Enrico Fermi’s life (1901-1954) Fermi’s youth Enrico Fermi was born on September 29, 1901 in Rome, to Alberto and Ida De Gattis. His father was Chief Inspector of the Italian railways company, while his mother was a school teacher. From their marriage, three sons were born: Maria in 1899, Giulio in 1900 and Enrico. The best (and almost only) friend of the young Enrico was his brother Giulio, with whom he attended the first school years. At school, Enrico was a good student, with only some problems with writing in Italian. In 1915, a tragic event upset the lighthearted life of Enrico and his family: his brother Giulio died as a consequence of a surgery. Enrico tried to overcome such a deep sorrow by studying scientific arguments extensively . Fortunately, soon after he established a close friendship with a friend of his brother Giulio, namely Enrico Perisco, sharing many interests with him, including physics. In this period, they measured autonomously the density of a particular drinking water (Acqua Marcia), the free fall acceleration and the magnetic field of the Earth. Fermi was not a “nerd,” or a bookworm, inclined to spend all his time studying. He was active in sports and very competitive. Fermi was also orderly in his work habits, so he had time left over after his schoolwork for independent reading, especially in science. Indeed, Fermi’s interest in mathematics and physics manifested itself very early. From the end of 1914 till 1918, he was guided in his studies by a friend of his father, the engineer Adolfo Amidei, who frequently lended him advanced (universitary level) books of physics and mathematics. He found these books “very interesting, useful and not at all hard to understand”. In July 1918, skipping his last school year, he finished his high school studies and received his diploma (licenza liceale). Then, Enrico decided to study Physics at the university and, upon suggestion of the engineer Amidei, he moved to Pisa, to the prestigious Scuola Normale Superiore (founded by Napoleon in 1813), after he easily and brilliantly passed the admission examination (“a boy with extraordinary talents”). Fermi conducted his studies at Pisa very independently. He soon found a friend and soul mate, a student at the university named Franco Rasetti. Like Fermi, Rasetti was very interested in science; and was so good at his college studies that there was time left over for hikes in the coastal mountains. The studies at the Scuola Normale proceeded brilliantly; he always obtained the highest possible grades, except in drawing and in some chemistry courses. He enjoyed enormous prestige among his fellow students and his superior ability was recognized by everybody. Fermi and Rasetti soon had the run of the undergraduate laboratory, because the elderly professor in charge (Luigi Puccianti) could no longer keep up with the rapidly expanding field of modern physics. In fact, he turned the tables and asked Fermi to teach him about the theory of relativity, developed by the German theoretical physicist Albert Einstein. By the fall of 1920, the end of his sophomore year, Fermi had completed all of the standard courses and was able to take advantage of a very special opportunity. Once again, Fermi and Rasetti had free access to the graduate research laboratory as they once had in the teaching lab. Fermi chose to do experiments with X rays and made that the subject of the dissertation required for his doctoral degree at the university. Enrico Fermi received his Ph.D. degree in physics from the University of Pisa in July of 1922 and a diploma certifying to his status as a graduate of the Scuola Normale Superiore at the same time. Studying abroad Just after his graduation, during the winter 1922-3 Fermi won a scholarship from the Ministero dell’Istruzione Pubblica to study abroad. He chose to work with the great physicict Max Born at the University of Göttingen, where he built a center for theoretical physics, researching on the novel quantum physics, that attracted brilliant postdoctoral students from abroad. However, Fermi did not profit very much from his stay there. Instead, the subsequent months were more fruitful, when in 1924 Fermi moved to Leyden (Holland) with a Rockfeller Fellowshipn to work with the Dutch physicist Paul Ehrenfest. This was one of the greatest teachers of physics and a man of warm human interests. He appreciated Fermi’s special talents, and his praise was an important boost for a young postdoctoral student still at the beginning of his career. Back to Italy When he returned to Italy in 1924, Fermi began teaching at the University of Rome and then, in 1925, he moved to the University of Florence, where he found his friend Franco Rasetti. Fermi and Rasetti made a great team. They could share ideas for experiments and discuss the articles in the latest physics journals from abroad. Fermi took the lead when it came to discussing theory, while Rasetti was able to refine Fermi’s experimental technique using his own strong instincts as a creative experimenter. The Florentine period saw Fermi’s first major contribution to theoretical physics: the discovery of the statistical laws (Fermi-Dirac statistics) which govern particles subject to Pauli’s exclusion principle (such as, for example, electrons, protons, neutrons, etc.). These particles are called today fermions. P.A.M. Dirac W. Pauli The period in Rome and the“Panisperna boys” After Fermi returned from abroad to Rome, he became acquainted with Senator Orso Mario Corbino, Professor of experimental physics and Director of the Institute of Physics at the University of Rome. Although completely absorbed in politics and business, Corbino was the most open-mined among all Italian physicists in a position of authority. Fermi and Corbino had met several times