Penny for an English error

Enrico Fermi “invented” (although that’s the wrong term, discovered might be better, but that’s not quite right either) reactors by starting up a tiny “pile” in Chicago in 1942. He died in 1954 (aged only 53) and was experimenting with neutrons (the initiators of nuclear fission) from the early 1930s, so in a sense his involvement in the history of reactors was a quarter-century long. His detailed involvement in the nitty-gritty design and development of early reactors was only for a handful of years but his influence cannot be overstated.

Enrico Fermi

Fermi was much loved and many legends grew up around him. I’d like to share some material surplus to my own book requirements. In 2012 in the National Archives in Chicago, I stumbled upon transcripts of interviews carried out in 1967 (I think, only one was dated), including of John Wheeler, famous theoretical physicist and a key Manhattan Project participant. I’m not sure who conducted the interview, probably someone from Argonne National Laboratory or perhaps the University of Chicago. The transcript is rough as guts. But here’s a gem:

Of course, I remember especially the penny [US$ 1¢] that he would give out, a penny any time that anybody could find an error in his English. He was resolved to make himself good in English and not to leave any errors in what he said.

Reading this brings a smile to my face. Here’s this certified Nobel Prizewinner genius guy, affectionately paying trifles to boost his English.

The image above is from Wikimedia Commons and is an official Los Alamos badge photo.


Wheeler, John A. 1967. Transcript of interview, circa 1967. “Transcripts, Set 1, Vol. 1,” Box 1, Information Division, Sound Recording Files, 1952-1968, RG 326, National Archives and Records Administration–Great Lakes Region (Chicago).