Enrico Fermi (1901-1954)
The Nobel Prize in Physics 1938
Enrico Fermi was born in Rome on September 29, 1901, the son of Alberto Fermi, a Chief Inspector of the Ministry of Communications, and Ida de Gattis. He attended a local grammar school, and his early aptitude for mathematics and physics was recognized and encouraged. In 1918, he won a fellowship of the Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa. He spent four years at the University of Pisa, gaining his doctor’s degree in physics in 1922, with Professor Puccianti.
In 1926, Fermi discovered the statistical laws, nowadays known as the “Fermi statistics”, governing the particles subject to Pauli’s exclusion principle (now referred to as “fermions”, in contrast with “bosons” which obey the Bose-Einstein statistics).
In 1927, Fermi was elected Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Rome, a post which he retained until 1938, when — immediately after the receipt of the Nobel Prize — he emigrated to America, primarily to escape Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship.
During the early years of his career in Rome he occupied himself with electrodynamic problems and theoretical investigations on various spectroscopic phenomena. But a capital turning-point came when he directed his attention from the outer electrons towards the atomic nucleus itself. In 1934, he evolved the ß-decay theory, coalescing previous work on radiation theory with Pauli’s idea of the neutrino. Following the discovery by Curie and Joliot of artificial radioactivity (1934), he demonstrated that nuclear transformation occurs in almost every element subjected to neutron bombardment. This work resulted in the discovery of slow neutrons that same year, leading to the discovery of nuclear fission and the production of elements lying beyond what was until then the Periodic Table.
In 1938, Fermi was without doubt the greatest expert on neutrons, and he continued his work on this topic on his arrival in the United States, where he was soon appointed Professor of Physics at Columbia University, N.Y. (1939-1942).
Upon the discovery of fission, by Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann early in 1939, he immediately saw the possibility of emission of secondary neutrons and of a chain reaction. He proceeded to work with tremendous enthusiasm, and directed a classical series of experiments which ultimately led to the atomic pile and the first controlled nuclear chain reaction. This took place in Chicago on December 2, 1942 — on a squash court situated beneath Chicago’s stadium. He subsequently played an important part in solving the problems connected with the development of the first atomic bomb (he was one of the leaders of the team of physicists on the Manhattan Project for the development of nuclear energy and the atomic bomb.)
In 1944, Fermi became an American citizen, and at the end of the war (1946) he accepted a professorship at the Institute for Nuclear Studies of the University of Chicago, a position which he held until his untimely death in 1954. There he turned his attention to high-energy physics, and led investigations into the pion-nucleon interaction.
During the last years of his life Fermi occupied himself with the problem of the mysterious origin of cosmic rays, thereby developing a theory, according to which a universal magnetic field — acting as a giant accelerator — would account for the fantastic energies present in the cosmic ray particles.
The Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Fermi for his work on the artificial radioactivity produced by neutrons, and for nuclear reactions brought about by slow neutrons.
He died in Chicago on November 28, 1954.