The “Nuclear Energy” sculpture by Henry Moore, marking the site of the first controlled nuclear chain reaction.

“If Enrico Fermi was not married to a Jewish woman, could he have conceivably worked on the nuclear program for Nazi Germany?”

It was 2017, the last day of November. I was back at my alma mater, the University of Chicago, where I received my PhD in physics in 2015. The first controlled, self-sustained nuclear chain reaction was achieved on this campus by a group of scientists led by Enrico Fermi 75 years ago on December 2, 1942. To commemorate this scientific breakthrough and its complex legacy, the University organized a series of events through the fall, including a weekly colloquium at the Physics Department that Fermi and his team used to call home.

The last colloquium of the special series was given by an Italian couple, Gino Segrè and Bettina Hoerlin, who co-authored a new biography of Fermi, the topic of their talk. During the question and answer session, I asked the speakers about this hypothetical scenario.

“Well, that depends on many things being different. Fermi would also have to be German.” Segrè paused for a moment, and then said, “But yes, the answer is yes. Given how Fermi compartmentalized science from politics, my answer is yes.”

Gino Segrè, professor emeritus of physics at University of Pennsylvania, is the nephew of Nobel laureate Emilio Segrè, Fermi’s first student in Rome. His wife and co-author Bettina Hoerlin, daughter of Los Alamos physicists who grew up at the lab site, gave a different answer.

“I would like to be more hopeful,” said Hoerlin. Seemingly missing the underlying hypothesis in my question, she explained, “I think Laura would have stopped him.”

Laura was Fermi’s Jewish wife. The young family left their native Italy in 1938 amidst rising anti-semitism, the year Fermi won the Nobel prize in physics. The award ceremony in Stockholm offered an escape path which eventually led to the United States. Both of Laura’s parents would later die in the Holocaust.

After the talk, the crowd moved upstairs for a reception, sumptuous by the standards of a physics department. The university has been careful in its wording for the events marking this important anniversary: it’s a commemoration, not a celebration. Nevertheless the atmosphere at the reception, as was the overall tone of the presentation we just heard, was lighthearted and joyous.

Enrico Fermi was a great physicist. At a department with a hallway adorned with portraits of dozens of Nobel laureates, Fermi’s legacy still towers over the rest. The research institute where I completed my thesis is called the Enrico Fermi Institute. Just outside the city, there is the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, or Fermilab for short, which the university manages in conjunction with the Department of Energy. For the six years I spent at the University of Chicago, everyday I walked past hallways and sat inside conference rooms with photos of Fermi on walls and shelves. Depending on how I felt about my work at that particular moment, Fermi’s smile through the frames was an encouraging note of approval, or a stern look of judgment. In the family tree of science, I, along with a majority of the department, are all Fermi’s children.

The close connection with one of the greatest scientific minds is an undeniable source of pride for the department and everyone associated with it, the sense palpable at the reception as wine flowed with the conversations. The occasion could have been a celebration of science and human ingenuity, if not for the the dark premise of Fermi’s most famous experiment and its tragic consequences.

There were many uneasy details in Segrè and Hoerlin’s talk. Fermi joined the Fascist Party of Italy in 1929 as the membership meant an extra stipend for his research. In 1945, Fermi served on the scientific panel for the “Interim Committee” created by Secretary Stimson, the political advisory group that concluded there was “no acceptable alternative to direct military use” of the new weapon. Fermi notably did not join the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists after it was founded in 1945 by Manhattan Project scientists appalled by the horrors of the Bomb, choosing to stay apolitical and only focus on physics, despite the numerous times he was asked to advise on policy because of his scientific stature. Fermi initially opposed the crash program to develop the hydrogen bomb, calling it “nothing but a weapon of genocide”, but later worked on the H-Bomb anyway when it was proven technically feasible.

Earlier in the presentation, there was a picture of three dashing young men. Captioned “The Greats at Lake Como, 1927”, there was the 25-year-old Italian, Enrico Fermi, the 26-year-old Swiss, Wolfgang Pauli, and seated in between, the 24-year-old German, Werner Heisenberg. Awarded the Nobel Prize in 1932 for “the creation of quantum mechanics”, Heisenberg was one of the principal scientists leading the German nuclear weapons program during WWII.

