Fermi, Enrico 1901 – 1954

  Physicist, born on September 29, 1901 in Rome, Italy. The son of a civil servant father and a schoolteacher mother, Fermi studied at the University of Pisa from 1918 to 1922, where his precocity led him to often teach his teachers.

  In 1926, while a lecturer at the University of Florence, he developed a new form of statistical mechanics to explain the theoretical behavior of atomic particles. Fermi also developed the theory of beta decay, which introduced the last of the four basic forces known to nature, the nuclear “weak force.? At the University of Rome, he and his colleagues unwittingly split the nuclei of uranium atoms by bombarding them with neutrons, thus producing the first artificial radioactive substances. Fermi thought that the atoms were not splitting, but emitting a new element. For this breakthrough, Fermi received the 1938 Nobel Prize in physics. The same experiment yielded Fermi’s most notable discovery: that slowing neutrons by passing them through a light-element “moderator?increased their effectiveness. This “slowing?process later allowed for the release of nuclear energy in a reactor.

  Fearing for the safety of his Jewish wife because of Mussolini's anti-Semitic legislation, Fermi went directly from the Nobel Prize presentation in Stockholm to Columbia University in New York City. In 1939, he and Leo Szilard designed the first nuclear reactor, which Fermi euphemistically called a “nuclear pile.? They moved this work to the University of Chicago in 1942, joining the Manhattan Project, the American-led effort to build the first atomic bomb.

  On December 2, 1942, on the squash courts of the University of Chicago, Fermi presided over what the site’s commemorative plaque now calls “the first self-sustaining chain reaction and thereby initiated the controlled release of nuclear energy."?The pile ran for twenty-eight minutes and produced 200 watts of power, paving the way for the 1945 invention of the plutonium-based atomic bomb.

  Fermi moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 1944 and attended the detonation of the first atomic bomb at the Trinity Test Site in the New Mexican desert. He estimated the force of the explosion by simply dropping scraps of paper in the wind and comparing their displacement before and during the blast. Despite his immeasurable contribution to the atomic bomb, Fermi opposed the development of the more powerful hydrogen bomb, calling it a “weapon which in its practical effect is almost one of genocide.? Fermi died of stomach cancer on November 28, 1954, in Chicago.