Enrico Fermi

by Matt from Fredericksburg, VA

Enrico Fermi
Unknown author [public domain] via Wikimedia

Enrico Fermi is viewed as one of the last physicists who was actually able to bridge the gap between theoretical knowledge and experimental application. He made many discoveries in the field of physics and there is no doubt this would be a different world if he had not followed the path that he did.

Enrico Fermi was born in Italy in 1901 where he spent the first 14 years of his life just as any child would. At age 14 though, he was introduced to science when his older brother died from a minor throat surgery. In order to escape from the pain of losing his brother, Fermi buried himself in old books about physics that he found at the local bookstore. He later remarked that he did not even realize they were written entirely in Latin. His studies took off quickly and he was readily accepted into college with an entrance exam essay that was judged worthy of a doctoral exam.

After college Fermi remained interested in physics and began to start making discoveries of his own. Eventually he was awarded the Nobel Prize for discovering new radioactive elements produced by neutron bombardment. The neutron had recently been discovered around this time which was why it was such an important discovery. Soon after receiving the prize, Fermi left Italy to come to America to escape the Mussolini's fascist dictatorship that was sweeping through Italy. He was afraid that harm might come to his Jewish wife.

By the time Fermi got settled in the United States, he was the greatest expert on neutrons in the world. He continued to experiment with them in the U.S., especially when he heard about the discovery of fission by Hahn and Strassmann in 1939. Fermi realized at this point that someone might be able to create a stable chain reaction using the same principles and potentially generate an enormous amount of energy, either in the form of electricity, or a bomb.

Even though Fermi was excited about this new discovery, he was also reluctant to share it with anyone. He not only realized that a bomb was possible, but he also realized how destructive such a bomb could be. He kept his discovery secret for years until the growing power of the Nazi regime forced him to reveal his secret to the President of the United States. He began writing a letter to President F.D. Roosevelt but felt the letter needed more weight. So he went to his colleague Albert Einstein and explained the situation to him. The letter was sent off with Einstein’s own signature and recommendation.

Roosevelt authorized further research into the field and Fermi’s theory was finally proven one day at the University of Chicago, where he created and controlled the first nuclear chain reaction. As well as proving it was possible to create a stable nuclear chain reaction, the experiment also showed that building an actual atomic bomb would only take more engineering and time. This would, of course, be proven to the world when the first atomic bomb to be used in warfare was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945.

Enrico Fermi died of stomach cancer in 1954 at the age of 53. He was an upstanding scientist and always stuck to his principles. He even went so far as to leave his home in Italy because he knew what was happening there was not right and that his research would not be put to good use. Looking at his life in retrospect, it is hard to find a major flaw in his character or in the way he went through life even though he was faced with many tough decisions. This is why I chose Enrico Fermi as my hero.

Page created on 7/27/2005 12:00:00 AM

Last edited 9/23/2020 1:10:35 AM

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Related Links

Nobel Prize: Enrico Fermi - The official Nobel Prize biography of Fermi