Manhattan Project’s nuclear breakthroughs leave complicated legacy 75 years later

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A scientific event that rivals the discovery of fire happened in Chicago on December 2, 1942. It was the day scientists split the atom, and unleashed energy never before seen on earth.

The greatest European physicists of the 20th century were running for their lives from the Nazis during World War II, and coming to the United States. There were fears Germany would develop nuclear weapons before the United States. So they convinced President Roosevelt to fund a top secret, University of Chicago-based research effort code named “The Manhattan Project.”

Led by Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, they built an enormous graphite box under an old football field on campus the U of C campus. Physicist Dr. Robert Rosner says scientists knew they could split uranium, but what they didn’t know was if they could control the process. But if you could, you could create two things: a reactor to generate electricity, or a bomb.

With 49 people present, the team achieved the first self-sustaining chain reaction, a process that fed itself and successfully controlled the release of nuclear energy. The University is commemorating that 75th anniversary this weekend. Among the guests will be 93-year-old Ted Petry, the last surviving eyewitness to atomic history.

WGN’s Tom Skilling asked Dr. Rosner and Dr. Rachel Bronson what world problems could benefit from a big science approach today?  And climate change and cyber security are at the top of the list.

To learn more, visit:

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

A look back at the Manhattan Project by the University of Chicago

Museum of Science and Industry exhibit on the Manhattan Project

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