Sharing Stories… On the Neutron Trail

Artifacts of my grandparents: first edition cover of Laura Fermi's New York Time's bestseller Atoms in the Family and Enrico Fermi's sliderule; both atop his Nobel Prize book (with hand-painted calligraphy). Nobel Prize book courtesy Special Collections University of Chicago Library. Photo: Olivia Fermi © 2010.

I’ve been travelling on the Neutron Trail, learning about our shared nuclear legacy for a decade (really a lifetime). At times randomly, at times with some passionate focus – studying, researching, talking with physicists, survivors and activists, travelling to places like Los Alamos, New Mexico where the first atomic bomb was engineered, including making nuclear art with dancers and poets.

This Thursday and Friday Nov 11 and 12 I’ll be sharing my experiences at the Eastwood Onley Gallery here in Vancouver. [Feedback on that in the UPDATE at the bottom of post.] Images form the heart of the talk, with a mix of my own and archival photos, cartoons, illustrations and even a little of Georgia O’Keeffe who lived and painted near Los Alamos.

A challenge for me is culling and synthesizing such a vast amount of material and experience into an evening presentation. How much should I let the individual images and insights speak for themselves? When should I summarize and highlight major themes and trends I’ve noticed?

A few years ago I began ad hoc interviews on the street with  a diverse range of people on here in Vancouver and across the continent in New York City. It’s turned out to be a very useful kind of market research, resulting in a presentation which people — across generations, cultures and professions — tell me is meaningful,  worthwhile and enjoyable. Many friends and colleagues have and continue to generously review the material and offer wise and cogent feedback at all phases of evolution.

A special thanks to Jerome Friedman, who went to parties at my grandparents home well before I was born and who was Enrico’s last graduate student. We met for the first time a little over a year ago and I became fast friends with him and his wife Tania. Jerry has given me valuable insights, only he could give, that enrich the Neutron Trail. As well he has officially endorsed the project:

The story of the Neutron Trail recounts some of the most significant events of the 20th Century. Olivia Fermi, the grand daughter of the central figure in unleashing the energy of the atom, tells a story that touches on remarkable achievement and triumph, but also on destruction and the continuing threat to human society. Her account of events is engrossing and thought provoking, and I am glad that she has taken on the task of engaging the public in these issues.” – Jerome Friedman, Nobel laureate, MIT Professor Emeritus of Physics, founding Board Member of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology


Both Neutron Trail – Elemental talks sold out and we had two lively evenings. Here’s a sampling of responses:

“I just saw Olivia’s talk last night On the Neutron Trail. It was fantastic, smart, educational and inspired!” – Linda Solomon, Vancouver Observer Coverage here.

“I was really glad to finally attend one of your sessions.  Your story is fascinating and thought-provoking on so many levels.  I know it will yet evolve further as you expand your gaze and search onwards. And do try to get it into high schools.  I see it as a multi-disciplinary attraction – math, physics, history, psychology…. ” – Esther Chetner, VP Leadership Development, JCC Vancouver

“Olivia, you are a brilliant artist and a brave soul. Your Neutron Trail presentation is profound and enlightening. I love how you fill it with personal touches, far beyond newspaper headlines.  You have shown great strength of heart, wisdom and conviction to bring this fascinating story to us. Thank you. – Tom Tompkins, Community Arts Organizer and Translink Bus Driver

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2 Responses to Sharing Stories… On the Neutron Trail

  1. Great presentation….it left me thinking about so many things.

    One of the things that struck me, though, was how physicists have always challenged faith/religion but in a way that – in some cases years or centuries later – actually served to help us understand faith/religion/God better. We understand the universe because of their work. Think of how outrageous the work of Newton (gravity causes things to fall!?!?!?!) and Copernicus (the earth revolves around the sun!?!?!?) seemed to their contemporaries. Such it is with quantum theory / quantum mechanics…. energy turning into matter, and vice versa…the concepts may be difficult to grasp.

    Accepting that the universe if founded on the principles of uncertainty, chaos and potential gives us a very different view of how we came to be and how the universe operates… that time is relative (and at one point non-existent), that reality differs based on experience and perspective, that we in fact create reality based on observation (wave vs. particle, for instance) …Thinking about the work of the 12-string theory physicists (Brian Greene et al) whose work seems – to some folks – be the stuff of mystics rather than scientists….

    Maybe this is too off-base for the neutron trail discussion but, for me at least, it is possibly the heart of it. And would certainly be a great talking point in groups after the presentation!

    I definitely have to re-read some of the books that have inspired me in this area (where science, philosophy and religion come together) such as The Dancing Wu-Li Masters or The Tao of Physics…….

    Thanks again for a thought provoking evening!

  2. Allan Finlayson says:

    I was at your Neutron Trail Talk last Thursday and am still thinking about ‘that whole thing’. I thought one the best things to come out of your talk was discussion at the end. We didn’t have a lot of time for such a deep topic but it was interesting to have that sort of cross discussion afterward.

    There are so many facets to the Nuclear Question. I also realized that reactions to such questions as ‘should we use nuclear power?’ and ‘what to do about nuclear proliferation’ are questions whose answers depend on who is answering them. For instance if I’m being asked if I want a nuclear power plant in my neighbourhood the answer is no. If I’m the president of a country with minimal natural resources and a growing power hungry population the answer is emphatically yes. (What is Canada’s nuclear policy?) Tough to get a consensus when not everyone is operating on the same page.

    When it comes to nuclear weapons it’s even worse. The power of possessing them is too great a temptation for countries to ignore. Look at the attention given to Iran and North Korea. What do the 5 permanent members of the U.N. Security Council have in common? Perhaps the somewhat inevitable truth is that more and more countries will develop and build a bomb. I’m not trying to be pessimistic but it is difficult to see a way to put the nuclear genie back in the bottle. If I’m the U.S. – I definitely don’t want certain countries in the Middle East having nuclear capabilities. Pakistan is probably the most dangerous country in the world in this respect. It is a dangerous stew of radical Islam and a tenuous government complete with nuclear weapons. North Korea is not far behind. So if I’m a weak country looking to improve my standing on the world stage I will do whatever it takes to get myself a nuke.
    Those are just a couple of the issues on the Neutron trail…. On a happier note the Fermi Gamma Ray telescope is making amazing discoveries and has discovered 2 new gigantic gamma ray structures emanating from the center of our galaxy.

    Thanks for a fun thought-provoking evening. It was great to get a real mix of opinions afterward.

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