Enrico Fermi Time Capsule Opening

What's in the Enrico Fermi time capsule? Olivia Fermi, Dr. Paul Weiner (grandson of Enrico Fermi), Kathy Weiner and Ben Weiner (great-grandson of Enrico Fermi). Photo: Blythe Olshan-Findlay/Olivia Fermi

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.

Levi-Setti hands Hildebrand 1949-era road maps placed in time capsule by Enrico Fermi. Photo: Olivia Fermi

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.

Roger Hildebrand displays Enrico Fermi time capsule item: “The new frontier of technology: Atomic Research”. Photo: Olivia Fermi

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):

Page from brochure "Atomic Research". Photo: Olivia Fermi

Bundle of maps from Enrico Fermi time capsule. Photo: Olivia Fermi

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.

Anything else? Roger Hildebrand & Riccardo Levi-Setti peer into Enrico Fermi time capsule. Photo: Olivia Fermi

Enrico Fermi time capsule. Photo: Olivia Fermi

Some of the guests…

Far right: Steve Berry, chemist-physicist, spoke during the ceremony. Photo: Olivia Fermi

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!]

Awaiting Fermi time capsule opening, University of Chicago. Front row from left: Priscilla Frisch, astrophysicist (back to camera); Henry Frisch, Fermi Institute physicist; Sara Paretsky, mystery author, and her husband Courtenay Wright, physicist worked under Enrico Fermi. Photo: Olivia Fermi

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3 Responses to Enrico Fermi Time Capsule Opening

  1. Pingback: Dr. Marina Milner-Bolotin » Blog Archive » Opening of Enrico Fermi’s Time Capsule

  2. Rudolph Gartner says:

    It is really nice to hear and read about this event as well as witness it after the fact through these pictures and descriptions. It’s even nicer and exciting because I happened to know, back in elementary school, the granddaughter of Enrico Fermi, Olivia Fermi, the person who took these photos and wrote the narrative. I also knew her brother, Paul, and it’s great to see a picture of him after all these years and see that he has made a success with himself. It is also great to be reminded of the momentous historical events surrounding the first development of the atom bomb viz-a-viz the person of Enrico Fermi and his time capsule, the great physicist based at the University of Chicago and a member of the Manhattan Project. Finally, it is important to be aware of this history in light of the events today concerning the breakdown and disabling of the Fukishima nuclear plant in Japan as a result of the catastrophe suffered there, but also as a result of inadequate planning. It is hopeful and encouraging to recently hear the government of Japan announced that its efforts to switch from relying on nuclear energy to develop reliable and dependable ways of utilizing safe and clean energy practices such as solar, wind, and other clean energy production methods. The country of Germany has announced similar goals in the last couple of weeks.
    Thank you for this presentation and the opportunity to leave some comments. Let us all work toward the realization that reliance on nuclear energy has its definite limits and other ways must be sought out.

  3. Dave Brown says:

    That is really cool. As the son of an atom-smashing scientist (from Atomic Energy of Canada), I was thrilled to read this posting and see the contents of the capsule.

    I find myself wondering what Enrico Fermi would say to the current state of the Nuclear Research industry, given its status as a bit of a political football in the US these days.

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