Big Things in Small Packages: The Story of Atomic Holiday

Posted by Will Carius on

When we think of the development of nuclear fission, we generally think about "The Bomb." Or, really, two bombs. In many respects, they were the most significant weapons ever built, the ultimate attack vectors. Only two nuclear weapons have ever been used offensively, but the impact of that use continues to exert its influence upon the world today.

Disused Nuclear Cooling Towers

While it was the eventual goal of the Manhattan Project to produce such weapons, the entire process came in stages. First, it had to be proven that nuclear fission could even be induced and/or controlled. That the reaction would not simply fizzle out and fail, sending Oppenheimer and his merry band of murderers back to the drawing board. And that was where Enrico Fermi came in. That was when he and his team changed the world.

If you think about it, a very significant portion of world history in the past eighty years was the direct result of an experiment conducted on a snowy night in 1942. December 2nd, in fact, at The University of Chicago. That's where the CP-1 was built.

The Chicago Pile Reactor Mk. 1, named for its rather unassuming appearance and known more famously and commonly by its designation CP-1, was constructed to house the world's first artificial nuclear reaction. Designed and built by the University's Metallurgical Laboratory and constructed from 45,000 ultra-pure graphic bricks, the CP-1 had no radiation shielding or cooling system of any kind (mostly due to its extremely low-powered operation) and, as a result, the experiment raised serious concerns among the project's civilian and military heads. Fermi assured these personnel that his calculations showed that it was perfectly safe to test the reactor in a populated area, and, demonstrating faith in the scientific process that would shock many of our leaders today, these assembled luminaries took him at his word. As it turned out, Fermi was absolutely right.

Picture of the CP-1 Underneath Stagg Field

I won't go into the physics and theories involved in Fermi's experiment, largely because I'm not a physicist and would likely make a terrible mess of the science. But suffice it to say that the experiment was an astounding success and demonstrated that it was not only possible to create an artificial and controlled nuclear reaction, but that the reaction didn't need to be cooled with liquid helium (extremely expensive) and could instead be cooled with water or even air.

To say that the CP-1 experiment was significant is like saying that the galaxy is "kinda big." And, while the original site of the CP-1 is on the National Register of Historic Places, it's not something that people immediately recall in the way that they do the experiments at Los Alamos, or Watson and Crick's elucidation of the double-helix, or Salk's Polio vaccine. For whatever reason, this monumental event is largely unremembered, and, given that Friday (December 2nd) will mark the 80th anniversary of the test, I felt that it would be super cool to create a fragrance to mark the occasion. Atomic Holiday will be available at noon, but I ask that you raise a glass to Fermi and his laboratory Friday night. We probably wouldn't be here without them.

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  • This was a fun read, especially as a former nuclear submarine officer! Already put my order in!

    Art on

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