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1.Italian nuclear physicist (in the United States after 1939) who worked on artificial radioactivity caused by neutron bombardment and who headed the group that in 1942 produced the first controlled nuclear reaction (1901-1954)
Enrico Fermi (n.)
Enrico Fermi (1901–1954)
29 September 1901|
|Died||28 November 1954
Chicago, Illinois, USA
United States (1944–1954)
|Institutions||Scuola Normale Superiore
University of Göttingen
University of Florence
Sapienza University of Rome
University of Chicago
|Alma mater||Scuola Normale Superiore|
|Doctoral advisor||Luigi Puccianti|
|Doctoral students||Edoardo Amaldi
Jerome I. Friedman
Marvin Leonard Goldberger
Arthur H. Rosenfeld
|Other notable students||Richard Garwin
|Known for||New radioactive elements produced by neutron irradiation
Controlled nuclear chain reaction,
Theory of beta decay
|Influenced||James Grier Miller|
|Notable awards||Matteucci Medal (1926)
Nobel Prize for Physics (1938)
Hughes Medal (1942)
Franklin Medal (1947)
Rumford Prize (1953)
Enrico Fermi (Italian pronunciation: [enˈriko ˈfermi]; 29 September 1901 – 28 November 1954) was an Italian-born, naturalized American physicist particularly known for his work on the development of the first nuclear reactor, Chicago Pile-1, and for his contributions to the development of quantum theory, nuclear and particle physics, and statistical mechanics. He was awarded the 1938 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on induced radioactivity.
Fermi is widely regarded as one of the leading scientists of the 20th century, highly accomplished in both theory and experiment. Along with J. Robert Oppenheimer, he is frequently referred to as "the father of the atomic bomb". He also held several patents related to the use of nuclear power.
Several awards, concepts, and institutions are named after Fermi, such as the Enrico Fermi Award, the Enrico Fermi Institute, the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, the Enrico Fermi Nuclear Generating Station, a class of particles called fermions, the synthetic element fermium, and many more.
Enrico Fermi was born in Rome to Alberto Fermi, a Chief Inspector of the Ministry of Communications, and Ida de Gattis, an elementary school teacher of unusual intelligence. As a young boy, he shared his interests with his older brother, Giulio. They dismantled small engines and other parts. When Giulio died unexpectedly of a throat abscess in 1915, Enrico was distraught, and immersed himself in scientific study to distract himself. According to his own account, each day he would walk in front of the hospital in which Giulio died until he was inured to the pain.
One of the first sources for the study of physics was a book found at the local market of Campo de' Fiori in Roma. The 900-page book, titled Elementorum physicae mathematicae, written in Latin by Jesuit Father Andrea Caraffa, a professor at the Collegio Romano, covered subjects like mathematics, classical mechanics, astronomy, optics, and acoustics. Notes found in the book indicate that Fermi studied it intensely. Later, Enrico befriended another scientifically inclined student named Enrico Persico, and the two worked together on scientific projects such as building gyroscopes and measuring the Earth's magnetic field. Fermi's interest in physics was further encouraged by Adolfo Amidei, a friend of his father, who gave him several books on physics and mathematics, which he read and assimilated quickly.
In 1918, Fermi enrolled at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa. In order to enter the Institute, candidates had to take a difficult entrance exam which included an essay. The given theme was Specific characteristics of Sounds (Italian: Caratteri distintivi dei suoni). The 17-year-old Enrico Fermi chose to derive and solve the partial differential equation for a vibrating rod, applying Fourier analysis. The examiner, Prof. Giuseppe Pittarelli, interviewed Fermi and concluded that his entry would have been commendable even for a doctoral degree. Enrico Fermi achieved first place in the classification of the entrance exam.
During his years at the Scuola Normale Superiore, Fermi teamed up with a fellow student named Franco Rasetti with whom he would indulge in light-hearted pranks and who would later become Fermi's close friend and collaborator. Besides attending the classes, Enrico Fermi found the time to work on his extracurricular activities, particularly with the help of his friend Enrico Persico, who remained in Rome to attend the university.
