By Robert A. Hedeen, Naturalist
The other day I took a little walk up a hill in a forest preserve some 20 miles southwest of Chicago. I was making a nostalgic pilgrimage to a gravesite in a unique cemetery I had first visited more than 30 years ago. Only the whoit-whoit-whoit of a cardinal, and the muffled roar of a truck moving along a distant highway interrupted the stillness of the environment.
During the past 30 years, the landscape had changed considerably, and I had to ask a ranger for directions to this exclusive sepulcher, the interment site of the remains of the worlds first self-sustaining nuclear reactor, the precursor of the first atomic bomb.
I sensed that I was not alone in the preserve, and I looked down the hill and saw a solitary mushroom gatherer whose glance in my direction indicated he resented my intrusion on his private hunting grounds.
I knew I was close to the site when I passed through the gate of a rusting and deteriorating chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. A short distance into the enclosure was the granite tombstone I had not seen in so many years. As before, it was an emotionally stirring moment, even though the monument had been desecrated by graffiti.
As I reread the inscription on the stone marker, I remembered my reaction some 30 years ago. Before, it did not take an overactive imagination on my part to be transported back in time to that historic day in December of 1942to the laboratory beneath the squash court at the University of Chicagowhen the Italian-born Dr. Enrico Fermi turned to his colleagues and announced that the historic experiment was a success. They had achieved the first self-sustaining and controlled nuclear reaction. But I can well imagine the sense of relief on the part of the scientific team because if something had gone wrong, they would have been obliterated, along with the city of Chicago.
I fantasized that I joined the group as Fermi pulled the cork on a bottle of Chianti wine, and I raised my glass along with the others as they toasted the success of their monumental project
During the past 30 years, since my initial visit to the site, I developed an almost morbid compulsion to go back, as it were, to the scene of the crime. This urge was similar to how an ex-soldier feels compelled to return to an overseas site where he had previously served. I know that feeling because I have been there.
When I first visited the site in 1972, the danger of a nuclear holocaust was much less than I believe it to be today. Then, about the only danger of nuclear weapons being used against us was by the former Soviet Union. Both the United States and the U.S.S.R. had enough nuclear weapons in their arsenals to wipe out most forms of life on the face of the earth, with the only living creatures to possibly survive being a few isolated cockroaches. Fortunately, total disaster for both countries, on at least one occasion, was averted, and civilization was spared.
Today, however, several unfriendly, belligerent nations, and probably certain terrorist groups possess nuclear weapons, and I believe we are in greater danger from nuclear attack now than we were 30-40 years ago.
In his widely read book, The Sum of All Fears. published in 1991, Tom Clancy narrates how a terrorist group manages to assemble an atomic bomb and explode it in the United States. Eleven years ago, most people gave little thought to the possibility of Clancys fiction ever becoming reality. But today, after the September 11, 2001 experience, few can doubt the potentiality of a terrorist group detonating a nuclear weapon within our borders or elsewhere in the world.
The seed planted in the squash court under the University of Chicago in December of 1942 has borne bitter fruit that hopefully will never again be harvested.
Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of eastern Maryland, with degrees in zoology and botany. He is a former professor of biological science. He has had 30 scientific papers published, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on marine biology of Maryland.