Architect of the Nuclear Age

Along with Galileo, Volta, and Marconi, Enrico Fermi is one of the few Italians who have a place of honor among science geniuses. A personality that circumstances have made complex – Fermi lived during the Second World War turmoil.

Published Categorized as Biography
Enrico Fermi at the blackboard explaining some equation.
“Whatever Nature has in store for mankind, unpleasant as it may be, men must accept, for ignorance is never better than knowledge.” – Enrico Fermi

An Enrico Fermi biography

Enrico Fermi (1901-1954) – Nuclear Physicist

Enrico Fermi’s myth crystallizes around contradictory stereotypes. One perspective is the figure of a solitary genius devoted to his research study—an image of self-taught brilliance surrounded by young researchers in the ivory tower of the Institute of Physics in Rome. On the other side we see the physicist associated with the atomic fungus, that rises in the Alamogordo desert, in the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the nightmare of nuclear weapons’ power with which humanity had to learn to live during the last seventy years.

Early Life

Rome is the place where Enrico Fermi was born on September 29, 1901. His father was Alberto Fermi, an inspector chief of the railways, and his mother Ida de Gattis was an elementary school teacher. He was the youngest of three children. Maria was born in 1899, and Giulio was born in 1900. Although his parents baptized him, Fermi did not receive religious education. He remained agnostic throughout his life.

His parents enrolled him in High School Umberto I; he was an ordinary student, not excellent. He sometimes had bad notes in writing as mentioned in The Last Man Who Knew Everything, the last published biography of Enrico Fermi, written by David N. Schwartz – “the style with which he wrote his compositions, totally objective and without frills, made believe that he lacked sensitivity.”

During the winter of 1915, a tragedy struck his family. Giulio died following surgery to treat him from a throat abscess. Enrico lost “his forever best friend and only playmate.” To fill this space of brotherhood and friendship Enrico befriended Enrico Persico, Giulio’s classmate.

His interest in physics and mathematics manifested quite early. During one of the two Enrico’s walks, where they used to hunt books, he discovered a voluminous 900-pages Latin treatise on mathematical physics “Elementorum Physicae Mathematicae” published in 1840 by Andrea Caraffa, a Jesuit teacher. Thrilled by the content, he read it all in one breath, barely noticing the Latin language.

A colleague of his father by the name of Adolfo Amidei had an impact on Fermi’s future mathematics and physics likings. He lent him various university-level mathematical treatises, which Fermi studied alone at the age of 17. He was also the one who convinced Enrico to pursue his studies in Pisa instead of in Rome.

The years in Pisa

In October 1918, Fermi accessed the University of Pisa as an internal student of the Scuola Normale Superiore. Fermi’s difficult entrance exam on the theme of “Specific characteristics of Sounds” remains legendary.

During these years, Fermi formed a legendary and enduring bond with Franco Rasetti. The two young people loved to play pranks together, and soon they started the “Società Antiprossimo,” dedicated to teasing people with jokes and mischief. Fermi was the group’s natural leader, as would happen to him often in life.

Soon, Fermi exceeded his teachers’ knowledge. Luigi Puccianti was the director of the physics laboratory, this is when he appointed Fermi as his expert on relativity.

On July 4, 1922, at 20 years old, Fermi presented his paper on the diffraction of X-rays, getting his license Magna Cum Laude. Three days later, Fermi graduated from the Normal School. He then headed back to Rome.

The “Via Panisperna guys” and nuclear physics in Italy

Once in Rome, Fermi met Orso Maria Corbino, professor of experimental physics and Director of the Institute of Physics. Corbino immediately appreciated the extraordinary talent of the young man and decided to help him. At the end of 1922, he obtained a scholarship for further training in Göttingen in an Institute run by Max Born, one of the founding fathers of Quantum Physics.

 In 1924, Fermi headed to Leiden. He benefited from the scientific direction of Paul Ehrenfest, who was famous for his theoretical contributions to Quantum Physics and his capabilities as a mentor. In the same year, he met several sacred personas of physics—Albert Einstein, Hendrick Lorentz, Samuel Goudsmit, and Niko Tinbergen.

When asked what characteristics Nobel prize winning physicists had in common I cannot think of a single one, not even intelligence.

– Enrico Fermi

Fermi’s research on quantum physics culminated with his famous “On the quantification of a monatomic perfect gas,” written in December 1925. In this paper, he explained the distribution of particles with semi-whole spins that met Pauli’s exclusion principle.

These particles are called fermions, in his honor. They have the particularity of not being able to be in the same quantum state as another. To the same result, shortly after but independently from Fermi, came from Paul Dirac, so today this distribution is known as “Fermi-Dirac statistic.”

Meanwhile, in Rome, Corbino managed to open a position for a chair of theoretical Physics, the first in the Italian history of universities. The commission responsible for judging competitors proclaimed Fermi the winner, with a unanimous vote.

