GLAST = Fermi, Another Chicago Prof becomes a Space Telescope

Posted By Pamela on Aug 27, 2008 | 5 comments

As you may have heard by now, the Gamma-ray Large Area Synoptic Telescope has been renamed from GLAST to Fermi, as in Enrico Fermi (1938 Nobel Prize Winner). This simple act appears to have brought both the NASA and Sonoma websites to all but a halt, but as of 10:30pm Tuesday, they both still say GLAST. Information clearly moves faster than web designers. This amuses me, but it’s not why I write.

While my heart belongs to Boston, my body currently resides in Illinois, which made me note, “Hey, Fermi’s from Chicago, IL.” This will be noted in class tomorrow.

This reminded me that Chandra X-Ray observatory was named after Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (1983 Nobel Prize), another University of Chicago scholar.

(Furthering amusing me is the ’38 and ’83 pair of prizes.)

Historically, Chicago is one of the truly great physics and astronomy departments. Along with the two laureates listed in this post, I know of at least two others who audited one of Chandra’s classes. That’s at least 4 prizes from one university. That’s pretty cool, but there are a few other schools that have more than one Nobel Prize winner. Part of becoming great is recruiting leaders. Neither of these men were natives of America – both were recruited to Chicago. Fermi came from Italy to Chicago (via Columbia University) in 1946 (although he’d been doing his own special part to make the city “hot” by creating nuclear chain reactions beneath Chicago’s stadium far earlier). Chandra joined the faculty of Chicago in 1937, after getting his PhD at Cambridge (UK), and doing his undergrad in his home country of India.

As near as I can tell, no other university has two of its former faculty commemorated with space telescopes.

This is kind of silly and kind of cool.


  1. I live in Chicago and this post struck home for me, I’m going to high school and I recently received one of those college ads that are sent in the mail to recruit potential students. I’ve received a couple and they’re very appealing.

    In the first one I received the postcard boasted that the university of chicago has had more Nobel Prize laureates than any other university, 81, which is very impressive to me.

  2. Actually, Chicago lays claim to names on four space telescopes. Arthur Holly Comptom (Compton Gamma-ray Observatory) was on the UofC faculty from 1923 to 1945 before leaving to become chancellor of your neighbor, Washington U. Edwin Hubble received both his SB (1910) and Ph.D. (1917) from UofC. Hubble was an outstanding athlete. I believe he held the Big Ten high jump record at one time. He was a member of the basketball team that won the four consecutive Big Ten championships (1907-1910). Yes, Chicago was in the Big Ten until 1946. Your alma mater, MSU, took Chicago’s spot. The Big Bertha drum used at you other alma mater was purchsed by Texas from Chicago in 1955. It was a bit contaminated since it was stored under the west stand of Stagg Field not far from Fermi’s pile.

    I guess it was OK that the Spitzer was named after someone without a Chicago connection (Lyman Spitzer of Princeton). Chandra, Hubble, Compton and Spitzer are the four Great Observatories. Fermi and Webb are the next generation telescopes. I am not thrilled that the Webb is named after a NASA bureaucrat.

  3. Chicago claims 27 Nobel Prizes in Physics – either faculty or alumni. This includes the first ever given to an American in science – Albert Michelson in 1907. Yang and Lee (1957) did not audit a class with Chandra – they took a class with him. It leads to the story of why Chandra drove through a terrible snow storm to get to the class in Hyde Park from Yerkes in Wisconsin – when there were only two students in the class, Yang and Lee. The list is at:

    Frank Wilczek, 2004*
    Alexei A. Abrikosov, 2003
    Masatoshi Koshiba, 2002
    Daniel C. Tsui, 1998*
    Jerome I. Friedman, 1990*
    Jack Steinberger, 1988*
    Leon M. Lederman, 1988
    Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, 1983
    James W. Cronin, 1980*‡
    J. Robert Schrieffer, 1972
    Murray Gell-Mann, 1969
    Luis W. Alvarez, 1968*
    Hans Albrecht Bethe, 1967
    Julian Schwinger, 1965
    Eugene P. Wigner, 1963
    Maria Goeppert-Mayer, 1963
    Owen Chamberlain, 1959*
    Chen Ning Yang, 1957*
    Tsung-Dao Lee, 1957*
    Ernest Orlando Lawrence, 1939*
    Enrico Fermi, 1938
    Clinton Joseph Davisson, 1937*
    Werner Heisenberg, 1932
    Arthur Holly Compton, 1927
    James Franck, 1925
    Robert Andrews Millikan, 1923*
    Albert Abraham Michelson, 1907

  4. Hi Pamela

    This is a bit off topic… but why are stadiums used for nuclear experiments? I’m thinking Manhattan project that was under a stadium (I’ll have to G which one) and in this post you mention Fermi “warming things up” with nuke chain reactions under Chicago’s stadium. Is it just because of the sheer amount of concrete to screen things off if things go wrong (or too right depending on your POV)?


  5. Jeremy –
    Chicago dropped football in 1939 so the stadium was sitting there unused. Fermi built the pile in the racquet courts under the west stand of Stagg Field simply because it was an available space that met the needs of the experiment. Stagg Field was torn down in 1957. Regenstein Library was built on the site in 1968. Henry Moore’s sculpture, Nuclear Energy, sits near the site of the pile – on the east side of Ellis Avenue next to Regenstein (between 56th and 57th Streets). Regenstein is the big social center for UofC – whose unofficial motto is “where fun comes to die.”

    The experiment was moved out of Chicago – and continued in places Oak Ridge, TN, Hanford, WA and Los Alamos – where fewer people live. There was a contamination problem. Much of the waste is buried in a forest preserve west of Chicago. Many of those involved in the experiment (called the Metallurgical Laboratory – which became Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, IL) died young of cancer – including Fermi.

    Football came back to Chicago in 1969 – the Maroons are a member of NCAA Division III. They play in the new Stagg Field which is on the northeast corner of Cottage Grove and 56th Street, a couple of blocks from where the old stadium stood.

    You should check out the “First Pile” story at:

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