"A Physicist with a Capital F"
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.
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
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
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
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