Pyrotechnic artwork commemorates 75th anniversary of first nuclear reaction

Cai Guo-Qiang's work part of two days of events at UChicago

The pyrotechnic, multicolored display lasted less than a minute against the blue afternoon sky on Dec. 2, but created an indelible reminder of the power unlocked by the first nuclear chain reaction that occurred 75 years ago at the University of Chicago.

Internationally acclaimed artist Cai Guo-Qiang’s artwork began with flashes of red, orange and blue before a thick cloud of white formed high above the roof of the Regenstein Library, adjacent to the site of the pioneering experiment that ushered in the Atomic Age at 3:25 p.m. on Dec. 2, 1942.

“Your pyrotechnic works have been described as opening a tunnel through space and time,” said Bill Brown, senior advisor to the Provost for arts at UChicago and the Karla Scherer Distinguished Service Professor in American Culture, in his introductory remarks. “Today, when the essential paradox of nuclear fission, the combined promise and threat, has never been more acute, we are honored by the imperative for reflection and aspiration that your work inspires.”

Hundreds of students, faculty and community members from across Chicago gathered to hear Cai discuss the meaning of his work before the display. “Through the complexity and paradoxes found in this artwork, I hope to express both concern and hope for developments in science and human civilization,” Cai said through an interpreter, standing in front of the Henry Moore sculpture Nuclear Energy.

A piece for carillon entitled “The Curve is Exponential,” by UChicago PhD candidate Ted Moore, followed Cai’s art piece. Performed from Rockefeller Chapel by University Carillonneur Joey Brink, it lasted 28 minutes—commemorating the length of time of the Chicago Project-1 experiment on Dec. 2.  

Cai’s display was one of the highlights of a two-day UChicago program commemorating the anniversary of the nuclear reaction’s complex legacy. It included a keynote address by former U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, a world-premiere composition entitled “Plea for Peace” by Prof. Augusta Read Thomas, panel discussions on different aspects of the nuclear legacy, and numerous arts and musical performances, concluding with an evening concert by the University Symphony Orchestra.

A day before his Dec. 2 artwork, Cai sat down with Prof. Wu Hung, UChicago scholar and curator, to discuss his artwork and career. During the talk on campus, Cai described how he was able to “represent the invisible world through visible materials” by using gunpowder and fireworks.

Growing up in Quanzhou, China, Cai said he discovered fireworks through his grandmother. While being too scared to light the fireworks himself, the discovery provided Cai an introduction to the means to share his art with the world.

Cai’s works include contributing to fireworks at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and his 2012 work “Sky Ladder.” The display at UChicago builds on a series of site-specific pieces that began in 1996 as part of Cai’s “Projects For Extraterrestrials”, in which he created clouds at the Nevada Test Site, the Twin Towers and the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima, Japan.

“His thinking is global, like fireworks themselves,” Wu said during the discussion. “And he used the sky as his canvas, which also belongs to everybody.”

Cai’s work highlighted the arts’ important role throughout the University’s 75th anniversary commemoration of CP-1. Earlier in the fall, a temporary architectural entitled Nuclear Thresholds was installed at the site of Chicago Pile-1, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Henry Moore’s Nuclear Energy sculpture. Firm Ogrydziak Prillinger Architects added a network of hundreds of 75-five-foot-long cords of thick black rubber that formed a bench at one end before unraveling into a twisted network of cables.

Former U.S. Energy Secretary caps first day of commemoration

Former U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz capped the first half of a two-day commemoration of the first sustained nuclear chain reaction achieved at the University of Chicago 75 years ago this week.

Moniz detailed the complex challenges posed by nuclear weapons in the current global security landscape as well as continued ways to harness benefits from nuclear technologies.

In his current work heading the nonprofit Nuclear Threat Initiative, Moniz said, he’s focusing on practical steps toward managing risk and reducing threats. “It is for us to think clearly about those, and to work at solutions to be ready when the opportunity appears,” said Moniz, a physicist and professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who served as energy secretary from 2013 to January 2017.

Moniz’s talk concluded a half-day exploration through discussions and art of the legacy of Chicago Pile-1, the experiment on Dec. 2, 1942 that produced the first controlled chain reaction.

Augusta Read Thomas, University Professor of Composition, debuted a work written for the commemoration, “Plea for Peace,” a five-minute wordless arrangement for soprano and string quartet. Civil rights attorney and former WBEZ talk show host Gretchen Helfrich moderated three panels on different aspects of the nuclear legacy, in which experts discussed what nuclear energy could offer the fight against climate change, the greatest threats from nuclear weapons to world security and the evolving field of nuclear medicine.

“It was a very interesting event—it really helped lay out how we need to decide what to do with the technology as we go forward,” said Jared Kerman, a second-year student in the College. “I think it’s really emblematic of the commitment to rigorous inquiry here at the University, that we don’t talk about nuclear’s incredible benefits to humanity without also discussing the consequences.”

As energy secretary, Moniz oversaw stewardship of the nation’s nuclear weapons and national laboratories as well as helping to broker the 2015 agreement to halt Iran’s path toward developing nuclear weapons.

He said creativity and open dialogue were both key toward continuing to reduce risk from nuclear proliferation: Many aspects of the Iran agreement were novel, and could form a basis for future agreements with other countries with nuclear aspirations.

But given the right course, nuclear technology also could play a role in alleviating another existential threat to humanity, Moniz said: climate change. He called for testing innovative ideas in nuclear energy. “We’ve got to find out if that dog hunts,” he said of new concepts in advanced nuclear energy, such as “small modular reactors”—small-sized enclosed reactors that may offer security, cost and economic advantages over full-sized plants.