In Pisa, Fermi was advised by the director of the physics laboratory, Luigi Puccianti, who acknowledged that there was little that he could teach Fermi, and frequently asked Fermi to teach him something. Fermi's knowledge of quantum physics reached such a high level that Prof. Puccianti asked him to organize seminars about that topic. During this time he learned tensor calculus, a mathematical instrument invented by Gregorio Ricci and Tullio Levi-Civita, and needed to demonstrate the principles of general relativity. Between 1919 and 1923, Fermi studied general relativity, quantum mechanics, and atomic physics.
In 1921, his third year at the university, he published his first scientific works in the Italian journal Nuovo Cimento: the first was titled: On the dynamics of a rigid system of electrical charges in translational motion; the second: On the electrostatics of a uniform gravitational field of electromagnetic charges and on the weight of electromagnetic charges. At first glance, the first paper seemed to point out a contradiction between the electrodynamic theory and the relativistic one concerning the calculation of the electromagnetic masses. After one year with a work entitled Correction of severe discrepancy between electrodynamic theory and the relativistic one of electromagnetic charges. Inertia and weight of electricity, Enrico Fermi showed the correctness of his paper. This last publication was so successful that it was translated into German and published in the famous German scientific journal Physikalische Zeitschrift.
In 1922, he published his first important scientific work in the Italian journal I Rendiconti dell'Accademia dei Lincei entitled "On the phenomena occurring near a world line", where he introduces for the first time the so-called "Fermi coordinates", and proves that when close to the time line, space behaves as a euclidean one. In July of that year, Fermi submitted his doctoral thesis Un teorema di calcolo delle probabilità ed alcune sue applicazioni (A theorem on probability and some of its applications) to the Scuola Normale Superiore and received his Laurea from there at the unusually young age of 21.
In 1923, while writing the appendix for the Italian edition of the book The Mathematical Theory of Relativity by A. Kopff, Enrico Fermi pointed out, for the first time, that hidden inside the famous Einstein equation (E = mc2), there was an enormous amount of nuclear potential energy to be exploited.
In 1924, Fermi spent a semester at the University of Göttingen with Max Born, and then stayed for a few months in Leiden with Paul Ehrenfest. From January 1925 to the autumn of 1926, he stayed at the University of Florence. In this period, he wrote his work on the Fermi–Dirac statistics.
Aged 24, Fermi took a professorship at the University of Rome (one of the first three in theoretical physics in Italy)  which he won in a competition whose selection committee was chaired by Professor Orso Mario Corbino, director of the Institute of Physics.  Corbino helped 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 also took part in what was soon nicknamed "the Via Panisperna boys" (after the name of the street where the Physics Institute was). 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 and Segrè left to teach in Palermo.
During their time in Rome, Fermi and his group made important contributions to many practical and theoretical aspects of physics. These include the theory of beta decay, later referred to as the theory of the "weak interaction" (one of the 4 basic forces in nature, then brand new) with the inclusion of the neutrino postulated in 1930 by Wolfgang Pauli, and the discovery of slow neutrons, which was to prove pivotal for the working of nuclear reactors. His group systematically bombarded elements with slow neutrons, and during their experiments with uranium, narrowly missed observing nuclear fission. At that time, fission was thought to be improbable if not impossible, mostly on theoretical grounds. While people expected elements with higher atomic number to form from neutron bombardment of lighter elements, nobody expected neutrons to have enough energy to actually split a heavier atom into two light element fragments. However, the chemist Ida Noddack had criticised Fermi's work and had suggested that some of his experiments could have produced lighter elements. At the time, Fermi dismissed this possibility on the basis of calculations.
Fermi was well known for his simplicity in solving problems. He began his inquiries with the simplest lines of mathematical reasoning, then later produced complete solutions to the problems he deemed worth pursuing. His abilities as a great scientist, combining theoretical and applied nuclear physics, were acknowledged by all. He influenced many physicists who worked with him, such as Hans Bethe, who spent two semesters working with Fermi in the early 1930s. From the time he was a boy, Fermi meticulously recorded his calculations in notebooks, and later used them to solve many new problems that he encountered based on these earlier known problems.
