This week marks the 70th anniversary of a turning point in human history. It was on December 2, 1942, that Enrico Fermi ordered the control rods pulled from the nuclear reactor he had built under the west stands of the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field stadium, thereby initiating the first artificial sustained-fission reaction in human history. A cryptic message flashed the electrifying news back to Washington. “The Italian navigator has landed in the new world.”
The consequences of Fermi’s success were profound. Within two and a half years, the Manhattan Project advanced to build both uranium-isotope-separation and plutonium-manufacturing facilities on an industrial scale, and used these products to build three atomic bombs. One of these was used in a test at Trinity, N. M.; the other two were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending World War II and saving tens of millions of lives that otherwise would have been lost in an invasion of Japan and the prolongation of the war on mainland Asia. The bomb also prevented another world war, in Europe, by delivering a forceful check in advance to any ambitions held by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin or his successors to continue the Red Army’s drive farther west than the lines agreed to at Yalta. Finally, through his demonstration of controlled fission, Fermi opened vast new energy resources to humanity, sufficient to power economic growth and the expansion of civilization on this world and others for ages to come.