|Enrico Fermi(September 29, 1901 ?November 28, 1954) was an Italian-American physicist most noted
for his work on beta decay, the development of the first nuclear reactor and for the development of quantum theory.
Fermi won the 1938 Nobel Prize in Physics.
Fermi was born in Rome. He was inseparable in childhood from his brother Giulio, who was just one year older. In 1915, Giulio died during minor surgery for a throat abscess. Enrico, desolate, threw himself into the study of physics largely as a way of coping with his pain. In order to reconcile himself with this tragedy, he used to walk everyday in front of the hospital where Giulio had died, until he could look back upon the event with detachment.
A friend of the family, Adolfo Amidei, guided Fermi's study of algebra, trigonometry, analytic geometry, calculus and theoretical mechanics. Amidei also suggested Fermi attend not a University in Rome but to apply to the prestigious "Scuola Normale Superiore" of Pisa, a special university-college for selected gifted students. The examiner at the Scuola Normale thought the 17-year-old Fermi's competition essay worthy of a doctoral exam. Afterwards, he spent the next four years at the Scuola Normale Superiore.
In 1918 he attended university at the Pisa Institute where he graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1922. In 1923 Fermi spent 6 months in Göttingen at Max Born's school, but was not happy with the excessively formal theoretical style of the leading school of quantum physics at the time. In 1924 he was in Leiden, Netherlands, to meet Paul Ehrenfest, and here he also met Einstein. Fermi took a professorship in Rome (the first for theoretical physics in Italy, created for him by professor Orso Maria Corbino, director of the Institute of Physics). Corbino worked a lot to help Fermi in selecting his team, which soon was joined by notable minds like Edoardo Amaldi, Bruno Pontecorvo, Franco Rasetti and Emilio Segrè. For the theoretical studies only, Ettore Majorana too took part in what was soon nicknamed the Group of "the boys of Via Panisperna" (by the name of the road in which the Institute had its labs - now in the Viminale complex).
The group went on with its now famous experiments, but in 1933 Rasetti left Italy for Canada and the United States, Pontecorvo went to France, Segrè preferred to go teaching in Palermo.
Fermi remained in Rome until 1938.
In 1938, Fermi won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his "demonstrations of the existence of new radioactive elements produced by neutron irradiation, and for his related discovery of nuclear reactions brought about by slow neutrons".
Fermi (bottom left), Szilard (second from right on bottom), and the rest of the pile team.After Fermi received the prize in Stockholm, he, his wife Laura, and their children emigrated to New York. By this time, the Fascist government in Italy had instituted anti-Semitic laws, and Fermi's wife Laura Capon was Jewish. Soon after his arrival in New York, Fermi began working at Columbia University.
At Columbia, Fermi verified the initial nuclear fission experiment of Hahn and Fritz Strassman (with the help of Booth and Dunning). Fermi then began studies that lead to the construction of the first nuclear pile.
Fermi recalled the beginning of the project in a speech given in 1954 when he retired as President of the American Physical Society:
"I remember very vividly the first month, January, 1939, that I started working at the Pupin Laboratories because things began happening very fast. In that period, Niels Bohr was on a lecture engagement at the Princeton University and I remember one afternoon Willis Lamb came back very excited and said that Bohr had leaked out great news. The great news that had leaked out was the discovery of fission and at least the outline of its interpretation. Then, somewhat later that same month, there was a meeting in Washington where the possible importance of the newly discovered phenomenon of fission was first discussed in semi-jocular earnest as a possible source of nuclear power."
After the famous letter signed by Albert Einstein (transcribed by Leó Szilárd) to President Roosevelt in 1939, the Navy awarded Columbia University the first Atomic Energy funding of US$6,000. The money was used in studies which lead to the first nuclear reactor -- a massive "pile" of graphite bricks and uranium fuel which went critical on December 2, 1942, at the University of Chicago. This experiment was a landmark in the quest for energy, and it was typical of Fermi's brilliance. Every step had been carefully planned, every calculation meticulously done by him. When man first achieved the first self sustained nuclear chain reaction, a coded phone call was made to one of the leaders of the Manhattan Project, James Conant: 'The Italian navigator has landed in the new world... The natives were very friendly'. The Italian navigator was Fermi, recalling Columbus. The chain reacting pile was important not only for its help in assessing the properties of fission -- needed for understanding the internal workings of an atomic bomb -- but because it would serve as a pilot plant for the massive reactors which would be created in Hanford, Washington, which would be used to "breed" the plutonium needed for the bombs used at the Trinity test and Nagasaki. Eventually Fermi and Szilard's reactor work were folded in to the Manhattan Project.
In Fermi's 1954 address to the APS he also said, "Well, this brings us to Pearl Harbor. That is the time when I left Columbia University, and after a few months of commuting between Chicago and New York eventually moved to Chicago to keep up the work there, and from then on, with a few notable exceptions, the work at Columbia was concentrated on the isotope separation phase of the atomic energy project, initiated by Booth, Dunning and Urey about 1940".
Fermi was regarded as one of the few physicists who excelled both theorectically and experimentally. His ability and success stemmed as much from his appraisal of the art of the possible, as from his innate skill and intelligence. He disliked complicated theories, and while he had great mathematical ability, he would never use it when the job could be done much more simply. He was famous for getting quick and accurate answers to problems which would stump other people. The best instance of this was seen during the first atomic bomb test in New Mexico on July 16, 1945. As the blast wave reached him, Fermi dropped bits of paper. By measuring the distance they were blown, he could immediately calculate the bomb energy yield. It was characteristic of him, that when the detailed results from the instruments came in a few days later, they agreed very well with his estimation.
Fermi's most disarming trait was his great modesty, and his ability to do any kind of work, whether creative or routine. It was this quality that made him popular and liked among people of all strata, from other Nobel Laureates to technicians. Henry DeWolf Smyth, who was Chairman of the Princeton Physics department, had once invited Fermi over to do some experiments with the Princeton cyclotron. Walking into the lab one day, Smyth saw the distinguished scientist helping a graduate student move a table, under another student's directions! Another time, a Du Pont executive made a visit to see him at Columbia. Not finding him either in his lab or his office, the executive was surprised to find the Nobel Laureate in the machine shop, cutting sheets of tin with a big pair of shears.
When he submitted his famous paper on beta decay to the prestigious journal Nature, the journal's editor turned it down because "it contained speculations which were too remote from reality". Thus, Fermi saw the theory published in Italian and in German before it was published in English.
He never forgot this experience of being ahead of his time, and used to tell his protegés: "Never be first; try to be second".
Death and afterwards
On November 28, 1954 Fermi died of cancer in Chicago, Illinois and was interred there in the Oak Woods Cemetery. He was 53. As Eugene Wigner wrote: "Ten days before Fermi had passed away he told me, 'I hope it won't take long.' He had reconciled himself perfectly to his fate".