Why UChicago’s atomic village mattered beyond its scientific discoveries

July 25, 2023

John Mark Hansen explores why the researchers at the school’s Metallurgical Laboratory were able to grapple with the moral dilemmas around atomic science and help guide policy after WWII.

By Sarah Steimer

John Mark Hansen

The atomic scientists living and working in Hyde Park during World War II used their camaraderie to help guide major advancement in the research. And perhaps more importantly, their academic community allowed them to fully realize the need to rein in the power of their discoveries. So while the world turns its attention to Oppenheimer, the new film about the father of the atomic bomb John Mark Hansen’s research on Chicago's atomic village reminds us that J. Robert Oppenheimer’s contemporaries at UChicago not only played a significant role in the foundations of nuclear science, but their community in Hyde Park fostered the policies that would ensure a more responsible use of nuclear power.

Hansen’s exploration of this particular group of scientists working in the Metallurgical Laboratory began during his research for his 2020 book about Hyde Park, The City in a Garden. The work done in the lab was kept under tight wraps, but the atomic scientists themselves lived openly in the community — a stark contrast to the highly secured residential districts later built at the atomic sites of Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Hanford, Washington; and Los Alamos, New Mexico. The atomic scientists at UChicago were, essentially, hiding in plain sight.

“It was completely hush hush and top secret on campus,” Hansen says. “The Metallurgical Laboratory is mentioned once in the university directories during the war. They don't tell you where it is. They don't tell you what it is. They don't tell you who is connected to it.”

Because their work was seen as crucial to wartime efforts, and although they were living among other civilians, they did take steps to largely keep to themselves. Hansen’s recounting of this atomic village includes the story of the first man-made, self-sustaining nuclear reaction on December 2, 1942: Led by Enrico Fermi and Arthur H. Compton, the Met Lab scientists built the world’s first nuclear reactor in a racquets court under the Stagg Field grandstand — right in Hyde Park. But his look back at this group of scientists also recalls them socializing: Evening swims taken at Promontory Point, at the behest of the youngest of the scientists (and the only woman present at the fission reaction on December 2), Leona Woods. There are stories of meals together, films watched, and rooms rented. Their collaborations were both scientific and social.

Because of the stark contrast between how the researchers lived in Hyde Park compared to the other atomic sites, there was a greater understanding of everyone’s role in the atomic research — and how it fit together in the grand scheme. At the secluded atomic sites, the government could contain what information was shared, which made for less oversight and analysis of this new scientific frontier.

“If you kept people from talking to each other, if you broke things down into little pieces where people didn't know how the big picture looked in order to understand it — you can understand why the army wanted to be that way,” Hansen says. “But the scientists thought this was just crazy. It's not only offensive, that (the government) didn’t trust them, but it's completely nuts because the way science works is people have conversations with people.”

What the atomic scientists in Hyde Park had was the opportunity to understand all the moving parts, and to explore them through an academic lens (and with university support). Perhaps just as important as their contributions to the science was the position they took to maintain that such work should, in fact, take place in the public eye — not behind the closed doors of government or business.

“Because the Met Lab was ensconced in the university, the leadership was academic in its approach and more sympathetic to concerns,” Hansen says. “You weren’t going to realize the potential in the science if you kept people from talking to each other.”

The university was also willing to support efforts to consider the implications of atomic science and the need to create policies and perimeters around it. For example, Chancellor Robert Maynard Hutchins provided the funding for the Atomic Energy Control Conference, held on the campus, with 51 invitees that included Met Lab scientists, along with sociologists, economists, political scientists, and anthropologists — making it a multidisciplinary approach to how nuclear energy technology might be best controlled.

“They thought about what it means to do science in a socially responsible manner,” Hansen says. “And it set a model that was enormously successful, if you consider that the last time a nuclear weapon was used in war was the first time it was used in war — and it's been nearly 80 years.”

It occurred to the UChicago researchers that they ought to care about the use of atomic science, Hansen says, because they knew just how dangerous the technology could be. And many of them, like James Franck, had direct experience with what happens when you mix science and politics. Franck was a reluctant contributor to the nuclear project, participating only because he feared the consequences of Adolf Hitler’s scientists inventing an atomic bomb first. Frank had volunteered in the Kaiser’s army during World War I, serving in the unit that introduced chlorine gas onto the battlefield. His participation in discussions around atomic science after WWII was instrumental to shaping policy.

“You had Oppenheimer in Los Alamos kind of privately agonizing over all this stuff,” Hansen says. “Famously, after he watches the Trinity test, he says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ But these guys (in Chicago) were actually doing something. They were scientists, but they took seriously the moral dilemmas.”

As new technologies are discovered, it’s a lesson for researchers to push for oversight, analysis, and transparency to ensure their advancements do minimal harm.