Readers react to the Chicago Pile-1 experiment and its far-reaching legacy; debate deterrence and gerrymandering; correct the fossil record; and more.
Escape from Stagg Field
I appreciated your story about the Chicago Pile experiment (“Manhattan’s Critical Moment,” Inquiry, Fall/17). My late mother, Rosemary Watkins Donahue, LAB’46, attended the Laboratory Schools and U-High during the war and liked to tell this story about it. She’d been playing tennis at Stagg Field but was late leaving and found the gates locked and a soldier patrolling outside. She said there were soldiers guarding all sorts of strange places, even the math building, and your story clears up the mystery of a guard at Eckhart Hall.
But she’d seen enough war movies by that time to know what to do. She timed the soldier’s patrol pattern, and when he passed by, she quickly and silently climbed the fence and was down the street by the time he turned around. She went to school with Fermi’s daughter and recalled how bright she was, and her annoyance that in only a few years Nella Fermi was getting better grades in English than her.
John Donahue, SM’79
Writers in residence
I read with interest Susie Allen’s (AB’09) fine article “An Archive, Chicago Born” (Fall/17) on the papers of Saul Bellow, EX’39. For obvious reasons I cannot resist commenting on the caption for the photograph of a letter from Ralph Ellison dating from the time Bellow and Ellison “briefly shared a house in the Hudson Valley in the 1950s.” The house is in Tivoli, New York, and they shared it while both were teaching literature at Bard College in neighboring Annandale-on-Hudson
Leon Botstein, AB’67
President, Bard College
Annandale-on-Hudson, New York
Chicago Pile reactions
I read with great interest the Magazine’s recent stories (“Core Stories,” Fall/17)recognizing the 75th anniversary of the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, Chicago Pile-1. Truly, December 2, 1942, was a watershed day for human history, scientific achievement, the University of Chicago, and (less well-known) for my family.
My mother, Katherine Kahn (née Janus), AB’64, shares her birthday with the advent of nuclear energy (and with the Moore sculpture Nuclear Energy, but not the same year). Indeed, as an incoming first-year in the College, at the urging of my grandfather, Milton Janus, PhB’33, JD’35 , she gamely met with Manhattan Project scientists still at the University, an event covered by the Maroon.
As the harnessing of the split atom’s energy generated momentous questions of its application for good or ill, from renewable energy to Doomsday Clocks, I find its very nature a quintessential University of Chicago challenge: to study it, question it, debate it, and thereby let knowledge grow. Thus it was a perfect place for my mom and her natal-related wish to know more about nuclear physics.
NB: Mom received passing grades in PhySci 101, 102, and 103 and she can draw a representation of a Klein bottle, which is fitting, as she is a professional artist.
Robert M. Kahn, AB’00
Having reached an age when my alumni magazine triggers the deeper reaches of long-term memory, your coverage of Norma Field (“Pioneers and Inheritors,” Fall/17) hurled me back to the days I spent attending a College Natural Science 1 class in the west stands, in 1953 or 1954. We were advised that during breaks from our lab work, we should not tarry to chat or smoke at the end of the corridor, where the hazard sign proclaimed, “here be a zone of ionizing radiation.”
Field’s studies of contemporary Japan confirmed my respect for the University’s cozy but ambivalent relationship with radioactivity. Her work on behalf of peace and clean, nonnuclear energy were not given much attention in your tribute. The University has always downplayed the left side of its public profile—in my day, people like Bradford Lyttle, AM’51, were prominent figures in campus life, and Milton Friedman, AM’33, was respected but not anointed as an adept questioner of the prevailing economic orthodoxy.
Fast forward, and I see a YouTube video that appears to have been shot somewhere near my vanished classroom. The video celebrates the anniversary of the first chain reaction with an avant-garde Chinese fireworks display involving a detonation with much smoke and a colorful mushroom cloud. What a great metaphor! Can you update your story with an account of that damp squib and the speeches and ensuing banquet where, no doubt, the menu commemorated your pioneering experiment with seasoning the festive goose with fallout dust?
Lawrence George, AB’56
Richard Rhodes’s fascinating essay “Clashing Colleagues” (Fall/17) reminds me of the one time I encountered Enrico Fermi on campus. In 1953 I was a mathematics graduate student at the University. My housemates Jerome Friedman, AB’50, SM’53, PhD’56, and Edward Silverstein, AB’50, SM’53, took me along to the physics department’s annual picnic. There I was fascinated to see a senior professor playing with a yo-yo, which was something new for him. It was Fermi.
