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Enrico Fermi and the Birth of the Atomic Age

Wall Street Journal, January 2, 2015

Mr. Bernstein also fails to mention Enrico Fermi, the taciturn Italian physicist whose discoveries with uranium made possible the Manhattan Project, atomic power and the large-scale production of radioisotopes.

Enrico Fermi Jeremy Bernstein's otherwise masterful review of Philip Ball's "Serving the Reich" (Books, Dec. 27) fails to come to grips with Werner Heisenberg's malleable code of ethics. Rather than resign his directorship of the Nazi atomic project, Germany's leading physicist embraced what can only be called Heisenberg's moral uncertainty principle. According to Gerard J. DeGroot, author of "The Bomb: A Life," "It is difficult to escape the impression that Heisenberg was, quite simply, a worm, adept at wrapping opportunism in a cloak of morality. If indeed he only pretended to collaborate, he did so with great enthusiasm." Mr. Bernstein also fails to mention Enrico Fermi, the taciturn Italian physicist whose discoveries with uranium made possible the Manhattan Project, atomic power and the large-scale production of radioisotopes. Along with other prominent physicists, Fermi had urged President Franklin D. Roosevelt to appoint an advisory group to study the feasibility of atomic weapons.

On Dec. 2, 1942, in a converted squash court beneath the stands of the University of Chicago's Stagg Field, Fermi successfully set off the world's first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction—a controlled flow of energy derived from a source other than the sun. Thus was born the atomic age. And the coded message to James B. Conant, who headed the National Defense Research Committee, was an apt one: "The Italian navigator arrived at the shores of the new world."

Rosario Iaconis
Chairman
Italic Institute of America
Floral Park, N.Y.

 
 
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