Enrico Fermi and the time capsule of doom

The cornerstone's contents revealed!

By Benjamin Recchie, AB'03

opening the time capsule

pamphletsLast Thursday Dean of the Physical Sciences Robert Fefferman presided over the public opening of the time capsule that Enrico Fermi placed in the cornerstone of the Research Institutes building 62 years ago. In front of a crowd of students, faculty, alumni, and a few TV news crews, emeritus physics professors Riccardo Levi-Setti and Roger Hildebrand opened the capsule to reveal:

  • University of Chicago directory

  • University of Chicago announcements (i.e., class schedules) from 1948

  • Architect’s sketch of the Research Institutes building

  • Booklet: “The New Frontier of Industry—Atomic Research"

  • Booklet: “The Institute for Nuclear Studies, The Institute for the Study of Metals, The Institute of Radiobiology and Biophysics”

  • Timetables for several airlines (United, Capital, BOAC, Trans Canada, American, and TWA) and railroads (Union Pacific, New York Central)

  • Mobilgas road map of Indiana

  • List of postdoctoral fellows, Institute of Radiobiology and Biophysics, 1948-49

  • Buffalo nickel from 1927, which wasn't in the time capsule proper but rather alongside it in the cornerstone

Buffalo nickelThere was some prestidigitation involved in the time-capsule opening. The June 2 event was just the public opening of the capsule; the Physical Sciences Division had already opened the box and examined the contents a few weeks beforehand. (It was good thing too, because the capsule had been welded shut and required a good 30 minutes to cut open). The commonplace nature of the time capsule's contents were baffling; more than one person at the public opening observed that it looked as if Fermi had been given 15 minutes to come up with items and simply emptied the bottom drawer of his desk. Nevertheless, the crowd gathered around the memorabilia after the event; the material will eventually be displayed in the new William Eckhardt Research Center.

In my previous post, I promised U of C swag to anyone who guessed the capsule's contents correctly. We got a lot of responses, but let me examine just a few in detail:

"An atomic bomb."


Fortunately, no. If the PSD got its own A-bomb, then all of the other divisions would want one too.

"Almost certainly, he'd have included a chunk of graphite from the pile. Gimme my UC swag."

—Richard Ehrlich

Almost certainly no.

"My guess about my grandfather's time capsule: His little slide rule (we have his other slide rule) and/or something to do with early computers. My brother Paul's guess is more humorous—he thought perhaps Enrico invented a cell phone and put it in the time capsule instead of announcing it at the time. LOL"

—Olivia Fermi

An educated guess from someone who might actually know! A little-known fact about Enrico Fermi is that he did in fact build an early analog computer, dubbed FERMIAC. But, no swag for the Fermi siblings.

"Laura Fermi's meatball recipe?!!! I can't decide if this comment is more offensive because of the sexism or the ethnic stereotype. Did Roman Jews even eat Neapolitan meatballs? Mrs. Fermi published six nonfiction books, some of which are still in print. If her writings were preserved in the cornerstone, I'm sure it would be something more significant than domestic advice."

—Tony Mayo

First of all, as an Italian American myself, I was very much looking forward to eating the polpetti that could inspire a man to discover beta decay. Second, my association of Mrs. Fermi with food comes from when I worked in the RI: the canteen was named for her and included a photograph of her baking. (Also, for the record, although Laura was indeed Jewish, Enrico was not.) However, Olivia Fermi did set me straight on one thing: her grandmother's signature dish was not meatballs but rigatoni. Mea culpa.

"Contents of the time capsule:
  • Superman comic book

  • U of Chicago course catalog

  • Restaurant menu

  • Daily newspaper; either the Sun Times or the Tribune

  • Copy of The Physical Review

  • Slide rule

  • Fountain pen
These are my guesses."

—Michael J. Harrison

We have a winner! For correctly guessing the course catalog, Mike wins a bit of swag.

"The recipe for cold fusion."

—Drew Sokol

Presumably not Laura Fermi's recipe for cold fusion. Besides, everyone knows Romans serve their fusion hot.

Photos by Jason Smith.

June 7, 2011