On December 2, 1942,
Enrico Fermi and his team of scientists harnessed the atom and opened
the door to new scientific and technological realms. His achievement
allowed the U.S. to produce the atomic bomb that helped end World War
II. Now, more than fifty years later, nuclear energy provides a significant
part of the world's electrical power, and radioactive materials are
used for hundreds of industrial, agricultural, and medical applications-from
food preservation to cancer therapy, checking the integrity of welds
in pipelines and bridge supports, and gauges that measure the thickness
of coatings applied to paper.
Fermi was born in Rome in 1901 and received his doctorate from the University
of Pisa in 1922. During 1923 to 1924, he studied in Gottingen, Germany,
with Max Born, and in Leiden, The Netherlands, with Paul Ehrenfest.
From 1924 to 1926, Fermi lectured in mathematical physics and mechanics
at the University of Florence. He became the first professor of theoretical
physics at the University of Rome, where he taught for 12 years.
In 1938, Fermi traveled to Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize "for
his identification of new radioactive elements produced by neutron bombardment
and his discovery, made in connection with this work, of nuclear reactions
effected by slow neutrons." Fermi's wife Laura, in her book Atoms
in the Family*, wrote, "Four years of patient researches; the broken
and the unbroken tubes full of beryllium powder and radon; the strenuous
races along the hall of the physics building to rush element after element
to the Geiger counters; the efforts to understand nuclear processes,
and the many tests to prove the theories ... these had won the Nobel
Prize for Enrico."*
By 1938, Fascist Italy had become intolerable to Fermi. He used his
trip to Stockholm as an opportunity to flee. He and his family sailed
directly to the United States, where he had visited many times before.
In the months before his Stockholm trip, he had sought teaching positions
in America and had received offers from five universities. He chose
a professorship in Physics at Columbia University. There, in 1939, he
confirmed the discovery of the fission process and began striving to
attain a nuclear chain reaction.
From 1942 to 1944, Fermi worked at the Metallurgical Laboratory of the
University of Chicago. In a makeshift laboratory under Stagg Field Stadium,
he designed and built the first nuclear reactor and led the epochal
experiment that demonstrated the first self-sustained chain reaction.
More than any individual, he was responsible for developing a means
for the controlled release of nuclear energy.
Fermi became a U.S. citizen in 1944. From 1944 to 1945, he became Associate
Director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. In 1946,
he returned to the University of Chicago as a professor at the Institute
of Nuclear Studies, which now bears his name--Fermi Institute. He resumed
his fundamental research interests in nuclear and elementary particle
physics and also, beginning in 1950, served as one of the first members
of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission.
On November 16, 1954, President Eisenhower and the Atomic Energy Commission
gave Fermi a special award for his lifetime of accomplishments in physics
and, in particular, for the development of atomic energy. Fermi's other
research resulted in the Fermi-Dirac particle statistics, the theory
of beta-decay, the Thomas-Fermi model of the atom, and a theory of the
origin of cosmic rays.
Fermi died on November 28, 1954, and the Enrico Fermi Award was established
in 1956 to perpetuate the memory of his brilliance as a scientist and
to recognize others of his kind-inspiring others by his example.
Enrico Fermi (September
29, 1901 – 29 November 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 led the construction of the first nuclear pile, which produced
the first controlled nuclear chain reaction. He was one of the great
leaders of the Manhattan Project.
Fermi is known as the originator of the Fermi paradox in SETI research,
when in a discussion of the possibility that intelligent aliens might
exist, he famously asked "Where are they?"
Fermions, as well as the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, are
named in his honor. In addition, the element fermium and Fermi statistics
were named in his honor. The Enrico Fermi US Presidential Award was
established in 1956 in memory of Fermi's achievements and excellence
as a scientist. The department of the University of Chicago where he
used to work is now known as The Enrico Fermi Institute, and the Fermi
National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab), was also named in his honor.
Fermi problems, such as the classic "How many piano tuners are
there in Chicago?" are named after Fermi's use of such estimation
problems to teach students the importance of dimensional analysis, approximation
methods, and clear identification of assumptions.
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.
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 the University of 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. The examiner summoned Fermi and predicted
he would become a great scientist.
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
course in theoric physics, 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, Emilio Segrè.
