Archive for December 2nd, 2008

They’re creepy and they’re kooky,
Mysterious and spooky,
They’re all together ooky,…

I have no idea what “ooky” means (my guess is that it just keeps the meter proper), and I’m not sure that “creepy” and “kooky” adequately describes our subject, but “mysterious”, “spooky” would certainly fit the bill…well, maybe a little creepy, too.

Their house is a museum.
When people come to see ’em
They really are a screa-um.

The “house” is now something of a museum (being on the National Register of Historic Places), and lots of people come to see it…ok, I think I’ve taken the analogy far enough.  Let’s get on with it.  On December 2, 1942, a group of physicists led by Enrico Fermi (shown above) successfully created the first man-made, self-sustaining nuclear reaction.  In essence, the first nuclear reactor was constructed and was allowed to run for nearly 30 minutes.

Unlike today, where reactors are made with tons of concrete in giant buildings with all kinds of alarms and computers and stuff, Fermi’s reactor was built at the University of Chicago…below the stands of the old football stadium…in some abandoned racquetball courts.  It seems remarkably unsafe to us now, but I imagine the circumstances make it understandable.

As part of the Manhattan Project, Fermi’s reactor (called Chicago Pile-1) was top-classified maxi secret.  Simply building an actual reactor in broad daylight in 1942 (during the height of World War II) would have attracted a lot of attention.  And it was no secret at all the nearly every major city (Chicago included) was full of enemy spies.  Furthermore, though radiation had been extensively studied for nearly half a century, there was still much to learn about containment and fallout and safety measures.

Regardless, Fermi’s pile of uranium pellets, surrounded by graphite bricks and controlled by cadmium rods, was the real dawn of nuclear power and, as far as the Manhattan Project was concerned, nuclear weapons.

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