Morris W. Hirsch, SM’54, PhD’58
Cross Plains, Wisconsin
Thank you for your very interesting articles about CP-1. I learned a number of things. However, you did omit some information.
There essentially was no mention of Herbert Anderson, who was with Enrico Fermi at Columbia and then traveled with him to Chicago, where he soon became a member of the faculty, where he stayed until 1982. He then went to work with Fermi after the war. When I was a student, Anderson told me many stories of Fermi and his work. He really should have been included in your articles. In fact, Anderson traveled with Fermi to Los Alamos, where he contracted berylliosis, of which he eventually died.
Another omission is that the University took some of the graphite from the first reactor and encapsulated it in plastic. These items were distributed to many people. I was given one of them. I would send you a picture, but unfortunately I lost mine when a California wildfire destroyed my neighborhood.
It is probably too late to gather all the stories, as the people who knew Fermi are probably dead. I heard so many interesting stories. I wish someone would have compiled them.
Howard Matis, SM’71, PhD’76
Richard Rhodes makes a critical error in “Clashing Colleagues.” Otto Hahn didn’t discover nuclear fission; Lise Meitner did. Otto Hahn intentionally left her name off the publications of the work on fission. Some (including Rhodes) have suggested that Hahn did so because Meitner was Jewish, but even after the war, Hahn never made any attempt to give Meitner her well-deserved recognition. This is nicely recounted in Radioactive! How Irène Curie and Lise Meitner Revolutionized Science and Changed the World (Algonquin Young Readers, 2016) by Winifred Conkling.
But this is by no means the only instance of a woman being denied her rightful recognition. “Pioneers and Inheritors” recounts how Chin-Tu Chen’s (PhD’86) heroes Chen-Ning Yang, PhD’48, and Tsung-Dao Lee, PhD’50, shared the Nobel Prize for work on radioactive decay. Yet Chien-Shiung Wu did the foundational work that led to the Nobel, but Yang and Lee did not acknowledge her work. Later in the same issue (“A Wider Scope,” Inquiry), Nancy Grace Roman’s (PhD’49) unfair treatment by the University is profiled.
Women continue to be underrepresented in the sciences, especially the physical sciences, a trend that increases with more advanced degrees. I realize that efforts are being made to address this disparity, but clearly they are not sufficient.
Victor S. Sloan, AB’80
Flemington, New Jersey
Remembering the reaction
I was surprised and delighted to see your article about CP-1 (“Manhattan’s Critical Moment,” Inquiry, Fall/17). I was a student at the time, and 20 years later, at Argonne National Laboratory, was the writer-producer of The Day Tomorrow Began, a half-hour documentary to commemorate the event. It received numerous awards, is in the National Archives, and is still used by Argonne and others. The illustration in your story was made for me by John Cadel, a longtime friend and colleague. He would be so pleased to know that he is remembered.
At the time of CP-1, I was a precocious student in the Hutchins four-year College and had a number of related experiences. I remember running downstairs in the Reynolds Club to listen to Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” address. And, later, one of the University’s electricians telling me very confidentially, “You know those carboys they take from chemistry to the west stands? They’re working on a bomb that will be big enough to blow up a city!” A physics major, I thought, “Oh sure, what a lot of baloney.”
I spent a full year working on the film, collecting material and filming 20-minute interviews with key participants. I almost always asked how they felt about using the bomb in Hiroshima. John Wheeler, the principal theoretician, responded, “Do you know where is the largest hospital in the world?” He named a South Pacific island and then said, “And it’s never been used! It was built to take the casualties from invading Japan. And it’s never been used.”
When I asked Leona Woods Marshall Libby, SB’38, PhD’43, the same question, she said, “My brother was on an island in the Pacific, practicing to use a flamethrower because he would be in the first troops into Tokyo. So what do you think I feel?”
