Journalists have always struggled to reconcile the destruction and the development ushered in by this famous experiment.
At the time, news of the breakthrough on December 2, 1942, was conveyed only in code: “The Italian navigator has landed in the New World.”
Our “Italian navigator” was Enrico Fermi, the physicist who had escaped fascist Italy for America. The “New World” was not a place but a time: the atomic age. On that day 75 years ago, Fermi’s team set off the first controlled and sustained nuclear chain reaction.
It all happened under the bleachers of University of Chicago’s Stagg Field. Fermi’s nuclear reactor was a pile of graphite, henceforth known as Chicago Pile-1. It produced all of a half-watt of power. But it proved that a neutron emitted by a splitting uranium atom could indeed split another uranium atom, which could split another and another, releasing energy with each reaction. With enough atoms, the chain reaction could unleash inconceivable amounts of energy. It proved, in other words, that an atomic bomb could exist.
The rest of the story is well-known: Bombs were made. Bombs were dropped. Hundreds of thousands of people died. A war was won.
The first time an anniversary of Chicago Pile-1 was commemorated publicly appears to be its fourth in 1946, and that was by proclamation of the War Department. In an October press release, Lieutenant General L.R. Groves, the commanding general of the Manhattan Project, suggested December 2 as the “birthday” of atomic energy.
The Chicago Pile was a genuine scientific breakthrough, but other, more famous milestones like the Trinity test and the Hiroshima bombing have also been pegged as the beginning of the atomic age. Perhaps the War Department chose December 2, 1942, as the birthday of “atomic energy”—note: not “atomic bomb,” a phrase that never appears in the press release—because it represented a purer scientific achievement. Nuclear science had not yet been used for destruction; it could just as well power our homes and save lives through medicine.
When The New York Times covered the fourth anniversary in December, science writer William L. Laurence hinted only vaguely at “incalculable potentialities for good and for evil.” Laurence is credited with coining the term “atomic age” and he is a controversial figure in journalism. During the war, he worked for the Manhattan Project as its historian. Then he returned to the Times to continue reporting on the very project for which he worked, even winning a Pulitzer for his dispatches from Nagasaki. In 2004, journalists argued his Pulitzer Prize should be revoked because of his “uncritical parroting of propaganda.” He dismissed, for example, Japanese reports that people were dying from radiation days after the bombings.
But, it was not lost on journalists that this was still the atomic age. Articles written for the 50th anniversary note that Russia and the United States still had enough nuclear weapons to kill millions, and several other countries were pursuing their own. “Fifty years later, the legacy of the Chicago Pile remains mixed,” Earl Lane wrote in Newsday.
Which brings us to the75th anniversary of the Chicago Pile. Nuclear power is on the decline in the United States today. Nuclear weapons are ever present in the news again. Yet nuclear science has also produced real breakthroughs in science and medicine. The legacy of the Chicago Pile is mixed, and it probably always will be—until, and such is the nature of nuclear weapons, the day it is clearly not.