Tuesday, December 12, 2017

How One Man Changed the War

Chicago Pile-1
Without the help of my high school lab partner, I would have flunked out of Physics class. Despite my ineptitude for the topic, I was fascinated by the concepts that my teacher, Mr. Baum, would impart while sitting on top of his desk. He was excited about Physics and wanted us to be too. I still understand very little about Physics, but appreciate those people whose mind can grapple with science and ask lots of “what if” and “why” questions (kind of like authors do when they’re making up stories!).

One such man who, credited with creating the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction and awarded the Nobel Prize in 1938 for his work with neutrons, was Enrico Fermi. Born in Rome, Italy, he was the son of a railroad executive and a schoolteacher. His older brother, with whom he was very close died at a young age, and Enrico threw himself into his studies to cope with the loss.

Physicist Enrico Fermi
Initially a professor of theoretical physics at the University of Rome, Enrico used the opportunity of his Nobel Prize trip to immigrate to the United States to escape Mussolini’s recently implemented Italian Racial Laws that impacted his Jewish wife, Laura. He joined the faculty at Columbia University and then became a member of the Manhattan Project. Transferring to the University of Chicago, he led a team of experimental physicists who were tasked with creating the first nuclear reaction, without which a bomb would not be feasible.

Built on the squash court under the school’s football stadium, the nuclear reactor was originally referred to as an “atomic pile,” then later dubbed “Chicago Pile-1.” Fermi himself described it as “a crude pile of black bricks and wooden timbers.” The last of twenty-nine attempts was assembled in November 1942 and was comprised of 45,000 graphite blocks and fueled by six tons of uranium metal and uranium oxide. Because it operated at a low level there were no shielding or cooling systems included.

Members of the Manhattan Project
Fermi determined that critical mass could be achieved without completing the pile, and on December 2nd the first human-made nuclear chain reaction occurred. The success of the reactor made crucial progress in The Manhattan Project in their efforts to create an atomic bomb. Fermi moved to Project Y where he was named assistant director of the laboratory at Los Alamos, NM. After the war, he served on the Atomic Energy Commission and returned to teaching at the University of Chicago where some of his graduate students became the leading physicists of their time.

A freelance writer for over ten years, Linda Shenton Matchett is the author of several romance novellas. Under Fire, the first in her trilogy about WWII War Correspondent/Amateur Sleuth Ruth Brown is available from eLectio PublishingAmazon, or your favorite independent bookstore. Visit Linda at www.LindaShentonMatchett.com.


  1. Linda, Thank you for a great history lesson today. Merry Christmas!

    1. Merry Christmas! So glad you enjoyed today's post.

  2. I live in Los Alamos, right around the corner from where Fermi lived. :)

  3. Thank you for sharing your very interesting post.