Nuclear America: Military and Civilian Nuclear Power in the United States, 1940-1980

By Gerard H. Clarfield; William M. Wiecek | Go to book overview

Prologue: "The Italian Navigator"

IT WAS BITTERLY COLD OUTSIDE, as Chicago's notorious lake wind drove the windchill below zero, making it colder than normal even for the second day of December. Arthur Compton, Nobel laureate and director of the obscurely named "Metallurgical Laboratory" at the University of Chicago, phoned his colleague James B. Conant, president of Harvard University. "The Italian navigator has just landed in the new world," he said. It was a cryptic statement, but then so many messages in 1942 were communicated in odd codes. An eavesdropper would have been puzzled--as he was meant to be. Conant did not seem to be surprised by the peculiar message; he simply asked, "Were the natives friendly?" Compton replied, "Everyone landed safe and happy," hung up, and went to join the impromptu celebration already under way on the floor below. 1

The message conveyed in amateurish code by the Chicago physicist to the Cambridge chemist was as momentous as Columbus's landfall 450 years earlier. For Conant had just announced that humanity had achieved a controlled and sustained chain reaction in the fission of atomic nuclei. American scientists had cleared a path for the development of the world's first atomic bomb. Prometheus-like, humankind had seized nuclear fire, and now found itself capable either of destroying itself or of transforming the material world with a virtually limitless source of energy. Before Enrico Fermi, the "Italian navigator," demon-

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