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Thursday, December 2, 2010

A chain reaction that continues today


Sixty-eight years ago today, Enrico Fermi produced the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction. The success of Fermi’s experiment –conducted on a squash court underneath the bleachers of Stagg Field at the University of Chicago -  ushered in the nuclear age.

The University of Chicago’s Enrico Fermi Collection contains digital facsimiles of the Nobel-willing physicist’s notebooks, correspondence and course preparation materials. That site requires you download a Djvu plug-in. Djvu is a file formal that bundles multi-page documents together, much like a PDF, but provides for quicker transmission time.

A number of other sites feature material relating to Fermi, the chain reaction and the global impact of his work, including: The National Science Digital Library’s Atomic Archive, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Research and Development site, Fermi’s page on the official website of the Nobel Prize, and Our Documents, the National Archive and Records Administration’s collection of milestone documents in American History.

The photo of Fermi at right comes from the U. S. Department of Energy’s Office of Scientific and Technical Information. At right is an image of a letter sent to President Roosevelt by Albert Einstein in 1939. In it, Einstein briefs the president on Fermi’s works and predicts that the successful production of a nuclear chain reaction is in the near future. He also warned of the weaponry that could be created and suggested that the president might “think it desirable to have some permanent contact maintained between the Administration and the group of physicists working on chain reactions in America.” Fermi would later go on to serve as a leader of team of physicists working on the Manhattan Project.

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