Nuclear Museum Logo
Nuclear Museum Logo

National Museum of Nuclear Science & History


Michael H. Levin is a lawyer, solar energy developer, and writer based in Washington, D.C. and Menemsha, MA. Levin wrote a poem called “Chicago,” about the creation of the world’s first artificial nuclear reactor, Chicago Pile-1, which will be featured in his 2019 book, Falcons.

Document Type:
One of the 24 John Cadel paintings recreating the CP-1 experiment. Image courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory.

The Atomic Age began at 3.25 PM on December 2, 1942 – quietly, in secrecy, on a gloomy squash court under the west stands of old Stagg Field.

What do trees know?
Their dead leaves roll
down Ellis Avenue, sodden
with snow blown past steep gray sides
of a boarded-up stadium,
drifted in steppes on abandoned stands.

Cheers may come later.  For now
tension snakes through the freezing cube
of this court crammed with
its own cube: a ziggurat
made of black bricks nestling cans
and control rods — fifty-some layers

inside square-timbered walls.
Tension; and fear.  Fear of failure.
Faint terror of too much success:
reactions unchained like a
Frankenstein, rising and rising
in the old doctor’s lab. 

That’s what they feel, hunched in
stiff wool suits on the catwalk,
fists jammed in pockets, puffing
breaths in the cold. Math is exact
but fission’s still fickle; splitting
an atom seems dice magnified.

Yet it’s science, not fiction:
no flickering dials
just a needle on paper scratching
slow upward curves. The leaves show
what’s clear then: fruit plucked
or fallen cannot attach again.


More Historical Resources:

Atomic Heritage Foundation, Chicago Pile-1: Ushering in the Atomic Age

Atomic Heritage Foundation, Chicago Pile-1