Provost Daniel Diermeier: Commemorating the 75th Anniversary of the First Sustained Nuclear Reaction

To: Members of the University Community
From: Daniel Diermeier, Provost
Subject: Commemorating the 75th Anniversary of the First Sustained Nuclear Reaction
Date: September 19, 2017

One of the most historically significant locations on our campus is Henry Moore’s Nuclear Energy sculpture, which commemorates the site at the old Stagg Field where scientists worked in secret to produce the world’s first controlled, sustained nuclear reaction on December 2, 1942. Some of us pass the sculpture every day, only sometimes considering what a profound turning point it represents.

The approaching 75th anniversary of that first nuclear reactor provides an unusual opportunity for our community to reflect on the meaning of the scientific feat and its complex legacy, which continues to impact world affairs. Starting this month, and as a result of a recommendation from a faculty committee, the University is hosting a series of events titled “Nuclear Reactions — 1942: A Historic Breakthrough, an Uncertain Future.” The events, listed here, will bring together perspectives from many fields — including the arts, energy, engineering, medicine, nuclear physics, and policy — to assess the enormous power that the first chain reaction unleashed in the world, with the potential for good or for vast destruction. The commemoration will culminate with a two-day program on December 1-2 that will include discussions with global experts and artistic performances, including the world premiere of the composition “Plea for Peace” by University Professor Augusta Read Thomas. To help introduce the series, the University has produced a brief video that captures the scientific drama and dilemmas that emerged in 1942.

Our new College students will receive an introduction to this subject today in the annual Aims of Education address, which this year will be delivered by Robert Rosner, the William E. Wrather Distinguished Service Professor in the Departments of Astronomy & Astrophysics and Physics. Bob has served as director of Argonne National Laboratory and is an authority on nuclear energy and public policy. We invite you to watch the live webcast of Bob’s address at 6:30pm CDT here.

An important academic component of the commemoration will be a collaborative College course titled “The Nuclear Age.” The course will explore the historic consequences of the first chain reaction, incorporating researchers from fields such as physics, biomedicine, anthropology and English, as well as discussions to integrate the commemoration events on campus this fall.

Artistic reflections on the anniversary will be an integral part of the entire series this fall. One of the first efforts is a temporary architectural installation titled Nuclear Thresholds, which has just been completed at the site of the Henry Moore sculpture. UChicago Arts has put together a listing of art-related commemoration events here.

The University welcomes our community and visitors to take part in the series of events, and to consider anew the history and future impact of these important issues.