That image haunted me. When I asked Segrè and Hoerlin the question, a small part of me was wishing for a different answer, as if it would morally absolve myself, but mostly I was hoping for an honest answer, proof that my guilt by lineage was real and that I was not alone in my guilt.

Had he not married a Jewish woman, Fermi could have conceivably been on the other side of the war. The real point in my question was not revisionist history, but how much scientists can claim to be neutral explorers when their discoveries have the power to bring death and destruction.

“Hey I liked your question.” A few of my former professors told me as we mingled at the reception. And then there was an awkward silence, as we all tried to find something polite to say that would be respectful to the man whose legacy bestowed the institution, but also acknowledge the gravity of the topic.

“Well Fermi knew with all the politicians and military folks calling the shots, the decision was not his to make.” One of the professors commented, as the rest nodded in agreement. That seemed like an acceptable explanation, and the conversation quickly moved on. Naturally interested in their former students’ careers, they asked me how I was doing in my research, and I told them I had just been awarded a fellowship at Fermilab.

I’m a particle physicist. My profession originated from that first reaction in the fall of 1942, as did the Bomb. The badge of honor is a bloody heirloom. The science that taught us how every human being is made of the same subatomic particles, bound by the same forces, and created from the same burst of star dust also delivered us the weapons to kill every single living person on this planet, a power only recognized after hundreds of thousands of lives were claimed by it.

A reckoning with this inconvenient truth challenges the very idea in the goodness of science and America itself. For me, the reckoning is also with my own identity as an immigrant scientist from China, who has followed the American dream and knows it’s the pursuit of science that has made it possible.


The first time I saw the sculpture was through a picture in the fall of 2008, on a social media site called “Renren”, the once-popular Chinese copy of Facebook that has in the decade since become largely abandoned. I was a college senior applying for graduate programs in the US. An alumni of my university who had just started a PhD program in physics on the other side of the ocean was excited to share a view from his new campus.

“The landmark of the physics department at the University of Chicago.” He captioned the photo. Standing several meters tall with three carved-out columns lifting a thick, round dome, the bronze creation is the splitting of an atom in abstraction, a mushroom cloud frozen in time, and a skull staring into the vastness with hollowed eyes. It was the iconic Henry Moore sculpture, “Nuclear Energy”, erected on the 25th anniversary of Fermi’s experiment. The plaque next to it reads, “On December 2, 1942, man achieved here the first self-sustaining chain reaction and thereby initiated the controlled release of nuclear energy.”

As a child of 90s China, I was introduced to the Bomb at my elementary school civic class, in the context of the Chinese nuclear weapons program. We were taught that the Bomb was a symbol of the righteous might: the final blow that defeated the evil Japanese empire became the ultimate defense for a fledgling new China as she built the new Great Wall of nuclear defense.

The story of the Chinese Bomb fit well in the cartoonish narrative for the cult of science, where the nuclear physicists were the superheroes. “Learn well math, physics, and chemistry, and you can walk around the world unafraid.” This slogan, a succinct and rhyming twelve-character line in its original Chinese, was passed onto my generation from my parents’, at school and over the dinner table. Study science, because science is powerful and science is good.

We were asked to memorize the number of years between the development of the atomic bomb and the hydrogen bomb for different countries, as a clear proof of the superiority of Chinese science and by extension the Chinese system: “It took the Americans thirteen years. It took the Soviets seven years. It took the Chinese two years and eight months.”

In the celebration of science with Chinese characteristics, we learned of the scientists of Chinese ethnicity who won the Nobel Prize, especially the first two, the physicists T. D. Lee and C. N. Yang. Yang happened to be from my hometown of Hefei. Despite a lack of further connections, the university campus I grew up at erected a bust of Yang in front of its main teaching building in the early 90s. As a toddler, I spent countless summer nights playing around the bronze statue, counting stars and wondering about the universe. A decade later I’d attend the same high school Yang studied at over half a century prior, from which I went on to an undergraduate program for gifted youth that Lee was instrumental in founding.

Both Lee and Yang received their PhDs at the University of Chicago in the 1940s, as students of Fermi and Edward Teller. That was how I was introduced to the genesis of the American Bomb. The aura of ethnic pride bestowed on Lee and Yang inevitably rubbed off on the American university and by association the Manhattan Project itself. It was a convenient narrative, since the Manhattan Project scientists and the Chinese people were on the same side of the war.

