Fermi, Enrico Inventors and Inventions Italian American Fermi helped develop Fermi-Dirac statistics, which liceo (secondary school) and, on the advice of Amidei, elucidate the group behavior of elementary particles. joined the Scuola Normale Superiore at . This elite He also developed the theory of and college, attached to the , admitted only discovered -induced artificial radioactivity. forty of ’s top students, who were given free board Finally, he succeeded in producing the first sustained and lodging. Fermi performed exceedingly well in the nuclear , which led to the discovery highly competitive entrance exam. He completed his of nuclear energy and the development of the university education after only four years of research and atomic bomb. studies, receiving his Ph.D. in from the Univer- sity of Pisa and his undergraduate diploma from the Born: , 1901; , Italy Scuola Normale Superiore in July, 1922. He became Died: , 1954; , an expert theoretical physicist and a talented exper- Primary field: Physics imentalist. This rare combination provided a solid foun- Primary inventions: Controlled nuclear chain dation for all his subsequent inventions. reaction; Fermi-Dirac statistics; theory of beta decay Life’s Work After postdoctoral work at the University of Göttingen, Early Life in Germany (1922-1923), and the University of , Enrico Fermi (ehn-REE-koh FUR-mee) was the third in the (fall, 1924), Fermi took an interim po- child of Alberto Fermi and Ida de Gattis. Enrico was very sition at the University of in December, 1924. close to his elder (and favorite) brother, Giulio, and they The following year, he wrote an important paper in sta- shared an interest in physics and . Both were tistical , which led to his first important dis- very intelligent and enjoyed building mechanical and covery, known as Fermi-Dirac statistics. ( electrical toys. Enrico’s mother inspired her children by published his independent discovery in 1926.) At the her own example of love, hard work, and discipline. atomic level, the behavior of particles such as , When Fermi was about fourteen, Giulio died unexpect- , and is governed by quantum mechan- edly during a simple surgery. Fermi was devastated and ics. Fermi’s statistical theory helped to explain the group for diversion devoted himself to deeper and more chal- behavior of the particles, later named . The sta- lenging studies in physics and mathematics. Fortunately, tistical theory also helped to explain the atomic structure he soon found a new friend in schoolmate Enrico Pe- of elements, the conduction of electrons in metals and risco, who had similar interests. They enjoyed working , and even the structure of neutron stars. together on many scientific projects, such as building gy- In 1926, Fermi became a tenured professor at the Uni- roscopes and measuring the Earth’s magnetic field. versity of Rome and in the same year developed his sec- Fermi was even more fortunate in finding a mentor ond important theory: a theory that explains the emission in his father’s friend and colleague Adolfo Amidei, a of beta particles (electrons) from radioactive elements. university-trained engineer. Amidei noticed Fermi’s dedi- Fermi used the newly postulated particle, the , cation to physics and mathematics and started lending for energy conservation and introduced the concept of him books on those subjects. One of the first books Fermi the weak to explain the beta decay. This borrowed was on projection geometry, a difficult sub- force became known as one of the four fundamental ject. When Fermi returned it in about two months, he had forces in the . (The others are , electro- mastered all the chapters and had solved all the problems magnetic force, and the strong nuclear force.) The char- in the book—about two hundred of them. Amidei was acteristic constant for the weak force is now known as very impressed, since he had found some of these prob- Fermi’s constant. lems too difficult to solve. Over the next four years, After getting a secure job at the University of Rome, Fermi was introduced to books on other branches of Fermi married Laura Capon on July 19, 1928, and they mathematics. Fermi excelled at solving problems and had two children. This was a very productive period in was blessed with a prodigious memory. Fermi’s life. His friend and former colleague Franco In July, 1918, Fermi received his diploma from the Rosetti had joined him in 1927. With Fermi’s graduate 366 Inventors and Inventions Fermi, Enrico students, and Emilio Segrè, they then moved to the in 1942, where formed a research team. Their work led to Fermi’s most the first sustained was produced important discovery, the artificial radioactivity induced on under his leadership. Around this time, by neutrons. Fermi realized that neutrons, being neutral