Your article also repeats the conventional view that there were no pictures of CP-1, and that may be true. However, I had one of my staff search the oldest photos in the Argonne files—and he found one that was unlabeled but clearly a snapshot of one of the layers of CP-1 during its construction. In the same vein, we found that (besides the official black-and-white films made by the Signal Corps) there was also a completely unknown 16 mm color film of Hiroshima. Harold Agnew, SM’49, PhD’49, who headed the project at Los Alamos National Lab, had gone along with the bomb in the second observation plane to document whatever happened. He carried his own home movie camera with a roll of Kodachrome. With difficulty, we persuaded him to let us copy it and there is a very brief piece at the end of my film.
By an odd coincidence, I now live in a Maryland senior community, where I met an aging B-29 navigator and told him the story, and about the two planes. He responded, “Yes, I know! I was the navigator on the second plane.”
Making the film was an unforgettable year, and one full of many stories. Not long ago, a friend at Argonne discovered a long-forgotten closet with all of the old raw materials and interview films that we made that year. The last I knew they were making plans to transfer it all to the National Audiovisual Center in Silver Spring, Maryland, which has the resources to preserve or restore them.
George Tressel, LAB’42, PhB’43
Silver Spring, Maryland
I am a graduate of UChicago—originally Class of 1944, but I did not actually receive my degree until May 1947. World War II caused the three-year delay. I am 95 years old and have difficulty just signing my name. My degree is in chemistry. I hated humanities while going to school.
In the spring of 1943, I was elected president of my fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi, at 5555 South Woodlawn. I was also elected to the senior men’s honor society called O+S (Owl and Serpent). I remember the campus was void of hundreds of men who had gone into service. I too enlisted in the Navy V-12 program, hoping to get my degree that way.
One afternoon a few members of O+S were gathered at the Reynolds Club. We decided to go to the O+S secret meeting room in the west stands on the second floor of Stagg Field. UChicago was still a member of the Big Ten, and we were all athletically inclined and had a key to the secret room. That day the keys would not open the door. We asked a nearby armed guard what he knew about it, and he had no information. We were very disturbed about it, but I believe most of us had to report to active military duty shortly after that.
That is the end of this story until years later when the information about the controlled nuclear reaction work was made known. I since had gone on active duty in the Navy as a boat captain of a PT boat in the far southwestern Pacific. We saw much action fighting the Japanese around Japanese-held islands. I was lucky and never got injured.
When the war ended I got married and came back to UChicago and got my degree. Since then I have had a very good life earning a living as a chemical sales engineer. UChicago has kept the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house, and I never took the time to find out anything about O+S. A couple of my good friends, Kenneth Jensen, SB’42, and Bob Johnson, AB’40, worked for the UChicago operation at Argonne but never talked about it. They both passed on a few years ago. My wife of 71 years vaguely remembers putting the gold O+S pin on a charm bracelet and many years ago giving it to a young relative.
Wayne H. Meagher, SB’47 (Class of 1944)
Palos Park, Illinois<
Squashed in translation
I found your recent magazine fascinating. Though I didn’t witness the project that demonstrated nuclear fission, I was a lab assistant in the biology labs at Stagg Field in the 1950s. There was teasing (or warning) from friends about the possibility of radiation making me sterile, but no evidence of the famous research that went on there.
One report that wasn’t mentioned in your coverage: I read somewhere a Russian translator reported that the experiments, which had taken place in a former squash court, were conducted in a pumpkin field.
Alice R. O’Grady, AB’57
Regarding “Manhattan’s Critical Moment”: The first sentence states, “On December 2, 1942, in an abandoned squash court underneath the former Stagg Field” (emphasis mine).
As any player of squash will tell you, the court on which that game is played is too small to have safely accommodated the activity described in the article. The Stagg Field court was actually a racquets court built before 1920 through the generosity of Harold McCormick. Racquets is an ancient game originating in England and is played on a large 30-foot by 60-foot court with walls and floors of thick solid concrete, typically with a gallery at one end from which spectators are able to view the on-court play from above. Thus, an abandoned racquets court would have provided a space large enough and safe enough (due to the concrete) to have accommodated Fermi’s experiment, features that would not have been provided by a squash court.
Theodore Laws, MBA’69
Future of deterrence
In 1978, one of the first courses I attended as a graduate in the Committee on International Relations was given by Albert Wohlstetter. I particularly recall his answer to a student’s question, that the object of a response to aggression ought to be as accurate and limited as possible (e.g., the ideal response to a Hitler would be an intercontinental guided bullet that could traverse lands and oceans to strike him, and only him, in his chancellery). Having spent most of my career as a civilian with US Army NATO at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe in Belgium (SHAPE), I realize weapons accuracy has come a long way since the ’70s, albeit still incapable of achieving this goal.
