Enrico Fermi was born on September 29, 1901, in Rome, Italy. He was one of the three children of Alberto Fermi and Ida de Gattis. Enrico’s father worked as Chief Inspector of the Ministry of Communications. As a boy, Enrico was small for his age and unattractive with untidy hair. Also as a boy he was often in tantrums and did not display imagination, so they said. His lack of imagination was seemingly supported by his schooldays writing which had no flourish and was straight to the point (Fermi 16). These were not positive qualities in his time and place.
But by the time Enrico was in high school, he was known as an energetic and imaginative prodigy. His older brother, Giulio, had died when Enrico was fourteen. Giulio had been one year older than Enrico and the two boys had been inseparable. Enrico found it nearly impossible to overcome this grief. In his grief he found old physics textbooks that, though they were in Latin, he read straight through and thoroughly absorbed (American Experience par. 1). Physics, from then on, would be his intellectual passion.
He decided in high school that he would become a physicist. At the age of seventeen he secured a fellowship to attend the Scuola Normale Superiore which is associated with the University of Pisa. Four years later he had earned his doctorate by means of a thesis on X-ray research. And six years further on he married Laura Capon in 1928. Before his marriage, Fermi became a professor at the first theoretical physics study program in Italy. This position had been created for him by the director of the Institute of Physics in Rome.
Previous to assuming this position he had received a fellowship for study in Germany at the University of Gottingen with Max Born whose work in quantum mechanics helped prepare Fermi for his own later contributions to quantum mechanics. Fermi prepared a paper in 1926 on the statistical properties of a hypothetical gas which got the attention of the Institute of Physics in Rome. As a professor at the Institute he and a group of young researchers that included Amaldi, Pontecorve, Rasetti, and Segre worked on the theory of beta decay, the discovery of slow neutrons, and formulated what would become known as Fermi-Dirac statistics (Nobel par. ). The statistics were applicable to the behavior of particles in physics now known as fermions. The fermions are governed by Pauli’s exclusion principle which denies that more than one subatomic particle can be in the same quantum state. Fermi’s work in beta decay involved accounting for the energy and momentum distributions of beta particles (electrons) emitted by nuclei of atoms. By 1934 Fermi had developed the theory of beta decay to include the neutrino. In 1930 Pauli had proposed the existence of the neutrino to account for the continuous distribution of energy of the emitted electrons.
As for the discovery of the slow neutrons, he was entering a field of physics that would win him renown, lead to nuclear power generation, and place him in the forefront of the development of the atomic bombs used against the Japanese in WWII. His use of slow neutrons came about as he entered into the investigation of artificial radioactivity. Curie and Joliot in 1934 had initially discovered artifical radioactivity when they bombarded atomic nuclei with alpha particles. Fermi thought that the charge of the alpha particles hindered their entry into nuclei.
He realized that the neutron, being of neutral charge, as related by Chadwick in 1932, would be a better probe for a nucleus (Marburger III par. 3). Fermi discovered, also in 1934, that an artificial radioactivity was induced if nuclei were bombarded by neutrons. The effectiveness of the neutrons in producing the radioactivity was enhanced if the neutrons were first slowed by passage through paraffin and water. When he used slow neutrons on uranium 92, he got some strange radioactive substances. Fermi did not at first realize that these strange substances were new elements.
The new elements had atomic numbers beyond uranium, the highest atomic number (92) of a naturally occurring element. Artificial element number 100 is named Fermium. He also discovered that the effects produced by the slowed neutrons depended on the speed of the neutron. There was not one slowed speed for all neutrons. He added various substances of various thicknesses to get differing speeds and could then map out a range of neutron speeds that were effective in target nuclei activation. This was the beginning of the field in physics known as nuclear spectroscopy (Marburger III par. 6).
