If you were around in 1949, and someone asked you to select items to place in a time capsule, what would you have picked? This was the task my grandfather Enrico Fermi was given and today we learned what he chose. Some 62 years later, the occasion has nothing to do with an anniversary.
Rather the University of Chicago is demolishing the Research Institute (RI), where my grandfather worked after the war and which contained the time capsule, to build a new and more modern facility. Alumni, friends and some of our family gathered to watch Dr. Riccardo Levi–Setti pull the capsule from within the cornerstone and discover its contents.
It seemed a fitting honor for the paleontologist–physicist who, in 1992, took over Enrico’s office and became director of the Fermi Institute (part of RI). The building is across the street from the Henry Moore statue “Nuclear Energy” marking the spot where Enrico achieved the first controlled release of atomic energy in 1942.
Dr. Roger Hildebrand, physicist, spoke about the objects as Riccardo lifted each from the capsule. The two men worked with Enrico and they and their wives were all good friends.
Some of us tried to guess what was in the capsule before the ceremonial opening. The most popular guess — newspapers — turned out to be the closest to reality. Items included a University of Chicago course catalog, an airline schedule, road maps and a promotional brochure: The new frontier of technology: Atomic Research.
Reading this page today from the 1949 brochure highlights a certain amount of disconnect between what was envisioned and where our world is now with atomic energy and atomic weapons. (photo below):
Here are two videos of Enrico Fermi time capsule opening. The first one is the mini two minute version, the second one is the full nine minute version including Roger Hildebrand’s humorous commentary and close-ups of the items; plus more photos and story below.
Some of the guests…
In the 1960’s, Steve Berry lobbied in Chicago for clean air alongside my grandmother Laura Fermi. In 1971, the Environmental Protection Agency enacted the Clean Air Act, which mandated states to implement air pollution control laws. Shortly after this success Laura Fermi told her girlfriends Lilla Fano (widow of Dr. Ugo Fano) and Steve’s wife Carla Berry, “Now that clean air has been picked up by Washington, it’s time to move on.” Laura Fermi, with her friends, then formed the first handgun control lobby in America, which eventually led to the Brady Campaign.
The mathematician and dean of the University Robert Fefferman introduced and closed the event. Also viewing the time capsule opening were Dr. Jim Cronin, Nobel laureate, Courtenay Wright, physicist and go enthusiast, worked under Enrico Fermi and his wife Sara Paretsky, mystery author, Henry Frisch, Fermi Institute physicist (born in Los Alamos to two Manhattan Project physicists), Priscilla Frisch, astrophysicist, Mel Shochet, physicist, Jon Rosner, theoretical physicist, Stewart Rice, chemist, Howard Zar, Peter Hildebrand. [Send me an email if we missed you!]