.

    On another note, our testing of the bombs in Nevada and the Marshall Islands has caused long-lasting, irreparable harm. Many of the Marshallese can’t live on their home islands due to radiation. Crops grown in certain places are radiated as are fish in some areas. The Marshallese must eat mostly processed foods that cost a lot. Cancer is prevalent and medical care is basic. People who can’t afford it have to go to Hawaii or elsewhere in the U.S. for treatment. The United States has not kept it’s commitments to the Marshallese, similarly to how we’ve treated native Americans. Badly.

  14. lkr
    Posted December 4, 2017 at 12:06 am | Permalink

    I assume that the football stadium was available for tinkering because Prss. Hutchins ended the UChicago football program 2 or 3 years earlier.

    Had another person been president at UChicago, they might have won the Big 10 championship that year, but fission and the bomb could have been delayed a few years. Perhaps…

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted December 4, 2017 at 5:25 am | Permalink

      UChicago is sneaking back into football I believe – they’re in the lower leagues now, right? No scholarships though! I think there might be pushback against players on scholarships who can’t scholar [or read above age 8 etc]

      The reactor would not have been delayed under any circumstances – if the White House was required for some weird reason then they’d have got the White House. There were few restraints within the Manhattan project – a power trip for some.

      The reactor at Stagg Field was a proof-of-concept test rig producing only half a watt of power. The location was merely convenience – a secure, easily guarded location close to the newly opened UChicago Metallurgical Laboratory.

      The reactor was just a pile of black graphite bricks, wood, uranium & uranium oxide – no shielding & no cooling. The next year it was closed down & moved to a new locale 25km to the SW. I wonder what happened to the removals guys? And were they informed of the known risks? I assume only people on the ‘inside’ were used.

  15. Posted December 4, 2017 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    Medicine: radioisotopes used for diagnostic and treatment purposes presumably.

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