Enrico Fermi
By Professor Spencer Di Scala*

Born on September 29, 1901, Enrico Fermi showed his propensity for physics at an early age by wandering the streets of Rome and hunting down classic works on the subject. He devoured the books, including one in Latin. A colleague of his father's, who worked for the Italian railways, recognized his talents, encouraged his studies, and suggested that he apply for entrance to Italy's famed Scuola Normale at Pisa. His parents were reluctant to let him go because they had lost another son, but finally relented.

Fermi became a star at Pisa, instructing his professors on the new quantum mechanics. Upon returning to Rome, he drew the attention of Orso Mario Corbino, a physicist, Senator, and cabinet minister. Corbino wished to create a research center for the new field of nuclear physics and chose Fermi to head it. Under Fermi's guidance, this center situated at Via Panisperna in Rome, instituted the technique of bombarding the nuclei of atoms with neutrons and made fundamental discoveries during the 1930s. During this period, the Fermi group discovered and patented "slow neutrons," much more effective in creating changes in the atomic nucleus. In 1934, the group split the uranium nucleus, although it did not recognize that it had discovered fission.

By 1938, the Rome group had split. Mussolini's foreign policy had become more radical with the invasion of Ethiopia and Italy's adherence to the Axis, Corbino had died, and the Fascists had passed the racial laws. Fermi, whose wife and several collaborators were Jewish, left the country. After collecting his Nobel Prize in Stockholm, Fermi went to a job at Columbia University. With the theoretical explanation of fission by Lise Meitner in 1939, Fermi believed it was possible to create a controlled chain reaction, and he was the first to accomplish this feat in Chicago on December 2, 1942. This event was crucial for the development of the Atomic and Hydrogen bombs and for nuclear reactors. Fermi was a key member of the Manhattan Project that built the first atomic bomb. After World War II, Fermi held essential positions on commissions studying the use of atomic energy. A full professor at the University of Chicago, Fermi devoted himself to research until his untimely death from stomach cancer on November 29, 1954.

A superb teacher, Fermi is remembered not only for his many fundamental discoveries but for establishment of schools of physics by his students in Europe, the United States, the Soviet Union, and Latin America. During the centennial of his birth, celebrations will be held in Italian cities that were important for his career and, in the United States, at Columbia University, and the universities of Chicago and California (Los Angeles).


*Spencer M. Di Scala is professor of History at the University of Massachusetts Boston, which also named him research professor in 1997. He received his Ph. D. degree at Columbia University and previously taught at the University of Kentucky. He has published five books and over 150 journal, newspaper, and encyclopedia articles. His Italy: From Revolution to Republic, 1700 to the Present (Boulder: Westview Press, 1998), a selection of the History Book club will soon be going into a third edition. He is finishing a book on Europe in the Twentieth Century and is currently working on a biography of Enrico Fermi