before Fermi went to Germany, and Corbino had been very impressed. He had grasped that Fermi was the right person to bring the revolution in physics, already underway elsewhere in Europe, into the classrooms and research laboratories of his native country. The breakthrough came in 1926. Corbino was able to obtain a chair in theoretical physics, the first in Italy, established in Rome, and the Board of Examiners unanimously agreed that Fermi was the outstanding candidate. “They felt they could rest on him the best hopes for the affirmation and future development of theoretical physics in Italy.” In the fall of 1926 Fermi then moved to Rome (Enrico Persico replaced him at Florence), and at the Physics Institute of Via Panisperna 89a he started one of the most fruitful periods of his scientific career. In Rome Fermi felt a strong urge to find an adequate scientific environment. He and his mentor Corbino then began a threepronged approach. First, Corbino convinced at least a few graduate students at the University of Rome (from the Faculty of Engineering) to learn modern physics. Second, Fermi started a program of experiments and researches in the new physics. And third, he wanted to propagandize for the revolution: to give popular lectures, write articles, and do one further thing that was new in Italy: write a textbook on modern, atomic physics. Fermi knew the man he wanted to start building a program of experiments in atomic physics. It was Franco Rasetti, his friend from their student days in Pisa. Once again, then, Corbino attended to the politics and; early in 1927, he arranged for Rasetti to move from Florence (where he was working) to Rome: he was appointed as Corbino’s first assistant. It was a good choice: Fermi could deepen Rasetti’s understanding of the new quantum theories of the atom, while Rasetti could continue to bring Fermi into flower as an experimentalist. Recruiting graduate students proved a bit more difficult. During 1927 Corbino launched a famous appeal to the students of the engineering faculty to entice the most brilliant young minds into studying physics. E. Segrè and his friend E. Amaldi rose to the challenge, and joined Rasetti and students Amaldi and Segrè, the beginnings of a modern-physics group had been assembled.Still others soon joined Fermi and Rasetti’s group. The group went on with its famous experiments, but in 1933 Rasetti left Italy for Canada and United States, Pontecorvo went to France and Segrè left to teach in Palermo. The most significant personal events of this period were Fermi’s marriage to Laura Capon, and his appointment by Prime Minister B. Mussolini to the Accademia d’Italia. This honor, though well deserved, was unexpected because Fermi’s reputation at the time was limited to physicists and, according to tradition, at his young age,academic honors were yet not due.The appointment came mainly due at the instigation of Senator Corbino. Nobel Prize in Physics The scientific work done at the Institute of Physics in Rome in those years was a very remarkable contribution to the development of physics worldwide. These results earned Enrico Fermi the Nobel Prize in 1938. Unfortunately, in the autumn of 1938 the anti-semitic movement in Italy, which developed after the ItalianGerman alliance, made Fermi decide to leave Italy to accept a professorship in U.S.A.. Indeed, his wife was Jewish, and no guarantee of protection from the new laws could be believed. Recognizing the occasion of his family's travel to Stockholm for the Nobel awards ceremony in 1938 as an opportunity for escape, Fermi and his family departed for the United States from the ceremony, after a short visit to Niels Bohr in Copenhagen, on December 24. Fermi was then in the middle of his career, and could not have expected to be involved so soon in historical and scientific events of the greatest moment, events that were the direct result of those researches developed in Rome. The American period Soon after his arrival in New York, Fermi began working at Columbia University. 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. Fermi then went to the University of Chicago and began studies that led to the construction of the first nuclear pile Chicago Pile. 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 by him. 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. Fermi moved to Los Alamos 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. Having satisfied the residence requirements, the Fermis had become American citizens in 1944. In 1946 he became Distinguished-Service Professor for Nuclear Studies at the University of Chicago and also received the Congressional Medal of Merit. At the Metallurgical Laboratory of the University of Chicago, Fermi continued his studies of the basic properties of nuclear particles, with particular emphasis on mesons, which are the quantized form of the force that holds the nucleus together. He also was a consultant in the construction of the synchrocyclotron, a large particle accelerator at the University of Chicago. In 1950 he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Society of London. In his later years, Fermi did important work in particle physics, especially related to pions and mouns. 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. In 1952, Fermi was elected President of the American Physical Society. On November 16, 1954, President Eisenhower presented the Atomic Energy Commission’s special award for his lifetime of accomplishments in physics and in particular for the development of atomic energy. Fermi died on November 28, 1954 in Chicago, just after his fifty-third birthday at age 53 of stomach cancer and was interred at Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago, Illinois. 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.