Oct. 17, 1995
Historical Background
Contact: Diana Steele
(312) 702-8366
University of Chicago Research Institutes:

50 years of scientific achievements

For 50 years, the University of Chicago's Research Institutes--the Enrico Fermi Institute and the James Franck Institute--have fostered an interdisciplinary dialogue between scientists that has resulted in some of the most notable scientific achievements of the 20th century.

The EFI and JFI, founded in 1945 as the Institute for Nuclear Studies and the Institute for the Study of Metals, respectively, are two of the oldest academic centers for interdisciplinary research in the world. They were founded by then-Chancellor Robert Hutchins, who recognized the wealth of intellectual talent that had assembled at Chicago to work on the Manhattan Project and conceived of the institutes as a way to retain these world-class scientists at Chicago.

Hutchins saw the institutes as a way to continue the dialogue between pure science and technology that had been initiated during the Manhattan Project, as well as a way to ease the barriers between traditional scientific disciplines. The mobilization of scientists and engineers to solve wartime problems had revealed the extraordinary advantages of bringing together scientists from different backgrounds to focus on problems of national interest. Interdisciplinary research has since come to be considered crucial to scientific progress, but at no other university was such a commitment made so early and so thoroughly.

"Hutchins had seen what happens when you bring really great scientists together and give them a chance to interact in an interdisciplinary fashion--it had an enormous impact on technology," said Robert Sachs, Professor Emeritus in Physics and EFI and former Director of the Enrico Fermi Institute.

Hutchins also sought to bridge the gap between basic scientific research and industrial technology by establishing the Industrial Affiliates Program. Industries--24 by 1950--supplied research funds, while faculty members served as consultants and provided research reports. Gradually, industrial support dropped off, but government funding stepped in to fill the gap. Today, research at the institutes continues with funding from a broad spectrum of government agencies, philanthropic trusts and corporations.

Enrico Fermi Institute

Among the scientists Hutchins hired to staff the new Institute for Nuclear Studies were physicists and chemists whose names now carry the weight of scientific legend: Nobel laureates Enrico Fermi and Harold Urey; Maria Goeppert Mayer and Willard Libby, who would later win Nobel Prizes for their work at the institute; and Edward Teller. The institute was headed by Samuel Allison.

In 1955, the Institute for Nuclear Studies was renamed the Enrico Fermi Institute for Nuclear Studies in memory of Fermi, who died in 1954. The name was shortened to the Enrico Fermi Institute in 1968.

From the beginning, the Enrico Fermi Institute proved a fertile breeding ground for scientific ideas. Before the institute had any facilities, members would gather weekly for what was known as the "Institute Seminar." The range of topics included nuclear physics, high-energy physics, cosmic-ray physics, cosmology, astrophysics, planetary science and the abundance of the elements, among others. Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, although he did not become an official member of the institute until 1954, regularly participated in the seminars and laid the foundation for the institute's distinguished achievements in astronomy and astrophysics.

Chandrasekhar, who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1983, made fundamental contributions across a wide range of topics in theoretical astrophysics until his death earlier this year. Today, the Enrico Fermi Institute is recognized as a world leader in both theoretical and experimental astrophysics.

Eugene Parker, the S. Chandrasekhar Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Physics and EFI, predicted the existence of the solar wind--the stream of electrically charged particles emitted by the sun's corona. Its existence was later confirmed by his colleague John Simpson, the Arthur Holly Compton Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Physics and EFI.

Simpson, a member of EFI since its inception, has had more than 35 scientific instruments launched into outer space on satellites and space probes, and he is recognized as a world leader in cosmic-ray astrophysics. In 1964, he founded the Laboratory for Astrophysics and Space Research (LASR), an integral part of EFI, with funding from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

In nuclear physics, it was at the Enrico Fermi Institute that Maria Goeppert Mayer developed the nuclear shell model, the work for which she won the Nobel Prize in 1963. Mayer, a theoretical physicist, collaborated closely with institute colleagues in chemistry and nuclear physics, particularly Urey, Teller, Fermi and her husband, Joseph Mayer.

Urey and his colleagues essentially founded the field of cosmochemistry--using the abundances of chemical elements in meteorites as clues to the composition and origin of the solar system. The University has long been the world leader in this field, a tradition carried on by Edward Anders, the Horace B. Horton Professor Emeritus in Chemistry and EFI and Robert Clayton, the Enrico Fermi Distinguished Service Professor in Chemistry, Geophysical Sciences and EFI.

In chemistry, it was Willard Libby who found that ancient organic materials could be dated based on the abundance of an isotope of carbon, a finding that had extraordinary implications for fields such as archaeology and paleontology. Libby won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for this work in 1960.

In theoretical particle physics, the work by Yoichiro Nambu, the Harry Pratt Judson Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Physics and EFI, on "spontaneous symmetry breaking"--work for which he won the 1994-95 Wolf Prize in physics--has become a fundamental concept underlying much of the work done today in the field.

The Fermi Institute has a long tradition in experimental particle physics as well. At the time it was built, the Fermi Institute synchrocyclotron was the largest accelerator in the world. In 1953, Fermi and Herbert Anderson used it to discover a resonance in the scattering of pions from nucleons; this was the first "excited state" of nuclear particles to be observed. Fermi and Anderson's discovery was a major step toward the realization that nuclear particles had structure, now described in terms of the more fundamental particles known as "quarks."

Since then, the cyclotron's size has been far surpassed by accelerators at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) and at CERN in Switzerland. But Chicago continues to be a world leader in the field of experimental particle physics--Melvin Shochet, the Elaine M. and Samuel D. Kersten Jr. Professor in Physics, EFI and the College, served as the co-spokesperson for the 400-member collaboration that co-discovered the top quark earlier this year. That team also included 11 other University faculty members and graduate students.

