Sunday, 2 December 2012

The Italian navigator has landed in the new world...

Seventy years ago to the day something happened that changed the world. This was much more significant than the invention of the text message that would happen fifty years later.

This event happened in a squash court under Stagg Field, Chicago University's football stadium. Although apparently due to problems in interpretation the Russians believed that this event happened in a pumpkin field. Seventy years ago in this squash court a big mound of graphite bricks and uranium fuel, named Chicago Pile-1 went critical and the world entered the nuclear age.

The scientist responsible for this was Enrico Fermi, certainly one of the most important physicists of all time. His work built on that of Curie and Joliot and led him to discover that elements bombarded with neutrons caused their nuclei to transform. This in turn enabled him to produce new elements. He was awarded the Nobel prize for physics for his work on artificial radioactivity and slow neutrons in 1938 after which he immediately emigrated a long with his wife to America.

Excited by the discovery of fission in 1939 he quickly understood that fission could lead to a chain reaction due to the production of secondary neutrons and this led him to the first, all be it crude, nuclear reactor at the University of Chicago on 2nd December 1942.

On that day a coded message was sent to the White House by one of the team of physicists, "The Italian navigator has landed in the New World". The reply came back, "How were the natives?". To which the physicist replied, "Very friendly."

Along with Oppenheimer, Fermi was instrumental in developing the atomic bomb and bringing about not only the end of the Second World War but also the onset of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race.

The initial reactor has also developed into the nuclear reactors of the 21st Century that are currently providing relatively clean electricity for millions of people.

Fermi died in 1954 aged just 53. His death was caused by stomach cancer no doubt developing due to his close work with radioactivity.

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