For the theoretic 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, dicastery of police).
The group went on with its now famous experiments, but in 1933 Rasetti
left Italy for Canada and 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
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 Strassman (with the help of Booth and Dunning). Fermi then
began the construction of the first nuclear pile at Columbia.
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 in
Princeton 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 $6,000. The money was
used to develop the first nuclear reactor -- a massive "pile"
of graphite bricks filled with uranium which went critical on December
2, 1942. 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 a man of enormous brilliance, mental agility and common sense.
He was a very gifted theorist, as his theory of beta decay proves. He
was equally gifted in the lab, working very fast and with great insight.
Fermi often credited his speed in the lab for having won him the Nobel
Prize, saying the discoveries would soon have been made by someone else
-- he just got there first.
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 29, 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."
Enrico Fermi was
born in Rome on 29th September, 1901, the son of Alberto Fermi, a Chief
Inspector of the Ministry of Communications, and Ida de Gattis. He attended
a local grammar school, and his early aptitude for mathematics and physics
was recognized and encouraged by his father's colleagues, among them
A. Amidei. In 1918, he won a fellowship of the Scuola Normale Superiore
of Pisa. He spent four years at the University of Pisa, gaining his
doctor's degree in physics in 1922, with Professor Puccianti.
in 1923, he was awarded a scholarship from the Italian Government and
spent some months with Professor Max Born in Göttingen. With a
Rockefeller Fellowship, in 1924, he moved to Leyden to work with P.
Ehrenfest, and later that same year he returned to Italy to occupy for
two years (1924-1926) the post of Lecturer in Mathematical Physics and
Mechanics at the University of Florence.
In 1926, Fermi discovered
the statistical laws, nowadays known as the «Fermi statistics»,
governing the particles subject to Pauli's exclusion principle (now
referred to as «fermions», in contrast with «bosons»
which obey the Bose-Einstein statistics).
In 1927, Fermi was
elected Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Rome (a
post which he retained until 1938, when he - immediately after the receipt
of the Nobel Prize - emigrated to America, primarily to escape Mussolini's
During the early
years of his career in Rome he occupied himself with electrodynamic
problems and with theoretical investigations on various spectroscopic
phenomena. But a capital turning-point came when he directed his attention
from the outer electrons towards the atomic nucleus itself. In 1934,
he evolved the ß-decay theory, coalescing previous work on radiation
theory with Pauli's idea of the neutrino. Following the discovery by
Curie and Joliot of artificial radioactivity (1934), he demonstrated
that nuclear transformation occurs in almost every element subjected
to neutron bombardment. This work resulted in the discovery of slow
neutrons that same year, leading to the discovery of nuclear fission
and the production of elements lying beyond what was until then the
In 1938, Fermi was
without doubt the greatest expert on neutrons, and he continued his
work on this topic on his arrival in the United States, where he was
soon appointed Professor of Physics at Columbia University, N.Y. (1939-I942).
Upon the discovery
of fission, by Hahn and Strassmann early in 1939, he immediately saw
the possibility of emission of secondary neutrons and of a chain reaction.
He proceeded to work with tremendous enthusiasm, and directed a classical
series of experiments which ultimately led to the atomic pile and the
first controlled nuclear chain reaction. This took place in Chicago
on December 2, 1942 - on a squash court situated beneath Chicago's stadium.
He subsequently played an important part in solving the problems connected
with the development of the first atomic bomb (He was one of the leaders
of the team of physicists on the Manhattan Project for the development
of nuclear energy and the atomic bomb.)
In 1944, Fermi became
American citizen, and at the end of the war (1946) he accepted a professorship
at the Institute for Nuclear Studies of the University of Chicago, a
position which he held until his untimely death in 1954. There he turned
his attention to high-energy physics, and led investigations into the
During the last
years of his life Fermi occupied himself with the problem of the mysterious
origin of cosmic rays, thereby developing a theory, according to which
a universal magnetic field - acting as a giant accelerator - would account
for the fantastic energies present in the cosmic ray particles.
was the author of numerous papers both in theoretical and experimental
physics. His most important contributions were:
The Nobel Prize
for Physics was awarded to Fermi for his work on the artificial radioactivity
produced by neutrons, and for nuclear reactions brought about by slow
neutrons. The first paper on this subject "Radioattività
indotta dal bombardamento di neutroni" was published by him in
Ricerca Scientifica, 1934. All the work is collected in the following
papers by himself and various collaborators: "Artificial radioactivity
produced by neutron bombardment", Proc. Roy. Soc., 1934 and 1935;
"On the absorption and diffusion of slow neutrons", Phys.