We did learn about Hiroshima and Nagasaki at school in China, but they were taught as isolated instances in the broadest strokes, as any elaboration of the aftermath would risk humanizing the Japanese, and call into question the ethics of China’s own nuclear weapons program. If the American Bomb is the good bomb because it defeated the Japanese, why would China need its own Bomb? If the American Bomb is the bad bomb because it is the Capitalist Bomb, is the Soviet Bomb the good bomb? But if the Communist Bomb is the good bomb, why did the Soviet scientists pull their support for the Chinese program during the infamous fallout in the 50s? “The Americans crushed the Soviet Union under the unbearable weight of the arms race”, said our middle school history teacher. I think the intended takeaway was that capitalism is evil, but the question no one asked was why all those Bombs could not protect a state from collapsing.

The concept of the Good Bomb was a fragile one, and oftentimes self-contradictory. It’s much easier to focus on the wonders of science. Scientists split the atom and unleashed the energy that fuels the stars. The newly discovered force defeated the consummate evil, and continues to power the planet and transform lives. The Hollywood-worthy script is only strengthened by the fact that many of the key figures of the Manhattan Project, including Fermi himself, were refugees. The anti-semitic laws in Europe drove many of its most brilliant minds across the Atlantic, to a country that counts as its founding myth being a nation of immigrants and “the mother of exiles”.

The saga of the first nuclear reaction, told in a certain way, could have been an ode to the ideal of science and American exceptionalism. The fact that it happened on a university campus and before its weaponization potential was proven added another shroud of innocence. For a teenage girl studying physics in China, longing for freedom in America, and knowing science would be the wings to carry her across the oceans, the story of Fermi and his men was an inspiration. That fall afternoon, I stared at that photo of the Henry Moore sculpture on my computer screen in awe and envy.

A year later, I too arrived at the Hyde Park campus. The very next day after a late night flight, I went to the site of the first nuclear reaction. A friend of me took a photo of me next to the sculpture, the timestamp on my digital camera read minutes past midnight because it was still set to Beijing time. The trip felt like a pilgrimage.

Everyday for the next six years, I walked past the bronze sculpture on my way to work, and gazed at its striking silhouette in the darkness on the nightly shuttle rides back home. I took a photo there the second time dressed in full graduation regalia, the day I received my degree from the university. The sculpture stood witness to my pursuit of science and the American dream, and the quiet evolution in my understanding of both.

Six years in “the most American city”, I dreamed its dreams and witnessed its nightmares. I learned of the history around the campus where men first split the atom, how it was a microcosmos of the history of America itself, the explorers and the migrants, the settlers and the refugees, the glories and the sins. I learned how America can be a beacon of hope as it has been for me, and a set of chains both literal or intangible. I learned how science has been used to justify oppression, and that the American Bomb falls not only on tyrants and despots but also on innocents and civilians.

It took a conscious effort to stop making excuses when things I once held sacred fall short of their ideals. Can I reckon with the fact that wrongs have been done in the name of science, without discounting my commitment to science as both my passion and my livelihood? Can I accept America’s history of cruelty and discrimination towards anybody not meeting its definition of personhood, without invalidating my own immigrant experience and my belief in the American dream because I have lived it?

Despite similar cosmopolitan ideals shared between the pursuit of science and the idea of America, science is not immune to the historical ills or structural flaws of a country founded as a white supremacist patriarchy. To the contrary, the practice of science and the utilization of its discoveries have reflected and magnified America’s original sin. Refugee scientists worked for America in a war against their home countries that denied their humanity, only to have their blind faith in America shattered when the bombs they built were dropped on hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in a land far from their ancestral homeland. The people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki became part of America’s experiment with its newly acquired power. America did not use the Bomb responsibly, even though it was trusted to.


“If Hitler had not been defeated early, would the United States have used nuclear weapons in Berlin?” This question was brought up at the reception after Segrè and Hoerlin’s talk. My colleagues and I reached no consensus in our thought exercise, but it’s hard to deny the role racism played in the decision to use nuclear weapons against Japan. Non-white bodies have been continuously dehumanized through American. If racism did not drive the decision to use the Bomb in Japan, it certainly made the acceptance of it easier.

