Watch a dazzling rainbow mushroom cloud display marking 75 years of the Atomic Age

Saturday, 02 December 2017, 09:57:38 PM. The work reflects “the duality of creation and destruction as well as the beauty and disaster that our civilization has created.'

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On the afternoon of December 2, 1942, the world changed forever. Enrico Fermi helped engineer the first controlled, self-sustained nuclear fission reaction that day at the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field, marking the start of the Atomic Age. On Saturday, exactly 75 years later, the artist Cai Guo-Qiang will create a spectacular rainbow mushroom cloud above the school’s Regenstein Library, not far from the historic spot.

“Tomorrow we are launching this artwork here at this unique time and space,” the artist told Newsweek through a translator on Friday. But “to commemorate this issue is not light hearted, in fact it’s quite heavy,” said Cai, who was born in China. Through his art, he wants to represent the complexity and contradictions of nuclear energy and reflect “the duality of creation and destruction as well as the beauty and disaster that our civilization has created,” and where “there is anxiety but also hope.”

12_01_Cai_Mushroom The artist Cai Guo-Qiang will has designed a pyrotechnic display, a mulit-colored mushroom cloud that will rise nearly 250 feet above the roof of the Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago. The site-specific artwork marks exactly 75 years since Enrico Fermi engineered the first controlled, self-sustained nuclear fission reaction on the same campus. Cai Guo-Qiang

Throughout the fall, the university has held a series of events to mark the anniversary.“Nuclear Reactions—1942: A Historic Breakthrough, An Uncertain Future” included a subset of lectures ons on “Arts and the Nuclear Age.” Cai's colorful demonstration is part of the final public programs on Friday and Saturday. 

On Saturday, Cai is slated to speak along with Bill Brown, a professor of American culture and senior advisor to the provost for arts. The largest bell at Rockefeller Chapel on the campus will toll 75 times, starting at 3:20 p.m. local time. Upon the final bell, the pyrotechnic mushroom cloud—designed by Cai and implemented by Fireworks by Grucci—will ignite. If all goes according to plan, the stem will rise in the sky until it reaches its highest point, and then the cap of the mushroom will explode at once. The cloud will rise about 246 feet above the launching point on the roof of the library. Depending on the weather, Cai said, observers could see the entire composition moving in the direction of the wind for about a minute. But if it’s very windy, the cloud might dissipate within a matter of seconds.

Viewers can gather to watch on campus near Henry Moore’s Nuclear Energy sculpture, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. For those who are unable to be there in person, the event will be streamed live on UChicago’s Facebook page.

“When we are surrounded by the terror and violence that’s present in our world today and knowing that it is humans who have invented massive destruction,” Cai said. “There are still some people who use the same energy to create beauty, and that knowledge in itself brings hope.”

Though Saturday’s demonstration will be Cai’s first multi-colored cloud, it’s hardly his first foray into work inspired by nuclear energy. In the 1990s, he created clouds on a much smaller scale from the palms of his hands at locations such as the Nevada Test Site, where nuclear tests took place between 1951 and 1992, and worked on exhibitions in Hiroshima, where “one cannot escape the topic of nuclear energy and the atomic bomb.”

The demonstration comes at a time when North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and the Iran nuclear deal are mainstays in the headlines. “At this sensitive time,” Cai said, “this work further represents the dilemma and the responsibilities that we as humans have as we create our civilization.”

But “as we today talk about Fermi’s discovery 75 years ago, we are also not only talking about this one issue,” he said. “We are also made to think about other inventions in our civilization—including AI and the development of the internet," he added, which are "bringing benefits to our society but inherently they also contain danger.”

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