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Enrico Fermi

The man who unleashed the atom

Created date

November 5th, 2018
Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi, circa 1941. One year later, he built the first nuclear reactor capable of producing a self-sustaining chain reaction.

Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi, circa 1941. One year later, he built the first nuclear reactor capable of producing a self-sustaining chain reaction.

In the early years of World War II, physicists in the United States and abroad were working feverishly on a super-weapon that would end the disastrous conflict. America won the race, thanks largely to Enrico Fermi, who, in 1942, developed the first functional nuclear reactor.

In doing so, he helped usher in the age of atomic energy.

Born in Rome, Italy, in 1901, Fermi was a gentle, bookish boy. He was naturally easy going, humble, and unpretentious.

A friend once affectionately remarked that he was “as common as an old shoe.” Aside from his demeanor, however, Fermi was anything but common.

In fact, he was a towering intellect, or as a colleague put it, “one of the leading lights of the nuclear revolution that came about in physics.”

Even as a child, Fermi showed a keen interest in science and mechanics, assembling electrically driven motors for fun. What he really loved, though, was physics, a subject he first encountered while browsing a local open-air market.

The ‘aha’ moment

Perusing an assortment of used books, he spied a 900-page text entitled Elementorum physicae mathematicae (1840). Written entirely in Latin, the volume covered acoustics, astronomy, optics, and mathematics, all within the context of physics.

He was hooked.

When other kids were out playing ball and running in the streets of Rome, Fermi was busy building gyroscopes and devising formulas that measured Earth’s gravitational acceleration.

Not surprisingly, he shined in school.

At 17, he enrolled at the Scuola Normale Superiore, a university for gifted students in Pisa. Here he studied advanced mathematics and physics, demonstrating an astonishing aptitude for both.

In his second year alone, Fermi’s research explored a vast array of topics like X-ray crystallography, relativity, and electromagnetism. He also made his publishing debut with an article in the peer-reviewed physics journal Nuovo Cimento.

“On the dynamics of a rigid system of electrical charges in translational motion” was gibberish to the average person, but to those in his field, it signaled the rise of a scientist who was productive and profound.

To be sure, he was on his way to cementing his reputation as a great physicist. In his appendix to August Kopff’s Fundamentals of Einstein Relativity (1923), for example, Fermi was the first scholar to seriously consider the practical application of the famed E=mc² equation—namely, how to harness nuclear energy.

During the 1930s, he won a coveted position as a professor at the Sapienza University of Rome and was a member of the prestigious Royal Academy of Italy. Then politics intervened when fascist dictator Benito Mussolini issued a set of anti-Semitic laws.

Fermi wasn’t Jewish, but his wife Laura was. For her protection, the couple packed up and fled to the United States in 1938, the same year he received the Nobel Prize for his research on radioactive elements.

A new home and calling

Safely in the U.S., Fermi joined the faculty at Columbia University in New York City, where he worked extensively with uranium. At the outbreak of World War II, his talents were in big demand.

The race to develop a decisive weapon became a priority for the Axis and Allied powers; and as a newly minted American citizen, Fermi answered Uncle Sam’s call to serve, signing on to the Manhattan Project.

Although the technical specifics are beyond the scope of this article, simply put, he understood that uranium embedded in graphite could produce a controlled source of nuclear power, unleashing the intense energy represented in Einstein’s E=mc². To achieve that very result, Fermi and his team built a nuclear reactor in a squash court at the University of Chicago.

Described by Fermi himself as a “crude pile of black bricks and wooden timbers,” the structure (dubbed Chicago Pile-1) held 45,000 graphite blocks, 5.4 tons of uranium metal, and 45 tons of uranium oxide. On December 2, 1942, the ungainly edifice and its contents generated the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction.

Atomic power was born.

Sadly, Fermi’s untimely death from stomach cancer in 1954 prevented him from ever seeing the fruits of his labor, the modern era of nuclear power plants, submarines, and aircraft carriers that proliferated throughout the remainder of the twentieth century. Indeed, the humble immigrant remembered by friends for his unassuming manner had left the world a not so modest legacy.