Originally it was not Hiroshima that topped the list of Japanese cities to target, but Kyoto, a major industrial and cultural center where many key factories were relocated during the war. Henry Stimson, Secretary of War under both Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman, repeatedly intervened to have Kyoto removed from the target list. Kyoto was the ancient capital of Japan, and Stimson had developed a personal fondness of its architectural and cultural heritage during his several visits there in the 1920s as governor of the Philippines.

Stimson was also the force behind the internment of over 100,000 Japanese Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor. One of the darkest episodes of racial prejudice and paranoia in American history started in the February of 1942, the same year as the first controlled nuclear chain reaction. Stimson valued the temples and palaces more than the people who built them.

The aftermath in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, horrific as it was, to a certain extent also desensitized the American military and policy establishment. Combined with the fact that such singular acts of mechanized slaughter brought the desired outcome of Japanese surrender when the continuous firebombing of Tokyo did not, the use of nuclear weapons raised the brutality threshold of war considered acceptable by the decision makers in Washington. The American military would soon be raining fire from Korea to Vietnam. When the Nixon White House proposed and was eventually dissuaded from using nuclear weapons in the war with North Vietnam, the ensuing escalation of force could be viewed by the administration as acts of restraint or even of mercy. Non-white bodies, stamped from the beginning as savage, were met with acts of true savagery from the self-identified civilized people.

A lesser known fact from the bombing of Hiroshima, is that among the hundreds of thousands of casualties, about ten percent were Korean. Korea was occupied by Japan during WWII. Would the United States have dropped the Bomb had there been tens of thousands of British or French held in captivity? Even in the extraordinary circumstance of war, the racial line proved stronger than the battle line in the American psyche.

Among the Korean victims in Hiroshima, the men were forcibly conscripted at the army base, and the women were the so-called “comfort women” forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military. Rape has always been used as a weapon of war. Women’s bodies, viewed as too weak to bear arms, simultaneously carry the symbolic significance as borders of nations. The penetration of a woman’s body becomes the occupation of a territory, and if that body produces an offspring, the conquest is complete.

War impacts genders differently, and so does a nuclear disaster. Radiation also penetrates a woman’s body without her consent. Unlike human acts of sexual violence, the invasion of subatomic particles is invisible and unending. Radiation leaves its unerasable mark not only on the body of the woman, but also on the lives she will create.

A woman’s traditional roles as a mother and a caregiver break through the boundaries of space and time, and bear witness to the omnipresence and lingering effects of a nuclear disaster. Journalist John Hersey wrote in his iconic piece “Hiroshima” for The New Yorker one year after the bombing, “as if nature were protecting man against his own ingenuity, the reproductive processes were affected for a time; men became sterile, women had miscarriages, menstruation stopped.” In Svetlana Alexievich’s seminal work “Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster”, a midwife recounted her patients’ nightmares of giving birth to monsters, and young women expressed their fears of falling in love, “for us people it’s a sin to give birth. It’s a sin to love.”

“The round shape, the fullness, and the glow of the dome remind me of a womb.” said the art historian Anne Wagner of the Henry Moore sculpture. She compared the top part of the structure to Cindy Sherman’s 1986 photography “Untitled #160”, a pregnant woman with a devilish grin looking as if she was about to birth an alien monster.

“You must think it is so terrible to make this association of the dome to a womb,” said Wagner, “but there was one woman at the first nuclear reaction, and she later became pregnant.” Of the forty-nine people on Fermi’s team, there was one woman, the physicist Leona Woods. She continued to work on the project through her pregnancy, covering up her growing belly with baggy work clothes. Woods gave birth to a boy in 1944, and returned to work a few days later.

The Manhattan Project scientists chose phrases of male progeny, “it’s a boy”, to describe successful bomb tests, while “a girl” would mean the bomb was a dud. The misogynistic convention carried on in the names of “Little Boy” and “Fat Man”. The scientific community shared the same racial and gender makeup as the American military and political leadership. Like many of the ugliest episodes in the history of America, the underrepresented groups absent from the decision-making process bore the consequences of the choices made by people who deemed themselves superior by birth. The American Bomb was the white men’s bomb.


“Show me if you can, an agency through which it is possible to do more for the service of man than can be done through the United States.” General Leslie Groves, who oversaw the Manhattan Project, gave this telling answer when asked by Manhattan Project scientist Arthur H. Compton if he would ever place the welfare of the United States above the welfare of mankind.