By 1938, Fermi was the world’s foremost authority on neutrons (Enrico Fermi par. 6). In recognition of this status, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for 1938. The Prize was given to him for the new elements he had created and for the study he had undertaken of slow neutron effects. The Fascist government of Italy had granted Fermi permission to journey to Sweden to receive the Prize. Fermi seized this opportunity to have he and his family leave Italy permanently. He was desirous to do so since Mussolini’s Italian fascists had put in place anti-Semitic laws. Fermi’s wife was Jewish. Fermi went from Sweden to the USA.
In the USA he started working at Columbia University on the newly known European experiments with fission. He directed the setting up and running of the world’s first self sustained nuclear chain reaction in a “pile” of graphite bricks and uranium fuel. The pile, or reactor, was on the University of Chicago campus under squash courts. The year was 1942. The reactor, for the first time, produced a controlled flow of energy from other than the Sun (Nobel par. 11). This reactor helped establish the workings of fission and helped to prepare for reactors soon to be constructed to make plutonium needed for an atomic bomb.
Fermi’s activities at Chicago became part of the Manhattan Project. For the Manhattan Project Fermi would journey to Los Alamos, New Mexico, for preparations for the Trinity test on the Alamogordo Air Base. The “ignition”, the explosion, of this nuclear device or bomb in July, 1945, would lead to two atomic bombs. One was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. The other was detonated at Nagasaki, Japan. Prior to the test Fermi did not want a demonstration of what had been accomplished at the Trinity site nor did he want bombs used (von Hippel par. 12). He wanted the bomb secret and not used for as long as possible.
In 1949 he advised the Atomic Energy Commission to not go forward with the super bomb, the H-bomb. But President Truman did commission the building of the super bomb. Fermi was back at Los Alamos to help with some aspects of the bomb work. He hoped he could show that a super bomb was impossible (American Experience par. 6). He rarely participated in postwar debates on the use of the bomb or the arms control issues. He remained wary of the activists. Fermi had returned to his nuclear research work though now he was at the University of Chicago.
He was doing research on mesons to see what they contributed to holding the nucleus together. Also, late in his life, he concerned himself with the source of cosmic rays. He worked out an idea for a huge magnetic field acting as a giant accelerator to produce the cosmic rays. His previous work with reactors made him the first for use of nuclear energy for power generation. For this work and his war effort he was recognized with an award by the US Congress shortly before his death in 1954. He died November 28, 1954, of stomach cancer. He was survived by his wife and two children.
In 1956 an award was begun and to be awarded annually in his name by the President and the Department of Energy. Though mostly known for his research in nuclear physics, he also made other contributions to quantum physics not mentioned in the above such as in quantum electrodynamics in regard to the quantization of the electromagnetic field (Marburger III par. 12). He also studied the theory of neutron decay in which he was the first to apply quantum fields to particles beyond the electron (Marburger III par. 15). His efforts in physics were all consuming during the time he devoted to them.
At other times he liked to go for walks and engage in winter sports. While he had been at Los Alamos he grew bored by skiing- going up and down the same slope- and so he went mountain climbing (Fermi 225). Perhaps to escape boredom at other times not involving physics his thought ranged into considerations of why no aliens have yet to contact us – called the Fermi paradox (Chown par. 1). Also named after him is a term in physics education used for certain problems which can be identified as Fermi problems or those that allow for dimensional analysis, back-of-envelope approximations and a good grasp of one’s assumptions.
Fermi had great mathematical ability but simple, quick, and good approximations could sometimes be found. A famous demonstration of this came immediately after the Trinity test when he dropped fragments of paper before him as the blast wave reached him. From the distance traveled by the paper he got a good approximation of the force of the blast days before the technicians had worked it out. This was a modest way of going about getting a blast yield (Marburger III par. 23). He was himself a modest man. In addition, he was a man of rituals in his personal life (Fermi 64).
At 0730 he got ready to go to the lab. At 0800 there was breakfast. Dinner at 1300. Tennis at 1500. Bedtime at 2130. Outside the home he was acknowledged as the only major physicist of the twentieth century who had equally great facility in both experimental and theoretical physics (Fermilab par. 2). He wanted to be at the front of the advancement in his fields in physics. He craved and got the breakthroughs in physics that made him famous and admired.
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