Real name: Enrico Fermi, but for purposes of security during the Manhattan Project the Italian physicist’s code name was Americanized. This is just one of many facts in the new book by David Schwartz, The Last Man Who Knew Everything.
There are few books on the man deemed “the Father of the Nuclear Age.” I’m not a fan of nuclear power but Fermi unlocked a universe, as much as Columbus unlocked a hemisphere. Both men are gods in the Italian American pantheon (although that pantheon seems incongruously overcrowded with Mafia idols and filmmakers). Both expanded the bounds of mankind but unleashed forces that wreaked havoc.
Italian physics dated from the first physicist, Galileo Galilei, as well as Titus Lucretius Carus, whose seminal work On the Nature of Things first linked the Chaos and Atomic Theories, fifty years before Christ. Fermi’s two crowning achievements were splitting the atom in 1934 (which he didn’t realize at the time) and the first controlled nuclear chain reaction in 1942. His life ended abruptly in 1954 at age 53, from stomach cancer, probably inflicted by radiation poisoning. Yet, his few years on earth changed the course of history.
Enrico Fermi’s impact on physics was more than just about his discoveries. He had a unique personality and way of thinking that he passed on to a new generation of scientists – he taught five future Nobel Prize winners. He showed how to solve problems using common knowledge and filtering out extraneous information, a process known as“Fermi Problems.”
Above all else, Fermi possessed an Italic penchant for pragmatism. Einstein conceived E=MC2 but Fermi put it to the test. Fermi was also a practitioner of sprezzatura, that Italian art of making things look easy. Overseeing the potentially catastrophic chain reaction in 1942, Fermi surprisingly ordered the reaction halted until after his mandatory lunch break. After lunch, he brought the pile to critical mass and a colleague made a call to the government overseer saying: “The Italian navigator has just landed in the new world…and the natives were very friendly.”
At the beginning of the Manhattan Project Fermi was considered a security risk by the FBI. In fact, Enrico Fermi was a Fascist. Not one for religion or oaths, Fermi took the pledge in 1929 in order to continue his work and double his salary. Mussolini made scientific research a hallmark of the regime and Fermi was its face. Fermi literally wrote the nation’s physics textbook, which is still used today in Italian schools, over 3 million copies printed.
He abandoned Italy in 1938 upon receiving a Nobel Prize. His wife Laura was a Jew and feared reprisals under the new Fascist Racial Laws. However, her father was a retired Italian admiral, making the family exempt from the laws. He was safe until the German occupation when he was arrested and died in captivity.
Much has been said of the race to beat Germany to the bomb, but the fact is German scientists were on the wrong track. Their nuclear pile depended on “heavy water” to control the reaction while Fermi’s used graphite. It was Germany’s undoing and why we beat them.
His work led to the bomb but also to nuclear reactors – some 450 worldwide with about 100 in the United States. These reactors produce electricity and radioisotopes used to detect cancers and to cure them. Nuclear physics is a mixed bag.
Fermi had a unique put-down for those who complicated things: “Before I came here I was confused about this subject. Having listened to your lecture I am still confused, but on a higher level.”
It seems appropriate to express our ambivalence toward the Nuclear Age with the same comment. -JLM