The last universal physicist
On the occasion of his one hundredth
birthday, we honor a great scientist
who was born in Italy, made immense
and lasting contributions to the birth of
modern physics, and emigrated to the
United States, where he carried out
experiments and theoretical studies
that ushered in the atomic age.
Enrico Fermi was born in Rome on
September 29, 1901, and received his
doctorate from the University of Pisa in 1922. After fellowships in
Göttingen and Leiden, he lectured for two years at the University of
Florence. In 1927, Fermi was elected the first professor of
theoretical physics at the University of Rome, where he attracted a
brilliant group of students and collaborators.
The scientific work of Fermi and his circle influenced an astonishing
range of topics, many of which are of high interest in the year 2001.
An uncanny instinct for the most important questions and a
remarkable gift for simple, direct explanations are hallmarks of
Fermi's contributions. Scientists hold him in awe as "the last
In a lifetime of scientific achievement, Enrico Fermi's work on
neutrons and radioactivity had perhaps the broadest impact.
Following the observation of artificial radioactivity, Fermi found that
nuclear transmutation occurs in nearly every element bombarded by
neutrons. That work led him to discover the special effectiveness of
slow neutrons for inducing nuclear transformations, which in turn led
to the discovery of nuclear fission and the production of artificial
Enrico Fermi was awarded the 1938 Nobel Prize in Physics for his
neutron research. He and his family used the occasion of the Nobel
ceremony to escape the tightening grip of fascism; he joined the tide
of illustrious immigrants who transformed the American scientific
community, taking a professorship at Columbia University.
In the discovery of fission, Fermi saw the possibility that the
emission of secondary neutrons could sustain a chain reaction. With
tremendous enthusiasm and his characteristic clarity of thought, he
directed a series of classic experiments that eventually led to the
atomic pile and the first controlled nuclear chain reaction, observed
by his team on December 2, 1942 in Chicago.
Fermi became an American citizen in 1944. For the next two years,
he served as Associate Director of the Los Alamos Scientific
Laboratory in New Mexico, and was among the witnesses to the first
nuclear explosion in the Alamogordo desert. At the end of the war,
Fermi accepted a position at the Institute for Nuclear Studies at the
University of Chicago, where he established another great school of
physics. Until his death in 1954, his main scientific interest was in the
new field of particle physics.
Fermi's contributions to science, teaching, and public service make
him a continuing inspiration to other scientists and to young people
today. His name lives on in the Enrico Fermi Institute at the
University of Chicago, where the range of superb scientific research
carries on his legacy; the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory
(Fermilab), in Batavia, Illinois, the particle physics laboratory that is
home to the world's most powerful accelerator; and the Fermi
Award, a Presidential award that is one of the oldest and most
prestigious science and technology honors given by the United
At Fermilab this week, we commemorate the life and work of this
outstanding scientist and great American citizen.
by Chris Quigg
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