“In my mind General Groves stands out as a classic example of the patriot.” Compton wrote in his memoir “Atomic Quest”. The chair of the physics department at the University of Chicago during the construction of the first nuclear reactor held a similar view of America’s role in the world, and argued that the United States had a duty to “do our utmost to effect the establishment of an adequate world police” and “keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of totalitarian regimes”.

There was a time when I would have agreed with Groves and Compton, whose political philosophy still resonates in the upper echelons of the policy and military establishment in America today. As an immigrant from a one-party authoritarian state that has killed more of its own people than any foreign invader in its history, I have watched scientific and technological advances in my home country of China in recent years with mixed emotions. The scientist in me is excited at the progress in human understanding of nature. The citizen in me wonders how the technology might be utilized by a cunning and ruthless state. The immigrant in me fears what it might mean to the liberal democratic world order when the free world could no longer maintain a technological advantage.

No one should make false equivalencies or doubt the superiority of a liberal democratic system, but love for America and belief in its ideals should not become blind faith in its infallibility or omnipotence. The trust in American hegemony on nuclear power meets bitter twists of irony as America remains the only country that has used nuclear weapons for war. Moreover, the existence of nuclear weapons has significantly weakened America’s democratic institutions, from the buildup of a massive security state to guard its nuclear secrets, to the expansion of executive power in bypassing Congress to take military action. America’s history of racism and discriminatory policies, remnants of which continue to this day, both narrows its thinking and weakens its credibility as it tries to uphold universal values and enforce them upon sovereign nations.

Weapons of mass destruction pose serious threats at the hands of brutal regimes or non-state actors, but their ability to kill is not a derivative of and cannot be masked by the nature of its ownership. Emphasis on the superiority of one political system or the messianic role of one country, however exceptional, is the wrong premise to address global threats from nuclear weapons or any new technology.

Parochial fantasies of American monopoly on nuclear weapons were crushed by brutal realities of the Cold War when the world was more than once brought to the brink of nuclear armageddon. The founding of the United Nations and the establishment of various international treaties and agreements after WWII, reflect the need for and function of global governance to achieve peace and stability. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year for pushing the UN to pass the landmark treaty to ban nuclear weapons, consists of diverse organizations including physician groups from Scandinavia, the Latin America Human Security Network, and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

At a time of rising threats from state and non-state actors, and the emergence of a new global technological cold war, America’s role on the world stage should not be retreat into isolationism, nor self-aggrandizing dominance. America’s continued role as leader of the free world demands a reckoning with the sins of its past, and recognition of the limitations on its power. Effective American leadership requires the country to live up to its highest ideals at home and abroad, and reaffirm its commitment to liberal democratic values and a rule-based international order where everyone has a seat at the table.

Scientists have a unique role to play in the policy landscape. Just as the laws of physics apply the same regardless of color or creed, a scientist’s civic duty is not only to one’s home country, but also to humanity at large. To fulfill such obligation the scientific community must also become more inclusive. Only when diverse stakeholders are all represented in the academy, can the implications of their research no longer be merely an academic exercise.

However tempting it is to simply rest on the moral high ground of “good use” and claim absolution from the horrors of nuclear weapons, there is no such clean dichotomy in the use of nuclear technology. Nuclear reactors to generate electricity is an integral part of the supply chain to produce nuclear material, may it be used to build bombs, power submarines, or cure cancer. The advancements in nuclear medicine and radiology also comes with the added risk in the movement of radioactive material, more recently evident in the battle of Mosul where the cobalt sources at its local hospitals could have fallen into ISIS’ hands.

Being on the forefront of advancing technology and human understanding of nature, scientists cannot retreat behind the notion of being neutral explorers, but must join the effort of moral pathfinding.

At Segrè and Hoerlin’s colloquium on Enrico Fermi, the couple concluded their presentation with a light-hearted slide on “Fermi questions”: “How many piano tuners in Chicago?” “How many sheep in Nebraska?” The idea was that Fermi could always estimate the size or quantity of an entity by the correct order of magnitude.

“Do you think Fermi anticipated the order of magnitude of the casualty in Hiroshima?” I asked Segrè after the event.

“No, I do not think he did.” answered Segrè, “No one knew.”

Postdoc. Particle detector builder & dark matter hunter. Political junkie. Chicagoan at heart.

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