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Enrico Fermi

1901 - 1954

There are two possible outcomes: If the result confirms the hypothesis,
then you've made a measurement. If the result is contrary
to the hypothesis, then you've made a discovery.

                                                                               —Enrico Fermi

Enrico Fermi was born in Rome on September 29, 1901. He is best known for his contributions to nuclear physics and the development quantum theory.

Fermi attended the University of Pisa, graduating in 1922. He became a lecturer at the University of Florence for two years and then professor of theoretical physics in Rome. In 1934, while at the University of Rome, Fermi began experiments where he bombarded a variety of elements with neutrons. He discovered that slow moving neutrons were especially effective in producing radioactive atoms. Not realizing he had split the atom, Fermi announced what he thought were elements beyond uranium. Fermi won the 1938 Nobel Prize for physics for his work on nuclear processes. Also in 1938 two German physicists, Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch performed a similar experiment where they split a uranium atom. They named the process of splitting atoms "nuclear fission."

In 1938 Fermi left Italy. The "official" reason was that his wife was of Hebrew origin and he feared for her safety. The "un-official" story was that he needed funds to continue his research in nuclear physics. Italy was a poor country at that time and there were no resources to be found to continue his research. He was one of a large group of intellectuals who left other European countries with the rise of National Socialism (the Nazi Party) in Germany and Fascism in Italy. Fermi settled in the United States in 1939, and became professor of physics at Columbia University in New York City.

Fermi continued to conduct nuclear fission experiments at Columbia University. In 1940, Fermi's team confirmed that absorption of a neutron by a uranium nucleus can cause the nucleus to split into two nearly equal parts, releasing several neutrons and enormous amounts of energy. The potential for a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction had become a strong possibility.

Fermi was placed in charge of the Manhattan Project at the University of Chicago in 1942. His team developed the first atomic pile and produced the first nuclear chain reaction. The project was moved to New Mexico in 1944, and on July 16, 1945, the first atomic bomb was detonated at Alamogordo Air Base.

After the war, Fermi continued his pioneering research on high energy particles. In 1953, Fermi visited Italy for the final time. On November 28, 1954, he died of cancer at the University of Chicago. Fermi is remembered as the "father of the atomic bomb."

The element Fermium, the 100th in the periodic table, was named after Enrico Fermi.

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•  Other Physicists/Scientists in the Lucidcafé Library
•  Enrico Fermi Images
•  Books About/By Fermi
•  Related Websites


  Other Physicists/Scientists in the Lucidcafé Library

  Books By/About Fermi

  • Fermi Remembered - Author: James W. Cronin

    Edited by James W. Cronin, a University of Chicago physicist and Nobel laureate himself, Fermi Remembered is a tender tribute to one of the greatest scientists of the twentieth century.

    CLICK HERE to purchase this Hardcover edition of "Fermi Remembered"

  • Atoms in the Family: My Life With Enrico Fermi - Author: Laura Fermi

    Laura Fermi traces her husband's career from his childhood, when he taught himself physics, through his rise in the Italian university system concurrent with the rise of fascism, to his receipt of the Nobel Prize, which offered a perfect opportunity to flee the country without arousing official suspicion, and his odyssey to the United States.

    CLICK HERE to purchase this Paperback edition of "Atoms in the Family"

  • Enrico Fermi Physicist - Author: Emilio Segre

    Segre presents a rich, well-rounded portrait of Fermi, explaining in nontechnical terms the scientific problems Fermi faced or solved. Contains illuminating material about Fermi's youth in Italy and the development of his scientific style.

    CLICK HERE to purchase this Paperback edition of "Enrico Fermi Physicist"

  • Thermodynamics - Author: Enrico Fermi

    This remarkably clear treaties on thermodynamics is based on a series of lectures Fermi delivered at Columbia University. A knowledge of Calculus is required.

    CLICK HERE to purchase this Paperback edition of "Thermodynamics"

  Related Websites

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Copyright © 1995-2016 Robin Chew
Article written by Robin Chew - September 1995