Tag Archives: college traditions

The Blackboard of Enrico Fermi

Main Piece:

Informant: Here’s a good one. Enrico Fermi lived in the Hitchcock dorm.

Interviewer: Who’s Enrico Fermi?

Informant: The famous physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project and helped to create the first nuclear reactor in the world at University of Chicago. But, yeah, there is an Enrico Fermi room. And he lived in it while he was working on the nuclear reactor which is across that – which was across the street now. It’s been torn down and it’s just radioactive dirt now. Yeah, so there is a room that he lives in and it’s it’s widely regarded as the best room in the dorm because it has a private bathtub. And the funny thing is, um, it actually has a chalkboard too. So the bath is one thing. The chalkboard, I think, is the real appeal. Because it’s the chalkboard that Enrico Fermi used to do his derivations for his nuclear reactor project. And so there’s a lot of mythology surrounding that chalkboard because there’s no way bathtub or anything else is original but the chalkboard is part of the wall. So I just can’t really imagine it ever being added in. It’s just like a piece of slate in the wall and the building is a historical landmark so it can’t be renovated. So, okay, most of the things in the building are original unless they break.

So there’s a lot of mythology about like, you know. If you’re like doing math on the chalkboard in Enrico Fermi’s room, you know, your math will never be wrong because it’s like, okay, it’s blessed and it’s like, you know, like his ghost will like guide your math and physics and you will always get the right solution.

 Interviewer: Have people ever claimed to like feel him. Or be a conduit, channeling his ghost?

 Informant: I’m not sure about that. Hopefully I’ll live there next year and I’ll be able to test it for myself.


My informant is a friend of mine from high school who now goes to University of Chicago. He’s Scottish-Irish and his family on his dad’s side has been in America for hundreds of years. At UChicago, the dorm buildings are all very close-knit and it is not uncommon to stay in them for all four years of an undergraduate education. These dormitories are also very old, in the case of Hitchcock house, over a century old. And thus there are many strange traditions have been perpetuated without knowing exactly the source.


The informant is an old high school friend of mine. We’re both home due to online classes and we frequently call each other. During one of our calls over Zoom, I asked if he had any samples of folklore that I can collect and he shared a few.


It is true that Enrico Fermi stayed at Uchicago while building his nuclear reactor and there is no reason to doubt the idea that it is known which room he stayed in and whether or not that room has a chalkboard.

I see this as one of those tales that started off as a joke, but was ultimately protected and enforced so much (even if it was in a joking manner) that it became part of the campus mythology. I doubt most people at UChicago genuinely believe that the chalkboard has any special properties, but simply the act of pretending that it may for so many decades, has been solidified into an enforced belief. 

With its gothic architecture, gigantic libraries, and intellectual focus, UChicago definitely is one of the most ghost-friendly campuses I can imagine, from an aesthetic standpoint. This legend definitely fits in with the overall vibe and culture of the campus.