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University of Chicago time capsule left by atomic bomb pioneer opened

Professor Emeritus Physics Riccardo Levi-Setti removes time capsule thUniversity Chicago Nobel laureate Enrico Fermi former University Chicago President Robert Maynard

Professor Emeritus in Physics Riccardo Levi-Setti removes a time capsule that University of Chicago Nobel laureate Enrico Fermi and former University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins placed in the cornerstone of the Research Institutes building nearly 62 years ago during a free, public event on Thursday, June 2, 2011 in Chicago. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 8, 2011 3:09PM

With an anxious crowd pressing in, the elderly professor made his way slowly along the red carpet, taking care not to drop the black metal box everyone had come to see.

They all wanted to know what Enrico Fermi — the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who helped develop the atomic bomb — had put inside a time capsule opened Thursday, almost 62 years after it was hidden behind a cornerstone of the University of Chicago’s Research Institutes building.

“It’s always fun to speculate that it might [contain] some sort of ancient virus or a dirty bomb,” said a giddy Joey Brown, a sociology student, as he waited for the big event.

Others hoped Fermi would have taken a stab at pondering life in the future.

Apparently, though, Fermi was not big on time capsules. When physics Professor Emeritus Riccardo Levi-Setti, a faculty member since 1956, opened the box on a stage flanked by two large flat-screen TVs, he pulled out a U. of C. directory, some airline schedules and a road map bought at a gas station — among other items.

“Frankly, I was expecting something a little more exciting,” Levi-Setti said with a chuckle. “But I guess Enrico Fermi didn’t quite know what to put in it.”

Roger Hildebrand, a professor of physics and astrophysics, said he was not at all disappointed that Fermi didn’t put something more interesting inside the capsule.

“I doubt very much that Fermi picked those things out,” Hildebrand said. “He was probably coerced by the development office, and good for them.”

The contents of the capsule were only a surprise to the audience. University officials opened the metal box about a month ago to make sure nothing had been damaged, U. of C. spokesman Steve Koppes said. Then they put the box back behind the cornerstone for Thursday’s event, which, in addition to the stage and a red carpet, also featured a live Web stream.

The capsule was removed Thursday because the Research Institutes building, which opened in 1950, is set to be demolished in August to make way for a new building.

Fermi, who was born in Italy, worked at the U. of C. from 1946 until his death in 1954.

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