Wednesday, June 08, 2011

A different kind of Fermi problem

He's the Nobel Laureate who helped develop the world's first nuclear reactor. He, along with J. Robert Oppenheimer, is known as the father of the atomic bomb. He is also the former American Physical Society president we honor with our occasional Fermi Problem Friday posts. There's a national laboratory (Fermilab) and even an element on the periodic table (fermium) named after him. So what does a man with such credentials leave behind in a time capsule? Nothing too exciting, it turns out.

University of Chicago Opens Enrico Fermi Time Capsule,

Enrico Fermi, the Italian-born physicist who helped develop quantum theory, nuclear physics, particle physics and statistical mechanics, along with University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins, sealed a time capsule behind a cornerstone of the University's Research Institutes building on June 21, 1949. Sixty-two years later, on June 2, former acquaintances of the prominent scientist and several physics big wigs gathered among a crowd of 200 to see the capsule opened.

[Robert Fefferman (left), Riccardo Levi-Setti and Roger Hildebrand remove items from Fermi's time capsule. Levi-Setti and Hildebrand both knew the famed scientist. University of Chicago photo by Jason Smith.]

Inside the copper box were found:

1. A 1948-49 University of Chicago directory
2. University of Chicago announcements from May 25, 1948
3. An architect’s sketch of the Research Institutes building where the capsule was placed
4. A booklet: “The New Frontier of Industry — Atomic Research”
5. A second booklet: “The Institute for Nuclear Studies, The Institute for the Study of Metals, The Institute of Radiobiology and Biophysics”
6. A road map
7. Airline schedules
8. Train timetables
9. A list of 1948-49 postdoctoral fellows from the Institute of Radiobiology and Biophysics

[An architect's drawing of the Research Institutes building at the University of Chicago, where the time capsule was placed behind a cornerstone. University of Chicago photo by Jason Smith.]

A 1927 buffalo nickel was also found in the same hole as the time capsule.

The most fascinating trinkets were the road map and train and plane brochures, which showed how the price of an airline ticket, for example, has risen over the last 62 years. These items, though, aren't any more noteworthy than the types of things your grandfather might have stuffed into a time capsule decades ago.

Though, perhaps, the contents of the box weren't Earth-shattering physics wonders or even secret musings from a scientist who helped shape the middle of the century, they are a gentle reminder that we're all human, even a man as remarkable as Enrico Fermi.

[Several brochures of airline schedules and fares were included Fermi's time capsule. University of Chicago photo by Jason Smith.]

For more photos of the time capsule being opened, visit the University of Chicago's story about the capsule.


  1. I think we're missing something here. A genius like Fermi would not have left a pile of random artifacts. There must be a hidden message...a code. Dan Brown could write a novel about this.

  2. @ Anonymous - I like the sound of that.