As a child in Tokyo, born in the wake of World War II, Norma Field became aware of the nuclear threat early. The professor emeritus of East Asian languages and civilizations remembers feeling “the terrifying force of the images” from Hiroshima and Nagaskai, and being particularly haunted by the iconic photo of a Hiroshima man’s silhouette imprinted like a shadow on a granite stair by the heat of the blast.
Around the breakfast table, over the morning headlines, Field’s parents regularly debated the merits of atmospheric testing, her anticommunist American father arguing the pro side against her pacifist Japanese mother. Her mother’s views “had so much more credibility for me” and, reinforced by the photo, created a sense of urgency to do something to help prevent another devastating war between the two countries. What she could think of, as a child, was to teach about Japan in the United States.
The 2011 meltdown of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant has become a focusing event for Field. “I think it combined almost everything I was ever interested in.” It made her want to capture in her writing “the kinds of anguish a nuclear disaster brings,” she says. “I want to share that, I want people to read that and think twice about it.” She had already been challenging the distinction between nuclear weapons as existentially dangerous and nuclear power as safe and clean, including in a UChicago course that she started teaching in 2004, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Beyond.
Field regularly asked students in the course to collaborate on archival projects about the CP-1 scientists, work that highlighted for Field a decline in awareness of nuclear risks in the ensuing decades, perhaps now mitigated by tensions with North Korea. “There was a lot of mindfulness among the early atomic scientists here and around the country about the immeasurable potential harm of this technology, which has really faded,” she says.
In Chicago she lectures, hosts symposia, and shares information through Atomic Age, a website she maintains with friends. This fall she’s finalizing a grant proposal for a book project on Fukushima’s aftermath. The author of three previous books in English, including the award-winning In the Realm of a Dying Emperor: Japan at Century’s End (Pantheon, 1991), Field believes in the power of literature to create understanding. “Even if you don’t directly experience something yourself,” she says, “literature can prepare the ground for empathy.”
Having spent most of her career teaching at UChicago, home to the CP-1 experiment, gives her an added sense of mission. It’s hard for Field to walk past Nuclear Energy, the Henry Moore sculpture on Ellis Avenue, without feeling a twinge: “This is part of what began here on December 2, 1942.”—Adam Doster
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Ref. Core Stories (Feature article to mark the 75th anniversary of Chicago Pile-1) via The University of Chicago Magazine.