Born on September 29, 1901 in Rome, Enrico Fermi was the youngest of three children born to Ida De Gattis and Alberto Fermi. Though all three of their children were gifted, the couple, she a school teacher, he a Chief Inspector of Communications, would never know the extent to which their youngest child would influence our world.
The Fermi’s children were born just one year apart from each other, which left Ida unable to care for them all at once. Subsequently, the youngest two were placed in the care of a nurse. Because Enrico’s health was poor, he was not returned to the family until he was 2 years of age. Understandably, it took him some time to adjust to his family. Of great comfort to him was his brother, Giulio, with whom he was extremely close, both emotionally and intellectually. The two of them spent time together designing electric motors, and drawing plans for airplane engines, which were indistinguishable from those of adult professionals.
Though he was clearly gifted, Enrico did not do well at writing in school. He also had a very short fuse, leaving him prone to temper tantrums. He was extremely shy around adults, and was known to have a generally disheveled appearance. For instance, it was not uncommon for his mother to make him wash his face at street fountains when they were out in public.
In 1915, the Fermi family was devastated by the death of Giulio, Enrico’s brother. While his mother was openly demonstrative about her grief, Enrico seemed more reserved. It appears that he may have sublimated his grief by plunging himself into study. He voraciously devoured information on mathematics and physics. Once, he picked up a couple of antique volumes of elementary physics, and spent the next several days pouring over their contents. He told his sister, Maria, that he did not realize until later that they were written in Latin, and not Italian.
At the age of 17, Enrico Fermi earned a scholarship to the University of Pisa by writing an essay on the characteristics of sound. By the young age of 21, with a thesis on x-rays, he had already earned his doctorate. Shortly thereafter he went to Germany and studied at the University of Gottingen under Max Born, after which he returned to teach at the University of Florence. In 1922 he was invited by the University of Rome to become a professor of theoretical physics. It was there that he met a young science student named Laura Capon, whom he married in 1928. She bore him two children, a daughter named Nella in 1931, and a son named Giulio in 1936.
In 1934, Fermi began experimenting with bombarding various elements with neutrons, and found that slow moving neutrons produced what he then thought were new elements called transuranics. He believed that the bombardment caused the uranium nucleus to absorb a neutron, thus changing its atomic weight. For this work, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1938. What was really happening, he thought, was that he had split the atom, and the so-called elements he observed were really radioisotopes of known elements that resulted when the atom was split. No one, at the time, had any idea what was to come from this research.
At about the same time, Fascism was on the rise in Italy, and the Nazi Party was taking over Germany. Fermi, whose wife was of Jewish descent, knew it was time to leave. So it was that Fermi and his family took the opportunity, while in Sweden to accept the Nobel Prize, to immigrate to the United States, where he took a post as professor of physics at Columbia University in New York. It was there, and later at the University of Chicago, that he began experimenting with nuclear fission, and in 1940, he and his associates confirmed that they were actually splitting atoms, and they realized that the process produced tremendous amounts of energy. Moreover, a self-sustaining chain reaction could take place, whereby one atom’s nucleus is split, it releases energy and additional neutrons, which then bombard other atoms and split other nuclei, and so on. The problem was that this reaction would eventually go too fast, and would result in an atomic explosion. They realized, though, that under control, the reaction could produce a steady flow of energy.
Fermi was now heading the Manhattan Project at the University of Chicago, which was established by Roosevelt to create the world’s first atomic bomb. The concern was that Hitler would get hold of the technology first, in which case there was a terrific threat to millions around the world. So, in order to control the chain reaction, Fermi and his team set up what is called an atomic pile. This was a method of setting up the equipment which allowed Fermi to insert cadmium rods into the fission process to slow it down or bring it to a halt. Similarly, he could remove them to accelerate it. On December 2, 1942, Fermi and his team set up their equipment on the squash court at the University of Chicago. It was a very dangerous undertaking, because if their theories or calculations were incorrect, it could result in an explosion strong enough to destroy a significant portion of the city. Fortunately for the residents of Chicago, their calculations were accurate. Instead of an explosion, they produced the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear reaction. From there, the construction of a nuclear bomb was merely a matter of engineering. A coded message to the government told of his success: "The Italian navigator has just landed in the new world." This marked the dawn of the nuclear age.
In 1944, Enrico Fermi became a U.S. Citizen. The Manhattan Project was moved to New Mexico, and from 1944 to 1945 he held a position as Associate Director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. On July 16, 1945, Fermi was in attendance as the first atomic bomb was detonated at Alamogordo Air Base. After the war, he took a job at the newly established Institute for Nuclear Studies at the University of Chicago, where he continued his work in the field of neutron physics. He remained at that post until his untimely demise on November 29, 1954. Just day’s prior, he had been the first recipient of the Atomic Energy Commission Award. In 1955 the element Fermium was named in his honor, and in 1956, the Enrico Fermi Award was established to perpetuate his memory and to recognize others like him.
Fermi’s work has been steadily expanded upon and refined in the years since his death. Nuclear reactors have been built globally, and now supply much of the world’s electrical power. As well, radioactive materials are used in a wide variety of industrial applications, such as food preservation, cancer treatment, and checking the integrity of welds in pipelines and bridge supports. Research and experience have revealed the dangers implicit in the process of splitting the atom and of its waste products, which makes the existence of nuclear power and its radioactive by-products quite controversial. Though his work has generated a fair amount of conflict, the fact remains that Enrico Fermi contributed monumentally to the way we live in the 21st century, and the way we will progress in the years to come.
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