When Fermi submitted his 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. Nature eventually did publish Fermi's report on beta decay on January 16, 1939.
Fermi remained in Rome until 1938.
In 1938, Fermi received the Nobel Prize in Physics at the age of 37 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". After Fermi received the Nobel Prize in Stockholm, he, his wife Laura, and their children emigrated to New York. This was mainly because of the Manifesto of Race promulgated by the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini in order to bring Italian Fascism ideologically closer to German Nazism. The new laws threatened Laura, who was Jewish. Also, the new laws put most of Fermi's research assistants out of work. Soon after his arrival in New York, Fermi began working at Columbia University, where he had already given summer lectures in 1936 (preface to Thermodinamics, Dover Publications, Inc. NY).
In December 1938, the German chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann sent a manuscript to Naturwissenschaften reporting they had detected the element barium after bombarding uranium with neutrons; simultaneously, they communicated these results to Lise Meitner. Meitner, and her nephew Otto Robert Frisch, correctly interpreted these results as being nuclear fission. Following an advice of George Placzek, Frisch confirmed this experimentally on 13 January 1939.
Meitner's and Frisch's interpretation of the work of Hahn and Strassmann crossed the Atlantic Ocean with Niels Bohr, who was to lecture at Princeton University. Isidor Isaac Rabi and Willis Lamb, two Columbia University physicists working at Princeton, heard the news and carried it back to Columbia. Rabi said he told Enrico Fermi; Fermi gave credit to Lamb. Bohr soon thereafter went from Princeton to Columbia to see Fermi. Not finding Fermi in his office, Bohr went down to the cyclotron area and found Herbert L. Anderson. Bohr grabbed him by the shoulder and said: “Young man, let me explain to you about something new and exciting in physics.” It was clear to a number of scientists at Columbia that they should try to detect the energy released in the nuclear fission of uranium from neutron bombardment. On 25 January 1939, a Columbia University team conducted the first nuclear fission experiment in the United States, which was done in the basement of Pupin Hall; the members of the team were Herbert L. Anderson, Eugene T. Booth, John R. Dunning, Enrico Fermi, G. Norris Glasoe, and Francis G. Slack. The next day, the Fifth Washington Conference on Theoretical Physics began in Washington, D.C. under the joint auspices of The George Washington University and the Carnegie Institution of Washington. There, the news on nuclear fission was spread even further, which fostered many more experimental demonstrations.
Fermi recalled the beginning of the project in a speech given in 1954 when he retired as President of the American Physical Society:
In August 1939 Leó Szilárd prepared and Albert Einstein signed the famous letter warning President Franklin D. Roosevelt of the probability that the Nazis were planning to build an atomic bomb. Because of Hitler's September 1 invasion of Poland, it was October before they could arrange for the letter to be personally delivered. Roosevelt was concerned enough that the Uranium Committee was assembled, and awarded Columbia University the first nuclear power funding of US$6,000. However, due to bureaucratic fears of foreigners doing secret research, the money was not actually issued until Szilárd implored Einstein to send a second letter to the president in the spring of 1940.
The money was used in studies which led to the first nuclear reactor — Chicago Pile-1, a massive "atomic pile" of graphite bricks and uranium fuel which went critical on December 2, 1942. The pile was built in a squash court under Stagg Field, the football stadium at the University of Chicago, as part of a secret project code-named the Metallurgical Laboratory. (Due to a mistranslation, Soviet reports said Fermi's work was performed in a converted "pumpkin field" instead of a "squash court", a mis-translation based on confusion between dual meanings of "squash", the food-crop plant and the game.)
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. When the first self-sustained nuclear chain reaction was achieved, one of the physicists, Arthur Compton, made a coded phone call to James Conant, chairman of the National Defense Research Committee. The conversation was in impromptu code:
- Compton: The Italian navigator has landed in the New World.
- Conant: How were the natives?
- Compton: Very friendly.