As a professor of theoretical physics, Fermi decided to transform the Institute of Physics of Via Panisperna into a research center of international renown. First, he strengthened the experimental research in new atomic physics with the support of Franco Rasetti. During the first months of 1927-1928, Emilio Segrè, Edoardo Amaldi, and Ettore Majorana gave up their engineering studies for physics: “the via Panisperna guys” were the first pupils of the Fermi school.

Among the critical theoretical and experimental contributions of Fermi and his brilliant collaborators, we remember the Raman effect in molecules and crystals, the work on absorption spectra of alkaline metals, and the hyperfine structure of spectral lines.

Beta-decay and the Nobel Prize

Between 1933 and 1934, Enrico Fermi elaborated on the theory of beta-decay and weak interaction, a new fundamental force of nature added to the two then known forces (gravity and electromagnetism). It is probably his most important theoretical achievement.

In those same months, Fermi realized the importance of studying the nucleus. In 1934 following the Joliot-Curie work on artificial radioactivity, he announced the discovery of “Artificial Radioactivity by means of slow neutrons.”

The “Via Panisperna guys”, in practice, bombarded the nuclei of the atoms with neutrons slowed down by water or paraffin. The technique has an extraordinary capacity to induce nuclear transmutations.

From left to right: Oscar D'Agostino, Emilio Segrè, Edoardo Amaldi, Franco Rasetti and Enrico Fermi.
Enrico Fermi and the Via Panisperna boys in the courtyard of Rome University’s Physics Institute in Via Panisperna, circa 1930.

By bombarding thorium and uranium nuclei, the group is believed to create trans-uranic elements with an atomic number higher than uranium. They got the nucleus fission instead and did not notice.

Thanks to the group’s work in Via Panisperna, Rome became the world capital of nuclear physics. However, the group began to dissolve. Majorana disappeared. Rasetti went to America, Pontecorvo to France. While in 1938, the fascist government passed the racial laws, Enrico Fermi was the new Nobel Prize laureate.

To protect his research and his Jewish wife (Laura Capon),  he decided to leave Italy for the United States taking advantage of the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm.

Landing in Chicago

Fermi decided to relocate his wife and two children to Chicago. His first child, Nella was born in January 1931, followed by Giulio, born in February 1936. Being a scientist at that time also meant reaffirming his scientific authority in a new environment. It did not take long: at the beginning of 1939, he demonstrated that it is possible to activate a nuclear chain reaction with an explosive release of energy of many orders of magnitude greater than any chemical reaction used before.

They were in the period before the Second World War. Fermi and a group of other physicists who fled Europe thought that the free powers should equip themselves with a nuclear weapon, as a deterrent, if Nazi Germany gets hold of it. The eventuality was judged possible, also because, in Germany, there were still many physicists able to reach the goal.

The project included two phases: the demonstration that the nuclear chain reaction can be triggered and the realization of the bomb. Enrico Fermi directed the first phase, and on December 2, 1942, in Chicago, verified the functioning of the “atomic battery,” a nuclear chain-controlled reaction.

Fermi also entered the second phase, moving to Los Alamos and supporting the leading scientific team. The intense work was carried out in 1945, as demonstrated by the explosion in the Alamogordo desert that Fermi saw firsthand.

Enrico Fermi in 1943-49 posing for the camera. He is possibly inthe laboratory surrounded by complex control panel.
Enrico Fermi, Italian-American physicist, received the 1938 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 took part in the four-party commission (with Oppenheimer, Compton, and Lawrence), which gave an opinion about the possibility of dropping the atomic bomb on Japan.

Last years and legacy

After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Enrico Fermi returned to everyday life. He taught in Chicago and continued his scientific research. He died in 1954, at the age of 53, due to a tumor, probably caused by radiation exposure.

Fermi represented one of the few physicists in the contemporary era to excel both as a theorist and experimental. He simplified problems to the most basic form and guided students through step-by-step solutions, revealing the essence of the issues. If you look at a “family tree” of scientists connected to Fermi, five of his direct students were awarded the Nobel Prize.

Fermi’s grandchildren, on the other hand, Olivia and Rachel, have been publicly active in promoting their grandfather’s legacy. The institute in Chicago where he worked, now bears his name, as well as the Fermilab. Countless cities in Italy have streets and squares named after him.

He would probably be most proud of the namesake award among all tributes, awarded every year by the AEC and the first to receive it on his deathbed. Not long after his death, Argonne’s colleagues recorded their memories on a pair of records released under the title To Fermi with Love.

We would seek in vain similar homages to any other great physicist of the twentieth century. Moreover, the University of Chicago Press and the Academy of Lincei published two volumes called Notes and Memoirs (Collected Papers).

Finally, his scientific legacy includes discoveries related to weak interaction, strong interaction, and computational physics. A more direct inheritance is the Fermi-Dirac statistics. It is still employed in the same way as Fermi presented it to the world in 1926.

Enrico Fermi was thus undoubtedly an exceptional physicist, who often referred to himself as “The last to know everything about physics”. In fact, he single-handedly mastered all the physics of his time, thus making him a unique achiever. Maybe we’ll never see another scientist like him.

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