‘The Big Bang of Big Science:’ How the Manhattan Project transformed the field

Eric D. Isaacs
Eric D. Isaacs gives lecture on how the Manhattan Project affected funding streams, collaboration and even perceptions about scientists in society.
Photo by
Jean Lachat
Louise Lerner
News Officer for Physical Sciences and the Institute for Molecular EngineeringUniversity Communications

As the University of Chicago considers the legacy of the first Manhattan Project experiment, performed 75 years ago under its abandoned football stands, it has examined topics this fall ranging from international policy in the nuclear age to the future of energy.

But the experiment also changed science itself, said Eric D. Isaacs, executive vice president for research, innovation and national laboratories.

In a Nov. 16 talk at UChicago, Isaacs discussed how the experiment reshaped funding streams, collaboration models and even perceptions about the role of scientists in society. “There was a substantial change in the way science was done in this country following Chicago Pile-1,” he said.

Through the early 20th century, scientists received relatively little federal funding. Philanthropy enabled scientists such as founding UChicago astrophysics faculty member George Hale to build experimental observatories in his Kenwood neighborhood backyard.

“Chicago Pile-1 really changed how science was funded in the U.S., and much of the world,” Isaacs said. After the war, new government agencies like the Atomic Energy Commission (later the Department of Energy) and the National Science Foundation formed to channel federal funding for research in the nation’s interests.

“There was a substantial change in the way science was done in this country following Chicago Pile-1.”Executive Vice President Eric D. Isaacs

Chicago Pile-1 also gave rise to the U.S. national laboratories, of which there are now 17. The University of Chicago manages two of these for the Department of Energy: Argonne National Laboratory and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.

“There was this awakening in the country that scientists could solve challenges facing the nation through research,” Isaacs said.

Federal funding and the national labs greatly increased the scale for scientists to explore fundamental questions, allowing the construction of large facilities and paving the way for today’s supercomputers, synchrotrons, giant colliders like the Large Hadron Collider, underground neutrino experiments and LIGO gravitational wave detectors.

The Manhattan Project also shifted the way that researchers collaborate. As early as 1943, Isaacs said, project lead Arthur Holly Compton “saw the power of putting together under one roof chemists, physicists, metallurgists, engineers and machinists, and began urging the president of the University to invest in a new model that would change the way we did research.”

Following the CP-1 experiment and the end of the war, then-University President Robert Hutchins promptly launched three new research institutes, which have evolved, but still operate today: the Institute for the Study of Metals, now the James Franck Institute, and the Institute for Nuclear Studies, today the Enrico Fermi Institute. The Institute for Radiobiology and Biophysics, also founded at the time, became the Department of Biophysics.

The multidisciplinary centers, created in part to retain the great talent working at the University during the Manhattan Project, crossed the boundaries between academic departments and disciplines—traditionally divided rigidly between individual subjects such as physics and chemistry—in pursuit of greater understanding and better tools. The idea still shapes the University’s thinking on academic structure: when the University established the Institute for Molecular Engineering in 2011, it was built on the same intellectual concepts, organized around addressing a set of specific big problems rather than by discipline.

Isaacs said the successful results of the CP-1 experiment also forced scientists to rethink their roles in society. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was founded by many of the pile scientists who “could not remain aloof to the consequences of their work.”

“This offered a new place for rigorous discussion about new technologies and their impact,” Isaacs said. “Scientists now began to get involved in thinking about the intersection of science and policy, and it led naturally to similar organizations.” He cited the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, which links economists with researchers in policy and law, business and physical sciences to address vital societal-wide issues in the production, distribution and use of energy.