Rev., 1936. The theoretical problems connected with the neutron are
discussed by Fermi in the paper "Sul moto dei neutroni lenti",
Ricerca Scientfica, 1936.
His Collected Papers
are being published by a Committee under the Chairmanship of his friend
and former pupil, Professor E. Segrè (Nobel Prize winner 1959,
with O. Chamberlain, for the discovery of the antiproton).
Fermi was member
of several academies and learned societies in Italy and abroad (he was
early in his career, in 1929, chosen among the first 30 members of the
Royal Academy of Italy).
As lecturer he was
always in great demand (he has also given several courses at the University
of Michigan, Ann Arbor; and Stanford University, Calif.). He was the
first recipient of a special award of $50,000 - which now bears his
name - for work on the atom.
married Laura Capon in 1928. They had one son Giulio and one daughter
Nella. His favourite pastimes were walking, mountaineering, and winter
He died in Chicago
on 28th November, 1954.
The story that his
wife Laura tells, is that Enrico Fermi's interest in physics can be
traced back to the death of his older brother Giulio when Fermi was
just 14. The two boys, just a year apart in age, had been incredibly
close. And Giulio's death left Enrico inconsolable. Shortly afterwards
he found two old physics textbooks at market that were written by a
Jesuit physicist in 1840. Fermi was so intrigued by them, he read them
straight through, apparently, not even noticing that they were in Latin.
From that point on, physics consumed him.
When Fermi was 17
he applied to the University of Pisa. His entry essay was so advanced
that it amazed the examiner who thought it suitable for a graduating
doctoral student. In 1926 he became a professor of theoretical physics
at the University of Rome. And in the 1930s, he began a series of experiments
in which he bombarded a variety of different elements with neutrons.
Fermi did not realize until later that he had, in fact, succeeded in
splitting the uranium atom. It was for this work that the Nobel Committee
awarded him the 1938 prize for physics.
The call from Stockholm
was a life-saver for the Fermi family. The night before, a bloody pogrom
had taken place in Germany that became known as Kristallnacht. And just
a few months earlier, the Italian Fascists had implemented a new anti-Semitic
law that claimed: "Jews do not belong to the Italian race."
Although Fermi wasn't Jewish, his wife Laura was. The award ceremony
gave the family an opportunity to escape Italy and emigrate to America.
At Columbia University
in New York, Fermi realized that if neutrons are emitted in the fissioning
of uranium then the emitted neutrons might proceed to split other uranium
atoms, setting in motion a chain reaction that would release enormous
amounts of energy. Together with Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard, Fermi
ultimately succeeded in constructing the world's first atomic pile in
a squash court under the stands of Stagg Field at the University of
Chicago. And on December 2, 1942, it produced the first controlled,
self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. Fermi had succeeded in taking
one of the first steps to making an atomic bomb.
One of the participants
at that momentous occasion wrote: "Even though we had anticipated
the success of the experiment, its accomplishment had a deep impact
on us. For some time we had known that we were about to unlock a giant;
still we could not escape an eerie feeling when we knew we had actually
After working on
the Manhattan Project during the war, Fermi was appointed to the General
Advisory Committee, the panel of scientists that advised the Atomic
Energy Commission. In October 1949, the GAC met to discuss whether the
U.S. should initiate a crash program to build the superbomb. After the
meeting, Fermi and Isidor Rabi co-authored a minority addendum to the
committee's report. It described the H-bomb in the harshest possible
language: "It is clear that such a weapon cannot be justified on
any ethical ground... The fact that no limits exist to the destructiveness
of this weapon makes its very existence and the knowledge of its construction
a danger to humanity as a whole. It is necessarily an evil thing considered
in any light."
However, when President
Truman ordered a crash program to build the superbomb a couple of months
later, Fermi returned temporarily to Los Alamos to help with the calculations.
He joined the effort hoping to prove that making a superbomb just wasn't