On December 2, 1942, 48 men and a lone woman gathered in a squash-racquets court under the west stands of the University of Chicago's Stagg Field. Their mission was to find a way to bring a decisive end to World War II. They had joined in a great national collaboration to develop nuclear weapons ahead of the Germans. The sense of urgency was palpable. They knew what they were about to do would change the world—for better or for worse. Nonetheless, their work was in the true tradition of pure science. As Robert Oppenheimer later noted: “It is a profound and necessary truth that the deep things in science are not found because they are useful; they are found because it was possible to find them.”
Within three years, their scientific work led to the atomic bomb. Yet, the energy they unleashed also held great promise for peaceful uses. To harness that energy for that purpose, Argonne National Laboratory was created in 1946. The early nuclear fission research was built upon decades of scientific inquiry into the nature of the atom. Slowly, inexorably, its components were discovered, the mystery of its structure unlocked, its power harnessed. Throughout Europe and America, atomic physics moved from the realm of academic theory to applied research and development.
Until the 1930s, only two subatomic particles were known: the electron and the proton. But there was reason to question the viability of the proton-electron nucleus. Many scientists believed the nucleus must contain an uncharged particle to compensate for the proton charge. And the atomic theorists were right. During the 1930s, the neutron was discovered; so were the positron and meson. And in 1938, nuclear fission was first accomplished in Germany. The atom was split. Four years earlier, the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi had unknowingly identified the same phenomenon but thought his "product" was new elements.
Meanwhile, Fascism and Nazism were on the rise in Europe. Between 1933 and 1941, more than 100 refugee physicists from Germany, Italy, Austria and Hungary fled to the United States and England. Among them were the most brilliant minds in science, including Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard and Eugene Wigner.
- Reactors Designed by Argonne National Laboratory: Early Exploration - Early exploration nuclear reactors designed by the Manhattan Project's Metallurgical Laboratory, the direct predecessor to Argonne National Laboratory, began the development of nuclear technology.
- Fermi facts, fables: Colleagues and friends share memories - Reprinted from Argonne Logos, Winter 2002
- CP-1 Flickr Gallery (by Argonne National Laboratory)
- Argonne nuclear pioneers: Chicago Pile 1 on YouTube (by Argonne National Laboratory) On December 2, 1942, 49 scientists, led by Enrico Fermi, made history when Chicago Pile 1 (CP-1) went critical and produced the world's first self-sustaining, controlled nuclear chain reaction. Seventy years later, two of the last surviving CP-1 pioneers, Harold Agnew and Warren Nyer, recall that historic day.
Last Modified: Tue, July 10, 2012 5:08 PM