The Italian physicist Enrico Fermi was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 1938. Fermi was the son of Alberto Fermi who was employed as a Chief Inspector in the Italian ministry of communications and Ida de Gattis. He was born in Rome, Italy on September 29 1901.
At the local Grammar School, his aptitude for the subjects of physics and mathematics was recognized and encouraged. The young Enrico Fermi won a fellowship allowing him to study at the Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa. Four years study at the University of Pisa saw him gaining a doctors degree in physics in 1922.
In 1923, with a fellowship from the Italian Government, Fermi went to Gottingen in Germany to work with Professor Max Born for some months. The next year with the aid of a Rockefeller Fellowship, he went to Leiden University in Holland working with Paul Ehrenfest.
At the end of 1924, he returned to Italy to take up the post of Lecturer in Mathematical Physics and Mechanics at the University of Florence. While in that post he discovered the statistical laws now called the Fermi statistics, which govern certain particles subject to Pauli’s exclusion principle. These particles have been given the name “fermions”.
In 1926, he left Florence to take up the post of Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Rome. He remained in this post until 1938. His early interests in Rome were in the fields of electrodynamics and spectrographic problems. In 1929, he was chosen as one of the first thirty members of the Italian Royal Academy.
With Marie Curie and Jean-Frederic Juliot’s discovery of artificial radioactivity, he turned his astute mind to the nature of the atomic nucleus developing the theory of beta decay in 1934. He also demonstrated that transformation could occur with nearly every element when it was bombarded with neutrons. This led to the discovery of slow neutrons and eventually nuclear fission.
In 1938, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics for his work on artificial radioactivity produced by neutrons and for nuclear reactions brought about by slow neutrons. That same year, he left Italy for America to escape the attention of Mussolini’s fascist government.
He was the expert on neutrons and continued to work in the field when he was appointed Professor of Physics at Columbia University, New York in 1939. The discovery of nuclear fission, by Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman in 1939, led him to the idea of a chain reaction. He followed this up with the classic experiment building an atomic pile and the first ever controlled chain reaction on December 2 1942. This atomic pile was set up in Chicago on, of all places, a squash court underneath the Chicago stadium.
The Manhattan Project recruited Fermi where he took a leading role in the development of America’s atomic bomb. His knowledge of atomic physics helped solve many of the problems that the team had with the production of the first ever atomic weapon.
In 1944, Enrico Fermi took American citizenship.
At the end of the war, he returned to academia taking up the post of Professor at the Institute for Nuclear Studies of the University of Chicago. Here he worked on high energy physics, looking at pion-nucleon interactions. Later he turned his attention to the origin of cosmic rays developing a theory of a universal magnetic field.
He was much in demand as a lecturer in Chicago. He also delivered a number of lectures at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor as well as at Stanford University, California.
He remained in Chicago until his death on November 28 1954.
Away from the field of atomic physics, he was a family man having married Laura Capon in 1928. They had two children a son Guilio and a daughter Nella. He enjoyed a number of outdoor pursuits including walking, mountaineering and winter sports.
In addition to the Fermi statistic and fermions, Enrico Fermi is remembered by a special award of $55,000 for work in the field of atomic physics. His name was also used to name element 100, fermium.