Birthday: September 29, 1901
Nationality: American, Italian
Died At Age: 53
Sun Sign: Libra
Born Country: Italy
Born in: Rome, Italy
Famous as: Nobel Laureate in Physics
Quotes By Enrico Fermi
Spouse/Ex-: Laura Fermi
father: Alberto Fermi
mother: Ida de Gattis
siblings: Giulio, Maria
children: Giulio Fermi, Nella Fermi
Died on: November 28, 1954
place of death: Chicago, Illinois, United States
City: Rome, Italy
education: Georg-August University of Göttingen, University of Pisa, Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, Leiden University
awards: 1926 - Matteucci Medal
1938 - Nobel Prize for Physics
1942 - Hughes Medal
1946 - Medal for Merit
1947 - Franklin Medal
1953 - Rumford Prize
Enrico Fermi was an Italian physicist who made major contributions to the development of nuclear energy. He is counted amongst the men who are often referred to as the “father of the atomic bomb”. Even as a youngster Fermi displayed a keen interest in physics and his understanding of the subject allowed him to enter the graduate school at the University of Pisa directly when he was only 17 years old and four years later, he was awarded his doctorate. Fermi made his first major contribution to nuclear physics during the early 1930s. By this time, James Chadwick, another notable physicist, had discovered that atomic nuclei contained neutrons as well as protons. Even though there had been previous attempts to disrupt the nucleus using positively charged helium nuclei, it was Fermi who discovered neutrons with a neutral charge. Fermi and his colleagues successfully created isotopes for many known elements. He also discovered that the rate at which neutrons were injected into the nucleus played a role in the outcome. For these important discoveries, Fermi was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1938. Later on he and his family moved to the United States concerned over the rise of anti-Semitism in Italy. He continued his research in nuclear physics first at Columbia University then at the University of Chicago.
Childhood & Early Life
He was born on 29 September 1901 as the third child of Alberto Fermi and Ida de Gattis, in Rome, Italy. His father worked as a division head in the Ministry of Railways while his mother was an elementary school teacher. He had one brother and one sister.
He was interested in science from a young age, a passion he shared with his brother. The boys used to play with electrical toys and built electric motors together. Unfortunately his brother died when just in his teens.
As a boy he derived most of his physics knowledge from a book called ‘Elementorum physicae mathematicae’ which covered mathematics, astronomy, mechanics, and acoustics.
Recognizing his interest in physics, his father’s friend gave him several books on physics and mathematics to whet his curiosity.
He graduated from high school in 1918 and applied to the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa. The institute held a difficult entrance examination and Fermi submitted an essay on the partial differential equation which secured him the first place in the exam and quickly elevated him to the doctoral program.
Initially he had chosen mathematics as his major but later switched to physics. While studying at the institute he became friends with a fellow student called Franco Rasetti who would later collaborate with Fermi.
Fermi turned out to be such a brilliant student that the director of the physics laboratory, Luigi Puccianti, asked him to organize seminars on quantum physics.
He earned his doctorate degree in physics in 1922. In 1923 he won a scholarship from the Italian Government and studied under Professor Max Born at the University of Göttingen, where he met Werner Heisenberg and Pascual Jordan.
Awarded a Rockfeller Fellowship in 1924, he went to work with P. Ehrenfest in Leiden in the Dutch province of South Holland.
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He returned to Italy in 1924 and was appointed as a Lecturer in Mathematical Physics and Mechanics at the University of Florence, a post he held for the next two years.
He landed a position as a professor at the Sapienza University of Rome in 1927. This was a new chair created at the urging of Professor Orso Mario Corbino in an attempt to raise the standard of physics in Italy.
Fermi was assisted by Corbino in building his team of budding physicists. He appointed his old friend Franco Rasetti as his assistant and they recruited talented students like Emilio Segre, Ettore Majorana, and Edoardo Amaldi.
Working together, Fermi and his team conducted research on many practical and theoretical aspects of physics. In 1928, he published ‘Introduction to Atomic Physics’ which went on to become an informative text for university students in Italy.
He was completely dedicated to spreading knowledge of physics and gave several public lectures to promote this subject. Soon his fame spread around the world and foreign students started coming to Italy to study. The budding German physicist Hans Bethe was one of them.
He, along with other physicists, was working on the concept of Beta decay, a type of radioactive decay. He evolved the Beta decay theory and by 1934 had made significant contributions to this area which resulted in the discovery of slow neutrons.
He emigrated to the US in 1938 primarily to escape the fascism in Italy. In the US he was offered several positions and chose to take up the post of a professor at the Columbia University where he served till 1942.
He became an American citizen in 1944 and was appointed a professor at the Institute of Nuclear Studies at the University of Chicago where he remained for the rest of his life.
He is best known for his work on induced radioactivity which occurs when a previously stable material has been made radioactive by exposure to specific radiation. He supervised the first man-made self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction that was initiated in Chicago Pile -1 in December 1942.
Awards & Achievements
He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics 1938 "for his demonstrations of the existence of new radioactive elements produced by neutron irradiation, and for his related discovery of nuclear reactions brought about by slow neutrons".
The Hughes Medal was presented to him in 1942 "for his outstanding contributions to the knowledge of the electrical structure of matter, his work in quantum theory, and his experimental studies of the neutron".
Personal Life & Legacy
He married Laura Capon in 1928. She was a science student at the University of Rome. The couple had two children.
Fermi became ill with stomach cancer and died on November 28, 1954, leaving the world shattered at his untimely death.