This successful initiation of a 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 also because it would serve as a pilot plant for the massive reactors which would be created in Hanford, Washington, which would then be used to produce the plutonium needed for the bombs used at the Trinity site and Nagasaki. Eventually Fermi and Szilárd's reactor work was folded into the Manhattan Project.
To continue the research where it would not pose a public health hazard, the reactor was disassembled and moved to a wooded site outside Chicago, where Fermi directed research on reactors and other fundamental sciences. The name of the lab was Argonne Laboratory, which grew into the first of the U.S. national laboratories.
Fermi moved to what was to become Los Alamos National Laboratory in the later stages of the Manhattan Project to serve as a general consultant. He was sitting in the control room of the Hanford B Reactor when it first went critical in 1944. His broad knowledge of many fields of physics was useful in solving problems that were of an interdisciplinary nature. He became a naturalized citizen of the United States of America in 1944.
As the shock wave hit Base Camp, Aeby saw Enrico Fermi with a handful of torn paper. "He was dribbling it in the air. When the shock wave came it moved the confetti. He thought for a moment."
Fermi had just estimated the yield of the first nuclear explosion. It was in the ball park.
Fermi's strips-of-paper estimate was ten kilotons of TNT; the actual yield was about 19 kilotons.
In Fermi's 1954 address to the American Physical Society (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 widely regarded as the only physicist of the 20th century who excelled both theoretically and experimentally. The well-known historian of physics, C. P. Snow, says about him, "If Fermi had been born a few years earlier, one could well imagine him discovering Rutherford's atomic nucleus, and then developing Bohr's theory of the hydrogen atom. If this sounds like hyperbole, anything about Fermi is likely to sound like hyperbole". Fermi's 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. Later on, his method of getting approximate and quick answers through back-of-the-envelope calculations became informally known as the 'Fermi method'.
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.
After the war, Fermi served for a short time on the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission, a scientific committee chaired by J. Robert Oppenheimer which advised the commission on nuclear matters and policy. After the detonation of the first Soviet fission bomb in August 1949, he, along with Isidor Rabi, wrote a strongly worded report for the committee which opposed the development of a hydrogen bomb on moral and technical grounds. But Fermi also participated in preliminary work on the hydrogen bomb at Los Alamos as a consultant, and along with Stanislaw Ulam, calculated that the amount of tritium needed for Edward Teller's model of a thermonuclear weapon would be prohibitive, and a fusion reaction could not be assured to propagate even with this large quantity of tritium.
Fermi was among the scientists who testified on Oppenheimer's behalf at an AEC hearing in 1954. The hearing resulted in denial of Oppenheimer's security clearance.
In his later years, Fermi did important work in particle physics, especially related to pions and muons. He was also known to be an inspiring teacher at the University of Chicago, and was known for his attention to detail, simplicity, and careful preparation for a lecture. Later, his lecture notes, especially those for quantum mechanics, nuclear physics, and thermodynamics, were transcribed into books which are still in print.
He also mused about a proposition which is now referred to as the "Fermi Paradox". This contradiction or proposition is this: that with the billions and billions of star systems in the universe, one would think that intelligent life would have contacted our civilization by now.
Toward the end of his life, Fermi questioned his faith in society at large to make wise choices about nuclear technology. He said:
Fermi died at age 53 of stomach cancer in Chicago, Illinois, and was interred at Oak Woods Cemetery. Two of his graduate students who assisted him in working on or near the nuclear pile also died of cancer. Fermi and his team knew that such work carried considerable risk but they considered the outcome so vital that they forged ahead with little regard for their own personal safety.
As Eugene Wigner wrote: "Ten days before Fermi had died he told me, 'I hope it won't take long.' He had reconciled himself perfectly to his fate".
Enrico Fermi had been the first to use a neutron to produce the radioactive change of one element to another. On 2 December 1942 he initiated the atomic age with the first self-sustaining chain reaction, after which he became known as "father of the atomic bomb". Michael H. Hart ranked him No. 76 in his list of the most influential figures in history.
|Book: Via Panisperna Boys|
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