Top banner


"A Physicist with a Capital F"

David Kaiser

Fermi Remembered. Edited by James W. Cronin. xii + 287 pp. University of Chicago Press, 2004. $45.

Enrico Fermi (1901-1954) was one of the 20th century's most famous—and most admired—physicists. Stories about him abounded during his lifetime, and many have stood the test of time, becoming part of the oral tradition of today's physicists. Fermi's career epitomizes the whirlwind transitions that rocked the discipline throughout the first half of the century, from the birth of modern physics to the mushroom clouds of atomic weapons.

Enrico FermiClick to Enlarge Image

Fermi came of age in the mid-1920s, just as Continental physicists were crafting quantum mechanics, and he quickly joined in, making several lasting contributions to the new theory. By the 1930s, as the storm clouds of Fascism were gathering, Fermi's group at the University of Rome had become legendary among physicists, especially for its work on the behavior of neutrons, which were discovered in 1932 and were quickly seen as the keys to understanding atomic nuclei. Fermi's neutron work earned him the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1938. This honor offered him a means to escape with his family from Mussolini's Italy, Sound of Music-style, under the pretext of traveling to Stockholm to accept the award.

Fermi arrived in New York in early January 1939, just two weeks before Niels Bohr came to town laden with top-secret news of nuclear fission. Fermi and his new colleagues at Columbia University were among the first to confirm uranium fission, and soon the race was on to see whether fission could be used to make an atomic bomb. By 1942, Fermi had relocated to Chicago to work full-time on the new Manhattan Project. There he led the famous experiment underneath Stagg Field at the University of Chicago to produce a self-sustaining chain reaction. For the remainder of the war, he served as a prized consultant at both the Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory and Los Alamos. As the war drew to a close, President Truman appointed Fermi, along with other scientific leaders of the wartime project, including J. Robert ­Oppenheimer, Arthur Compton and E. O. Lawrence, to serve on an Interim Committee advising the president and his immediate circle on whether and how to use atomic bombs.

After the war, Fermi became the center of a flourishing Department of Physics at the University of Chicago, where he also helped set up the University's new Institute for Nuclear Studies. There he attracted many of the young guns of the rising generation of American physicists, who flocked to Chicago either as new faculty members or as graduate students.

Fermi also continued his close association with the halls of power, serving on the General Advisory Committee of the newly established Atomic Energy Commission. In this capacity he argued passionately against the development of hydrogen bombs as late as October 1949, proclaiming (in a memorable minority report, which he co­wrote with I. I. Rabi) that such weapons, with an explosive power thousands of times greater than that of the fission bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Naga­saki, would necessarily be an evil thing "in any light." All the same, after Truman announced a crash-course development of hydrogen bombs in January 1950, Fermi, like so many of his colleagues who had deplored the idea, contributed to the new effort as a consultant. Meanwhile, his scientific work at Chicago prospered, and he continued to be a sought-after guru on topics across nuclear and high-energy physics, until cancer abruptly led to his premature death.

Throughout his career, Fermi straddled divisions that came to define the discipline of physics more and more sharply. Unlike nearly all of his colleagues, he was a celebrated experimentalist as well as a theorist, and he continued to move easily between the two types of work right through his last years at Chicago. He also mastered topics from across the wide range of physics, even as his colleagues—and especially his students and others of their generation—fell more and more into narrow specialties. He produced nearly 300 scientific articles during his brief but brilliant career.

To mark the centennial of Fermi's birth, several conferences were held throughout the world, including celebrations in Rome, at Columbia University and at the University of Chicago. The papers in Fermi Remembered come from the Chicago meeting and fo­cus specifically on Fermi's legacy there. The volume begins with a useful biographical introduction by Fermi's longtime colleague and biographer, Emilio Segrè. Next Frank Wilczek, one of the most celebrated theoretical physicists of our time, discusses Fermi's main scientific contributions in the context of today's understanding of fundamental physics; this piece succeeds in presenting Fermi's technical work in an engaging and broadly accessible manner.

The middle portion of the book consists of reproductions of some of Fermi's unpublished notes and correspondence; the content ranges from his first work on nuclear weapons to his early postwar plans for research and teaching. The letters included here give a small taste of the wide range of material by Fermi now held in the University of Chicago archives; although the selections reproduced in this book don't contain anything earth-shattering, they do give a flavor of Fermi's life and times.

The last third of the book consists of brief reminiscences by Fermi's former colleagues and students at the University of Chicago. Although often repetitive, these vignettes attest both to the respect and admiration that Fermi still commands half a century after his death, and to the staying power of certain key Fermi stories among the dozens of physicists who worked most closely with him. These anecdotes feature his playful competitiveness, his lightning-fast powers of mental calculation, his gentle encouragement of students, his sterling clarity as a lecturer and his supreme command of the arcana of physics.

The book will be of interest to those who knew Fermi and to younger physicists who still live with his scientific legacy, as well as to historians interested in the life and work of one of the most famous members of the Los Alamos generation.—David Kaiser, Physics and History of Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

comments powered by Disqus


Bottom Banner