1938
Enrico Fermi, “Father of the Atomic Age” and Nobel Prize winner in nuclear physics.


Born in Rome, Italy, Enrico Fermi (1901-1954) was one of three children of a father who was an administrator for the Italian national railroad and a mother who was an elementary school teacher. As a boy Enrico was excited by mathematics, devoured books on physics and was well acquainted with classic Italian literature. Fermi studied at the University of Pisa where he also conducted experiments and carried out research in relativity. He went to Germany and Holland to broaden his knowledge of physics, thus paving the way for Italy to play a principal role in physics.

In the 1920s, while teaching mathematics at the University of Florence, he developed the so-called Fermi-Dirac statistics for determining the quantum characteristics of a class of subatomic particles. In 1929 at age 27, he became the youngest ever member of the distinguished Royal Academy of Italy. In 1930 Fermi visited the United States for the first time to deliver lectures at the University of Michigan. Upon his return to Italy he published papers on radioactivity and experimented with neutron bombardment of various elements achieving unusual results with uranium --the forerunner of nuclear energy. The brilliant scientist was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1938.

Married to Laura Capon, a Jewish woman, Enrico was becoming wary of growing anti-Semitism in Italy and decided not to return to his country after accepting his prize in Sweden, opting for the United States instead. The Fermis became American citizens in 1944. Fermi joined the Department of Physics at Columbia University where he worked with Nils Bohr and concluded that a chain reaction could be achieved through the use of the uranium 235 isotope. Under the leadership of Arthur Compton of the University of Chicago, Fermi joined with other outstanding scientists like Leo Szilard at Stagg Field to produce in 1942 a controlled flow of energy derived from a source other than the sun. The potential for the development of a weapon of massive power was becoming apparent and Fermi moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico with his family where he headed a group of scientists working on the Manhattan Project that produced the atomic bomb in July 1945.

For his role in developing the atomic bomb Enrico Fermi received the Congressional Medal of Merit. He also continued to lecture at the University of Chicago, where an Institute of Nuclear Studies was established. The scientific community honored him by naming the atomic element 100 fermium and renaming the University of Chicago's Institute of Nuclear Studies after him upon his death. Interestingly another American of Italian birth and also a Nobel Prize winner, Emilio Segre, a friend and younger contemporary of Fermi, wrote a biography of the Father of the Atomic Age.






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