University of Chicago to commemorate first nuclear reaction on Dec. 1 and 2

Groundbreaking scientific discovery conducted at UChicago 75 years ago

On the 75th anniversary of the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, the University of Chicago will host a series of events and exhibitions to commemorate the landmark discovery. 

“Reactions: New Perspectives on Our Nuclear Legacy” will happen Dec. 1 and 2, bringing together perspectives from many fields—including the arts, energy, engineering, medicine, nuclear physics and policy—to assess the enormous effects of the experiment. The two-day event provides an opportunity to consider the meaning of the scientific feat and its complex legacy, as well as insights into the future of science, energy, national security and efforts to bring about a more peaceful world. Click here to view a full schedule of the two-day symposium and RSVP for the events.

The first chain reaction was achieved at UChicago on Dec. 2, 1942 in the midst of World War II. A number of the world’s leading scientists, including Enrico Fermi and Arthur Holly Compton, came together for the top-secret experiment as part of the Manhattan Project. Their historic discovery continues to shape science, energy, medicine and foreign policy today.

The commemoration will begin on campus on Friday, Dec. 1 at 1:30 p.m. with an opening keynote address in Mandel Hall by Richard Rhodes, journalist, historian and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb, and most recently, The Twilight of the Bombs.

The afternoon will include panel discussions on energy, public policy and medicine as well as the world premiere of the composition “Plea for Peace” by University Professor Augusta Read Thomas. Performed by members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the musical piece explores the myriad consequences of the world’s first nuclear reaction.

The first day will conclude with a closing keynote address at 5:20 p.m. by Ernest Moniz, a nuclear physicist and former U.S. Secretary of Energy.

On Saturday, Dec. 2, the anniversary of the first nuclear reaction will be examined through the arts, including a large-scale pyrotechnic artwork by internationally renowned artist Cai Guo-Qiang. More information on the artwork, which will begin at 3:20 p.m., is available here. Following the pyrotechnic piece there will be a performance of “The Curve is Exponential,” composed by PhD candidate Ted Moore and premiered by University Carilloneur Joey Brink.

The public is invited to view the event near the site of Henry Moore’s Nuclear Energy and the temporary installation Nuclear Thresholds designed by Ogrydziak Prillinger Architects. Public viewing areas will be blocked off along Ellis Avenue between 56th and 57th streets.

Saturday’s event also will include a movement piece by Emily Coates, choreographer and adjunct professor at Yale University; Young-Kee Kim, the Louis Block Distinguished Service Professor and chair of the Department of Physics; and Sam Pluta, assistant professor of composition; new music by PhD candidate Ted Moore, Amelia Kaplan, PhD, Clifton Callendar, PhD, and graduate student Kevin Kay; and a performance by the University Symphony Orchestra.

For a complete listing of events, please visit