Nobel laureate James Cronin, University Professor in Physics, heads an international team of physicists--the Pierre Auger collaboration--who are making plans to build the largest cosmic ray detector ever built, an array of detectors that would cover an area the size of the state of Delaware. The Pierre Auger detector array could detect high-energy particles that slam into the earth's atmosphere with energies millions of times greater than those created in particle accelerators.

Today, the Enrico Fermi Institute, directed by Riccardo Levi-Setti, Professor in Physics, EFI and the College, continues its tradition of groundbreaking research in high-energy experimental physics, theoretical particle physics, quantum field theory, astronomy, high-energy astrophysics, cosmology, general relativity, solar and planetary research, geochemistry and cosmochemistry, electron and ion microscopy, and solar-energy concentration.

Each of the institute's 49 faculty members also holds one or more joint appointments in Astronomy & Astrophysics, Chemistry, Geophysical Sciences, Mathematics or Physics. The scientific staff also includes numerous senior scientists, senior research associates, research scientists and postdoctoral research associates. EFI sponsors the popular Saturday-morning Compton lecture series and provides Enrico Fermi Fellowships and Robert R. McCormick Fellowships to promising postdoctoral fellows from around the world.



Historical photos available:

Then-Research Associate Gerald Wasserberg conducts an experiment to determine the temperature of ancient oceans by the chemical breakdown of sea shells. The experiment was directed by Nobel laureate Harold Urey. Circa 1955.

Samuel Allison, the first director of the Enrico Fermi Institute, stands in front of the kevatron he designed for smashing atoms. Circa 1959.

James Franck Institute

The James Franck Institute, originally the Institute for the Study of Metals, grew out of the Manhattan Project's Metallurgical Laboratory and began its mission with a narrower focus than the Enrico Fermi Institute--specifically, to conduct research on the fundamental aspects of metallurgy and solid-state physics. Headed by metallurgist Cyril Stanley Smith, the new institute consisted of chemists, physicists and metallurgists.

The spectrum of research has since evolved into the much broader study of the chemistry and physics of materials--gases, liquids and solids--including the behavior of superconductors, granular materials and complex fluids.

In 1967, the institute was renamed the James Franck Institute, reflecting its broader research interests and honoring the memory of James Franck, a chemist and Nobel laureate who was a leading scientist in the field of photosynthesis. Franck was a member of the Chicago faculty from 1938 until his death in 1964.

Just five years after it was established, the institute built a low-temperature laboratory that was, at the time, the largest facility of its kind at any university. The low-temperature laboratory made possible early studies of superconductivity--the nearly complete disappearance of electrical resistance at extremely low temperatures. In 1964, the University constructed an ultra-low-temperature laboratory, enabling scientists to conduct experiments at temperatures within several thousandths of a degree above absolute zero. Theoretical work on superconductivity in the 1950s and 1960s by Leo Falicov, Morrel Cohen and James Phillips evolved into the studies of "high"-temperature superconductivity that continue at the institute.

Today, under the direction of David Oxtoby, Professor in Chemistry and JFI, the institute is part of the national Science and Technology Center for Superconductivity Research, a consortium formed in 1989 between Chicago, the University of Illinois, Argonne National Laboratory and Northwestern and funded by the National Science Foundation. Associate Director Kathryn Levin, Professor in Physics and JFI, heads the Chicago contingent.

True to the interdisciplinary focus of the Research Institutes, many research areas within JFI straddle the boundary between chemistry and physics--for example, the work pioneered by Yuan Lee in the 1960s and 1970s on molecular-beam spectroscopy. Lee, who received the Nobel Prize in 1986, after he left the University, used crossed molecular beams to measure the forces between atoms and molecules. Later, Donald Levy, the Ralph and Mary Otis Isham Professor in Chemistry and JFI, and Lennard Wharton developed a supersonic nozzle to cool large molecules and clusters to study their properties. Laurie Butler, Associate Professor in Chemistry and JFI, currently uses similar techniques to study chemical reactions.

Another major area of research in the James Franck Institute is materials science. Many of the faculty members in JFI are also part of the Materials Research Science & Engineering Center (MRSEC), funded by the National Science Foundation to conduct fundamental studies into the behavior of disordered materials, self-ordered systems and catalysis.

MRSEC director Leo Kadanoff, the John D. MacArthur Distinguished Service Professor in Physics, Mathematics, JFI and EFI, is a leader in the field of nonlinear dynamics, particularly in chaos theory and fluid turbulence. Current work at MRSEC includes theoretical and experimental studies of low-temperature magnetism and flow in granular materials. The importance of the research in granular materials to industries such as construction, mining and pharmaceuticals is again attracting corporate funding to the Research Institutes.

The 26 faculty members in JFI continue to perform cutting-edge research in a variety of fields, including non-equilibrium phenomena, phase transitions, chemical kinetics, laser spectroscopy, semiconductors and polymer physics. The institute also supports a large number of research associates and graduate students, and it offers a weekly colloquium series and frequent special seminars.



Historical photos available:

Members of the Research Institutes at a New Years' Eve party circa 1960. Among the guests are Maria Goeppert Mayer, Harold Urey, Joseph Mayer, Cyril Stanley Smith, Samuel Allison, Herbert Anderson, John Simpson, Riccardo Levi-Setti, Yoichiro Nambu, Roger Hildebrand, Valentine Telegdi, Clyde Hutchison, Edward Anders, S. Chandrasekhar, and Eugene Parker.

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