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Today’s Question:
Jan. 15, 2009

Dear Cecil:

The University of Chicago describes itself as the place where the first nuclear fission reaction occurred in December 1942. Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard, Lise Meitner, Otto Hahn, Glen Seaborg and others are said to have collaborated on the project in the squash courts under the stands at Stagg Field. Unfortunately, this tale of the university as the site of the first nuclear fission reaction amounts to a myth. A nuclear reaction probably occurred there, but the University of Rome, Italy could just as easily be described as the site of the first reaction. In People of the Century (1999), Richard Rhodes writes:

[Enrico Fermi] and his team almost found nuclear fission in 1934 in the course of experiments in which, looking for radioactive transformations, they systematically bombarded one element after another with the newly discovered neutron. They missed by the thickness of the sheet of foil in which they wrapped their uranium sample; the foil blocked the fission fragments that their instruments would otherwise have recorded. It was a blessing in disguise. If fission had come to light in the mid-1930s, while the democracies still slept, Nazi Germany would have won a long lead toward building an atom bomb.

Granted, the fission fragments from the uranium weren't detected. Nonetheless, according to Rhodes, nuclear fission first occurred in 1934, not 1942. To test the veracity of Rhodes's claim, one should be able to detect some small quantity of radiation where the reaction occurred at the University of Rome. Even if the paraffin foil blocked the fission fragments, small amounts of radioactivity should remain.

James T. Struck, BA, BS, AA, CNA, MLIS
Rogers Park

Cecil replies:

James, nothing personal, but what exactly is your issue with the University of Chicago? Earlier you wanted to know whether John D. Rockefeller deserved to be called the university's founder merely because he contributed most of the startup money. What next, that reddish-brown color the university's sports teams wear (I presume they wear it; I've never actually seen a University of Chicago sports team) isn't really maroon?

I think your problem in this case stems from a misunderstanding of the claim being made for what happened at the U. of C. squash court in 1942.  To quote the Web site of the university's library:

On December 2, 1942, scientists at the University of Chicago produced the world's first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction in a nuclear pile constructed in a squash court beneath the West Stands of Stagg Field, the University's athletic stadium. This experiment, crucial to the control of nuclear fission, was one of several research projects at sites around the country, each concentrating on some task critical to production of an atomic bomb. All were administered by the U.S. Army under the code name of Manhattan Engineer District, or Manhattan Project.

The key terms here are "self-sustaining" and "chain reaction." No one thinks December 2, 1942, was the first time anyone had split an atom. Whatever may have happened in Italy in 1934, the first confirmed instance of nuclear fission was reported by chemists in Germany in 1938. Almost immediately it was realized that, whereas 1 split atom = interesting laboratory curiosity, lots and lots of atoms splitting at the same time = whoa, baby. Luckily for the Allies in World War II, realizing this was one thing; actually doing it that is, producing a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction was something else. That's what Enrico Fermi and his colleagues accomplished at the University of Chicago in 1942.

I'll omit the details, but the short version is this: After considerable trouble, Fermi and friends assembled an intricate arrangement of uranium, graphite, and other necessities in the famous squash court the first atomic pile. At 9:54 a.m. on December 2, Fermi gave the signal to begin removing a series of cadmium control rods that were putting the brakes on things up till then, and the Geiger counters began clicking. At 3:25 p.m., with the Geiger counters buzzing like mad, Fermi declared, "The reaction is self-sustaining" which is to say, neutrons were plowing into uranium atoms, which split (or fissioned), producing more neutrons, which split other uranium atoms, which emitted still more neutrons, which split yet other atoms you get the picture. The chain reaction lasted 28 minutes, enough to demonstrate what needed to be demonstrated, whereupon Fermi gave the order to slide the mama control rod back in before things got out of hand. Much additional work was required to make the leap from atomic pile to atomic bomb. But Fermi and company had managed a crucial feat on the road to the nuclear age and if the U. of C. wants to take credit for having played a part in that, well, God love 'em, why not?

