People & Events|
Enrico Fermi, (1901 - 1954)
The story that his wife Laura tells, is that Enrico Fermi's interest in physics can be traced back to the death of his older brother Giulio when Fermi was just 14. The two boys, just a year apart in age, had been incredibly close. And Giulio's death left Enrico inconsolable. Shortly afterwards he found two old physics textbooks at market that were written by a Jesuit physicist in 1840. Fermi was so intrigued by them, he read them straight through, apparently, not even noticing that they were in Latin. From that point on, physics consumed him.
When Fermi was 17 he applied to the University of Pisa. His entry essay was so advanced that it amazed the examiner who thought it suitable for a graduating doctoral student. In 1926 he became a professor of theoretical physics at the University of Rome. And in the 1930s, he began a series of experiments in which he bombarded a variety of different elements with neutrons. Fermi did not realize until later that he had, in fact, succeeded in splitting the uranium atom. It was for this work that the Nobel Committee awarded him the 1938 prize for physics.
The call from Stockholm was a life-saver for the Fermi family. The night before, a bloody pogrom had taken place in Germany that became known as Kristallnacht. And just a few months earlier, the Italian Fascists had implemented a new anti-Semitic law that claimed: "Jews do not belong to the Italian race." Although Fermi wasn't Jewish, his wife Laura was. The award ceremony gave the family an opportunity to escape Italy and emigrate to America.
At Columbia University in New York, Fermi realized that if neutrons are emitted in the fissioning of uranium then the emitted neutrons might proceed to split other uranium atoms, setting in motion a chain reaction that would release enormous amounts of energy. Together with Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard, Fermi ultimately succeeded in constructing the world's first atomic pile in a squash court under the stands of Stagg Field at the University of Chicago. And on December 2, 1942, it produced the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. Fermi had succeeded in taking one of the first steps to making an atomic bomb.
One of the participants at that momentous occasion wrote: "Even though we had anticipated the success of the experiment, its accomplishment had a deep impact on us. For some time we had known that we were about to unlock a giant; still we could not escape an eerie feeling when we knew we had actually done it."
After working on the Manhattan Project during the war, Fermi was appointed to the General Advisory Committee, the panel of scientists that advised the Atomic Energy Commission. In October 1949, the GAC met to discuss whether the U.S. should initiate a crash program to build the superbomb. After the meeting, Fermi and Isidor Rabi co-authored a minority addendum to the committee's report. It described the H-bomb in the harshest possible language: "It is clear that such a weapon cannot be justified on any ethical ground... The fact that no limits exist to the destructiveness of this weapon 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."
However, when President Truman ordered a crash program to build the superbomb a couple of months later, Fermi returned temporarily to Los Alamos to help with the calculations. He joined the effort hoping to prove that making a superbomb just wasn't possible.