Nonetheless, while mutual assured destruction has served and succeeded as the basis for nuclear superpowers for over 50 years, middle powers (e.g., France, the United Kingdom, India, Pakistan) have always relied on limited nuclear threat to only one or more targets of their advisory in what I call sufficient assured destruction to deter potential threats. This is the same case with North Korea. However, with North Korea the difference, of course, is the ideological, as well as authoritarian, nature of its leader (e.g., merely threatening Guam with unarmed missiles landing near it to spread fear of war). Likewise, the not-too-distant future is likely to have other powers, with ideological or fundamentalist governments opposed to the United States (or its allies), seek and threaten to use nuclear missiles. Iran comes to mind, but Pakistan, and even Turkey, could eventually be controlled by fundamentalist factions ready to seek the destruction of the “Great Satan.”
Mutual assured destruction may continue for the foreseeable future between the United States, Russia, and China. However, the United States must increasingly and rapidly invest in systems like Terminal High Altitude Area Defense and advanced antiballistic missile systems that do not abrogate the superpower modus vivendi but significantly raise the threshold (in cost and uncertainty) to other countries attempting to intimidate the United States with sufficient assured destruction.
In short, for centuries and up through mutual assured destruction, military dictum has been, “The best defense is an offense.” In the future, to rest free and safe in the sufficient assured destruction era, it must be “The best offense is a defense.” President Ronald Reagan recognized this in 1985 when, upon awarding Wohlstetter and his wife, Roberta, the Medal of Freedom, he said, “They are innovators who are leading mankind forward to peace based on protection rather than on retaliation.”
My master’s thesis, with Wohlsetter, was on French security policy in the 1980s, and I was privileged to be at SHAPE/NATO long enough to see my primary recommendation, that France reintegrate the military command at SHAPE, come to fruition.
Scott R. Sunquist, AM’80
The path not taken
I must protest the implied criticism of the decision of the United States to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (“Manhattan’s Critical Moment,” Inquiry, Fall/17). After telling us that these two bombs caused 129,000 deaths, the writers add the words “mostly civilians” to make sure that the reader will be duly horrified. The next sentence tells of some scientists “advocating for a demonstration of power by dropping an atomic bomb on an uninhabited area.” The implication is that such a demonstration could have led to an immediate Japanese surrender, thus saving the lives of 129,000 people, “mostly civilians.”
The idea that a “demonstration of power” could have caused Japan to surrender is completely contradicted by the facts. For several months before the atomic bombs were dropped, the cities of Japan had been bombed extensively by B-29 superfortress bombers, with enormous Japanese casualties. The bombing of Tokyo March 9–10, 1945, caused more than 80,000 deaths. This was followed by B-29 bombing raids on Osaka, Kobe, Nagoya, and other cities. The total Japanese death toll from this bombing campaign exceeded half a million. If half a million Japanese deaths did not produce the desired Japanese surrender, it is obvious that a “demonstration of power” without any casualties would have had no effect whatsoever.
If an attack on the Japanese mainland had been required to end the war, it would have led to millions of Japanese deaths because Japanese soldiers never surrendered. Thus, 110,000 Japanese soldiers died trying to defend the island of Okinawa, which the Americans captured to use as their base for the anticipated attack on the home islands of Japan. But this massive death toll did not cause the Japanese to surrender.
One may conclude that ending this terrible war by dropping the two atomic bombs saved the lives of millions of Japanese.
Nathan Aviezer, né Wiser, SM’59, PhD’65
Petach Tikva, Israel
Spring and fall reflections
I am not strictly speaking an alumnus, but went to the Laboratory Schools from nursery school through my sophomore year at U-High. In your Spring/17 issue, I saw with fascination that Latin is now a less commonly taught language (“Lingua Franca”). That is a reformation that might be more profound socially than Luther’s. Your Fall/17 article on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (“Reformer Revisited”) is of course written by Martin E. Marty, PhD’56. As it happens, I’ve been reading Hilaire Belloc. Marty, a leading Lutheran scholar of our day, surely knows Belloc would not have agreed with much of the article, perhaps not even the first sentence. This opinion I impute to Mr. Belloc is surely reciprocated. I applaud Marty’s pointing to Lutheran hymns.
