THE PRIDE OF OUR HERITAGE: ENRICO FERMI



According to Professor Howard Gardner there are three types of thinkers: “He describes: First, the 'disciplined mind,’ that masters information; Second, the 'synthesizing mind,’ that utilizes information; Third, the 'creative mind’ – innovative, inventive, bold, the mind able to start ideas and make change." Enrico Fermi epitomized all three types perfectly. Born in Rome on 29 September 1901 to his mother, an elementary school teacher, and her husband, chief railroad inspector and 14 years her senior. Enrico's life unfolded across 2 continents, Europe and North America. He found his final resting place in Chicago, on 28th November,1954, at age 53. The cause of death was stomach cancer.


Being an exceptional student at early age and exhibiting an impressive aptitude for math and science, he was surely destined to have a distinguished life. Today he is recognized as the "architect of the nuclear age" and the "architect of the atomic bomb". He is known as the creator of the world's first nuclear reactor that is currently being used worldwide to produce energy in nuclear plants. He is well known as the discover of the statistical laws, known as the "Fermi statistics." In addition, he is remembered as the contributor to virtually every field of physics, from quantum physics to particle physics, to astrophysics. The recent discoveries made in the field of math and science has compelled the fields of Physics to be compartmentalized into various disciplines. Fermi was one of last few scientists who could consider Physics in it entirety.


In Italy, he was piling up a distinguished career but, upon winning the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1938, he used the prize money to relocate his family to America. The move was intended to protect his Jewish wife from Italy's newly established anti-Semitic laws. However, the move did not curtail his passion for physics. He kept working and advancing experiments at Columbia University, University of Chicago, and Los Alamo's Laboratory. He led the Manhattan Project's effort to create the first man-made and self-sustaining nuclear chain reactor.


Practical, and down to earth with strong beliefs regarding social justice and honesty, Fermi's concerns about the danger of his discoveries was never too far from his consciousness. In his own words:


“The fact that no limits exist to the destructiveness of this weapon [the 'Super', i.e. the hydrogen bomb] 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. For these reasons, we believe it important for the President of the United States to tell the American public and the world what we think is wrong on fundamental ethical principles to initiate the development of such a weapon.”


"It is clear that the use of such a weapon cannot be justified on any ethical ground that gives a human being a certain individuality and dignity, even if he happens to be a resident of an enemy country."


Although in his formative years, he was known as an introvert, in his later years, he developed a cheerful disposition with a great sense of humor. His colleagues cherished and respected him to the point, after he died, they created an audio record called “To Fermi With Love.” Such an expression of appreciation is not evident with other scientists. He was decisive, methodical and committed to problems solving, without giving up easily. He also knew within his orderly and organized mind that, regardless of the danger, stopping progress is generally ineffective.


"Once basic knowledge is acquired, any attempt at preventing its fruition would be as futile as hoping to stop the earth from revolving around the sun."


"It is no good to try to stop knowledge from going forward. Ignorance is never better than knowledge."


These character traits made him reliable, dependable, and a cornerstone in the community. His pursuit was to work for a better world in a realistic way. E Sergè wrote about Fermi: "He preserved to the last with an almost superhuman courage, strength of character, and clarity of thought."


Fermi did not follow any religious beliefs, even though he had been baptized as a Catholic. For most of his life, he enjoyed excellent health and led a very simple, frugal life. His main form of recreation was outdoor activities such as hiking, playing tennis, skiing, and swimming, even though he did not excel in any of them. A great many academies and scientific societies had the honor of his membership and the Fermi Prize, named for him, was awarded to him a few days before his death. Fermi is buried in Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago.


Some additional Fermi Quotes:


"Before I came here I was confused about this subject. Having listened to your lecture I am still confused. But on a higher level."


"If I could remember the names of all these particles, I'd be a botanist.

An experiment disproving a prediction is discovery."


"The fundamental point in fabricating a chain reacting machine is of course to see to it that each fission produces a certain number of neutrons and some of these neutrons will again produce fission."


"When asked what he meant by a miracle: Oh, anything with a probability of less than 20%"


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


Enrico Fermi's Timeline: copied from the Atomic Heritage Foundation webpage. (AHF).https://www.atomicheritage.org/profile/enrico-fermi

  • 1901 Sep 29th Born in Rome, Italy.

  • 1918 Won a fellowship to the Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa.

  • 1922 Received his Laurea degree in physics from the Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa.

  • 1923 Awarded a scholarship from the Italian Government and studied with Max Born in Göttingen.

  • 1926 Discovered the statistical laws, the "Fermi statistics", governing the particles subject to Pauli's exclusion principle.

  • 1927 to 1938 Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Rome.

  • 1929 Appointed a member of the Royal Academy of Italy by Mussolini.

  • 1934 In May, Fermi and his team in Rome bombard elements with neutrons and split uranium but do not realize it.

  • 1938 Received the Nobel Prize in Physics.

  • 1938 Moved with his family to America to escape Italy's anti-Semitic laws.

  • 1939 On Jan 25th Part of Columbia University team conducted the first fission experiment in the US.

  • 1941 Built a pile of graphite bricks at Columbia University.

  • 1942 Joined the University of Chicago's Metallurgical Laboratory working on plutonium and reactor research.

  • 1942 On Dec 2nd Oversaw the world's first self-sustaining nuclear reaction, the Chicago Pile-1.

  • 1943 On Nov 4th Witnessed the X-10 Graphite Reactor go critical.

  • 1944 On Jul 16th Began work at Los Alamos as associate director of the laboratory.

  • 1944 On Sep Became an American citizen.

  • 1944 On Sep 27th Inserted the first uranium fuel slug into the B Reactor at Hanford.

  • 1945 Moved to Chicago from Los Alamos.

  • 1945 On Jul 1st Named professor of physics at the University of Chicago.

  • 1945 On Jul 16th Witnessed the Trinity test, correctly calculating the Gadget's yield.

  • 1954 On Nov 28th Died in Chicago, Illinois.

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