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Enrico Fermi

Enrico Fermi - FermiLab

Italy, United States

September 29, 1901 – November 28, 1954

Enrico Fermi, referred to by many as the Father or Architect of the Nuclear Bomb, was born on September 29, 1901 in Rome, Italy. Enrico’s parents were Alberto and Ida de Gattis Fermi and he had two siblings.

Enrico was a very curious and smart child whose native intelligence allowed him to surpass his peers in many endeavors. He also had a friendly demeanor and a funny, quick wit. 

Enrico’s Mother was a major influence on Enrico. She was a very intelligent person who encouraged her children to excel at whatever tasks they may have. She was a gifted teacher and therefore had the talent and experience to guide Enrico into areas of interest and to gently push him to absorb the knowledge necessary to learn and succeed. 

It is believed that Enrico became interested in physics and other science subjects upon the death of his beloved brother Giulio, who died when Enrico was only 14. To help him out of his deep depression as a result of his brother’s death, Enrico’s parents gave him many books and encouraged him to read and study. 

Enrico quickly became totally fascinated with physics. He read as many books as he could find on the subject and even designed and completed his own experiments for fun. Sensing his escape from depression, his parents continually encouraged him to study more and expand his interest in physics and other related sciences. 

Enrico’s intense interest and hard work in learning physics and other sciences paid off handsomely when we was awarded a scholarship to the prestigious Scoula Normale Superiore University in Pisa, Italy. Enrico’s knowledge and dedication to his studies allowed him to advance rapidly through his schooling. He graduated with honors in 1922 and went on to earn a Rockefeller Fellowship in 1923. He also gained the opportunity to meet and work with several prestigious scientists such as the famous professor Max Born of Germany.

Fermi married Laura Capon of a highly respected Roman Jewish family in 1928. They raised a son, Guilio and a daughter, Nella. Their family was happy, loving and close.

Physics Career Blossoms

Fermi quickly became a noted and respected physics scientist which allowed him to grow his knowledge base even further and expand his learning to many related areas. He became the theoretical physics professor at the University of Rome, a highly esteemed position in 1927. 

The incredible and unique accomplishments Fermi performed in physics studies and experimentation were done both theoretically and scientifically; a unique accomplishment in those days as most science experimentation was specialized in one manner or the other. 

Fermi’s most critical work began in the early 1930s. He developed the theory of what is called beta decay.  Fermi postulated that new neutrons decaying to a proton unleashes an electron and a particle which he named neutrino.

Fermi and his associates then proceeded to study the neutron and its “affiliates” intensely to understand the ramifications of slowing down the neutrons and bombarding them with other elements.

They discovered that such experimentation produced a strange new entity and process that opened the door to understanding how to split the atom and discovering how nuclear transformation occurs in almost every element.This work led to nuclear fission and how to produce new elements that were not even part of the traditional Periodic Table, known to all scientists.

Fermi’s work and dedication earned him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1938. His award was “for his discovery of new radioactive elements produced by neutron radiation and for the discovery of nuclear reactions brought about by slow neutrons”. 

Moving to the United States and developing the Atom Bomb

While Fermi was experiencing phenomenal success, Europe was descending into darkness. 

Fascist Italy under Mussolini instituted anti-Jewish laws and began tightening his dictatorship power over the country. Traveling to Sweden to accept his Nobel Prize provided Fermi and his family with a great opportunity to leave Italy and escape to the United States. 

Fermi quickly received a job as the Professor of Physics at New York Columbia University. He aggressively went to work and soon discovered that by using uranium neutrons emitted to fissioning uranium, other uranium atoms split, setting off a chain reaction that released enormous amounts of energy. 

Nuclear fission was becoming recognized by scientists worldwide as a possible means of helping design and build a destructive energy source to be used as a “super bomb”. The major countries at war all worked feverishly to develop a potential bomb to help them win the World War underway at this time.

Fermi was asked by the U.S. Government to help design and build a bomb that could potentially be used to help win the war. Urgency was paramount as it was known that Germany and Japan were secretly trying to develop a super bomb to use against America and her allies.

Fermi joined an elite team of scientists as part of the Manhattan Project. Fermi moved to Chicago and began plans for building this new weapon at the University of Chicago. He supervised the team’s first step in designing and building an “atomic pile”, which was a code word for the assembly of a nuclear reactor.

After days and weeks of hard work; on December 2, 1942, the Manhattan Project team achieved history’s first self-sustaining chain reaction which allowed for the controlled release of nuclear energy. 

The development of the world’s first nuclear bomb continued onward at a feverish pace by Fermi and his team. Finally, on July 16, 1945, the historical Manhattan Project successfully ended with the successful explosion of the first atom bomb in the military testing area near Alamogordo, New Mexico.

The successful development of the atom bomb allowed for the United States to finally and convincingly end the devastating war with Japan by dropping the atom bomb on Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With tens of thousands of Japanese killed and injured by the bombings, Japan agreed to unconditional surrender.

Final Years and Special Honors

After the War, Fermi joined the faculty of the University of Chicago and continued his work with atoms, concentrating on the particles that exist in the atom’s nucleus.  He lead and managed a team at the University that designed the synchrocyclotron; at the time, the most powerful atom smasher in the world. 

During this time, the University of Chicago formed the Institute for Nuclear Studies to honor Fermi and his fellow scientists and to continue the overall commitment by the University and the brilliant scientists to the peaceful study and advancement of nuclear energy. This institute is now named The Enrico Fermi Institute.

Fermi is recognized as one of history’s most brilliant scientists, especially in the area of high energy and nuclear physics. In 1969 the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission built a new laboratory in suburban Chicago. To honor Fermi, the laboratory was/is named the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. It is also known as FermiLab.

Enrico Fermi, Nobel Prize recipient and architect of the nuclear age, died on November 28, 1954 at the age of 53. He suffered incurable stomach cancer and spent his remaining months in his home in Chicago prior to his death. The scientific community and the Nation mourned the passing of this historic man. 

His legacy will live forever.


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