In short, James, your efforts to embarrass Hyde Park's chief contribution to Western civilization have once again gone aground. Not to worry let a professional help you out. The U. of C. has had a hand in all sorts of dubious enterprises, of which nuclear fission isn't necessarily the most problematic. Let's consider another Chicago specialty, economics, which I daresay has been much on everyone's mind. Just the other day in the New York Review of Books I came upon the following arresting passage in Robert Skidelsky's review of The Ascent of Money by the UK historian Niall Ferguson:

Ferguson [became] convinced in 2006 that the good times could not last "indefinitely." This was an insight to which the Nobel Prize–winning mathematical economists who devised the Black-Scholes formula—the complicated model for pricing share options used by the highly leveraged firm Long-Term Capital Management, which famously crashed in 1998—were oblivious. Their formula persuaded them that a massive sell-off could occur only once in four million years. [emphasis added]

Probably you've never heard of the Black-Scholes formula before now. I don't claim to be intimately acquainted with it myself. However, after some study (Ferguson's views, offered in condensed form in a recent Vanity Fair article, are a good place to start), I think the following may be confidently asserted: (a) it was the first practical method of pricing options, about which you need know nothing other than that they were a type of derivative, the class of arcane financial instruments whose meteoric growth lies at the heart of our current fix; (b) it was devised by academics universally acknowledged as brilliant; (c) it relied heavily on abstruse mathematics that no one other than specialists (and maybe not all of them) really understood; (d) in most circumstances it worked pretty damn well, generating huge bucks for its inventors when applied in the financial markets; (e) nonetheless, it embodied a certain naivete regarding human behavior (principally, the assumption that people always act rationally) that led it to grossly underestimate the risk that things would completely tank; (f) because of (b), (c), and most of all (d), those charged with supervising the financial system overlooked (e) and persisted in believing mathematical models such as Black-Scholes offered a shield against disaster that they manifestly didn't; and (g) this isn't the least of the reasons we're now screwed.   

Now to the heart of the matter. Who were the Nobel Prize-winning mathematical economists responsible for the Black-Scholes formula? You might guess their names were Black and Scholes. Well, no. The winners of the 1997 economics Nobel were Myron Scholes and Robert C. Merton Fischer Black, who no doubt otherwise would have shared the prize, had died in 1995. No matter. Consider the CVs of this intrepid trio:

  • Robert C. Merton is the least interesting from our perspective. He received degrees from Columbia, Caltech, and MIT, and taught at MIT and Harvard.

  • Next, Fischer Black. Here we start to get somewhere. He taught at the University of Chicago in 1972 and 1973.

  • Finally, Myron Scholes. Paydirt. Introduced to the work of the eminent U. of C. economists Milton Friedman and George Stigler as an undergraduate, Scholes got an M.B.A. and a Ph.D from the University of Chicago, and taught at the U. of C.'s business school from 1973 to 1981. Scholes went on to help found and along with Merton serve on the board of Long-Term Capital Management, the hedge fund whose spectacular failure in 1998 ought to have been more of a warning than it was.

You see the significance of this. Two of these three financial wizards have connections with the University of Chicago; Scholes in particular was clearly a U. of C. product. Sticklers may object that (a) the men actually met at MIT and developed what were arguably their key ideas while there; (b) it's not like these guys were solely or even mainly responsible for the present fiasco, which had a thousand fathers, among them some of the most distinguished minds of our time; and (c) the U. of C. can't fairly be blamed for every daft scheme cooked up by the people who walk through its doors. True, but we're not talking about fair. If universities are happy to bask in the successes of those who toil on their premises, which the U. of C. obviously is, they can't complain if they get beaten up for the brainstorms that go south.

In sum, James, you've been barking up the wrong tree. Fermi and friends at least appreciated the dangers of what they were about;  Scholes and his confederates evidently didn't. If you want to give the University of Chicago grief about something, give them grief about that.

— Cecil Adams

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