I do wish your author, or proofreader, had spelled “cataloguers” (and others, for instance “deëmphasize” on page 15, “coïnvent” on page 26; there may have been more, but pain sinks from consciousness).
Your 75-year section, pun-lovingly titled “Core Stories” (Fall/17), prompts me to ask if you know the novel The Berlin Project (Saga Press, 2017) by Gregory Benford, who writes about and was acquainted with many of your historic figures.
In Letters (Fall/17), Bob Michaelson, SB’66, stopped too soon. “We don’t want nobody nobody sent” was a speakeasy rejection before Abner Mikva, JD’51 (who I believe knew my father), and before the Daley years.
I must not close without applauding Laurie Zoloth (On the Agenda, “Serious Inquiry, Engaged Scholarship,” Fall/17).
I’m always happy to see my University of Chicago alumni magazine arrive in the mail. As a working paleontologist, I am doubly excited when there is a note or story relating to paleontology. It was great to read “Mammals Like Us” in the Fall/17 issue, until I got to the sidebar’s (“Maroon Menagerie”) description of Eodromaeus murphi, a cute little dinosaur from Argentina described by Paul Sereno. The paragraph states that “The 230-million-year-old species dates so far back that archaeologists have …” Wait! What?! Archaeologists don’t give a darn tootin’ about dinosaurs, never mind to claim that they have “dubbed it as a basal dinosaur” as the sentence continues. Maybe something slipped by the editor, but two pages later, in the description of Spinosaurus aegyptiacus, “To archaeologists, it is a semiaquatic predator …” No. To archaeologists, it is way too old and nonhuman to give it more than a passing glance in National Geographic.
Both archaeologists and paleontologists suffer from this excessively common ignorance. We (paleontologists) study the remains of ancient life, except humans. That stuff is left to the archaeologists. And we don’t identify your arrowheads. We have seen this mistake so many times in our local news (TV, radio, and print) that we try to make sure reporters know the difference now when they speak with us. Local news in Casper, Wyoming, I can handle with an eyeroll, but the alumni magazine of a distinguished university that actually has three paleontologists on staff (and has had a continuous paleo presence since way before my time in Hyde Park), I am beyond shocked. I like to think there is an editor over there somewhere who can use the red pen as needed. Did anyone actually talk to Sereno, Zhe-Xi Luo, or Neil Shubin? If these guys have seen this, I like to think they are also beyond eye rolling. (Stephen L. Brusatte, SB’06, highlighted in the article, is now in the United Kingdom.) Could this be the new normal as America continues to stupidify and ignore science?
This is so common a mistake that our museum (shameless plug: the Tate Geological Museum in Casper, Wyoming) is sponsoring a lecture series this spring discussing the differences. I am one of the speakers, and you bet this article will make it into my talk in April.
J. P. Cavigelli, AB’83
We regret the editing error and thank J. P. Cavigelli and other readers for alerting us to our mistake.—Ed.
For the record
Several articles in the Fall/17 issue brought back memories of my student days. In particular, the profile of Nancy Grace Roman, PhD’49, (“A Wider Scope,” Inquiry) mentioned a classmate (Peter Vandervoort, AB’54, SB’55, SM’56, PhD’60), two of my professors (Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, Gerard Kuiper), and several other people I have known.
However, in “Uncharted,” Rocky Kolb cites “the famous failed experiment of Albert Michelson, founder of UChicago’s physics department, and Edward Morley to establish the existence of ‘ether.’” Michelson joined the University of Chicago in 1892. The “famous experiment” was concluded in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1887, when Michelson was a professor of physics at Case School of Applied Science, and Morley was a professor of chemistry at Western Reserve College.
Peter Pesch, SB’55, SM’56, PhD’60
Professor Emeritus of Astronomy, Case Western Reserve University
Any way you slice it
I would like to suggest a way that we might bypass gerrymandering entirely (“Line Items,” Fall/17). Society and communications are no longer limited to local interactions and personal interest is not based so much on neighborhood as on employment, social class, etc. There are 535 members of Congress to a 323,000,000 population, so one congressman represents 603,768 citizens. Instead of 603,768 New Yorkers, one member of Congress could represent that number of students, or engineers, or Mormons, or whatever. That should be easy to implement with the internet.
Rod Dalitz, LAB’63
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