the entered the war, and the development in charge, make good projectiles to bombard a target of an atomic bomb became a high priority. In 1944, . Fermi embarked on a detailed and care- Fermi moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico, to become an ful study of neutron- in various ele- associate director in the , which suc- ments and discovered a number of new forms of these el- cessfully produced the atomic bomb in 1945. The use of ements () that are artificially radioactive. Fermi this bomb against Japan in August, 1945, brought the war and his team published ten papers in four years. This sys- to an end. tematic work ultimately garnered a in Phys- Soon after, Fermi returned to the University of Chi- ics for Fermi, in 1938. During these , Fermi cago to continue his teaching and research. After nine also discovered a surprising result. When he slowed productive years, he died on November 28, 1954, from down the neutrons by passing them through a hydroge- cancer. Only one month before his untimely death, Fermi nous matter, such as paraffin, radioactivity increased sig- received a special twenty-five-thousand-dollar award nificantly. The slow neutrons seemed to interact with a from the Atomic Energy Commission. nucleus much better than fast neutrons. This discovery proved to be of enormous significance for Fermi’s subse- Impact quent work on sustained nuclear chain reaction and the Fermi was one of the top of the twentieth cen- creation of an atomic bomb. tury. His studies on the statistical group behavior of fer- Meanwhile, the political situation in Italy was becom- mions and his theory of beta decay have led to tremendous ing tense: As World War II approached, the Jewish community faced increasing restrictions. Fermi’s wife was Jewish, and the couple decided to immi- grate to the United States. After Fermi received the Nobel Prize in Sweden, he and Laura, along with their two children, embarked on their journey to a new world. They reached the United States on Jan- uary 2, 1939, and Fermi started teaching at Colum- bia University in New York. Fermi’s major effort in the United States was to produce the first controlled chain reaction through . During his research at the Univer- sity of Rome on artificial radioactivity induced by neutrons, Fermi had bombarded the element of the highest then known, . His research team expected to produce transuranic ele- ments (elements with greater atomic numbers) through artificial radioactivity. What really hap- pened was that the heavy uranium nucleus split into two, a process called nuclear fission. Fermi, unfortunately, did not realize this during his exper- iments in 1935, and this very important process was discovered independently by another group in Germany three years later. The discovery of nu- clear fission and chain reactions became enor- mously important in the context of World War II, started in Europe around that time. Fermi started working on producing a controlled chain reaction in 1939 at and Enrico Fermi. (NARA) 367 Fermi, Enrico Inventors and Inventions progress in atomic and nuclear phys- The First Atomic Pile ics. Every in this world con- tains fermions, which include elec- were aware that the atomic nucleus had the potential to produce trons, protons, and neutrons. Hence, enormous energy. This potential became a reality with the discovery of nuclear the Fermi-Dirac statistics have added fission in 1938 and the construction of the first atomic pile by Enrico Fermi in to our understanding of the world at a 1942. The atomic pile designed by Fermi and his team was constructed in an deep, subatomic level. A clear un- abandoned squash court in the football field of the University of Chicago, and derstanding of atomic structure, in the work began in October, 1942. The builders had to machine two hundred turn, has made possible the devel- tons of pure and secure about six tons of uranium, which were to be ar- opment of such advancements as ranged layer by layer in alternate lattices to create a roughly spherical structure. semiconductors, lasers, and spectral Fermi’s calculations showed that the pile would reach critical size at the fifty- studies. seventh layer, and it did. There was a lot of suspense before that. Fermi’s study of neutron-induced Fermi and his colleagues assembled in the squash court at 8:30 a.m. on De- artificial radioactivity also led to the cember 2, 1942. The pile included cadmium control rods, which would absorb neutrons and control the chain reaction. These included electrically operated discovery of several new radioactive rods, an emergency safety rod, and a manually controlled rod. At 9:45 a.m., isotopes. These “radioisotopes” are Fermi ordered the electrically operated rods to be withdrawn. Neutron coun- now widely used in medicine, ag- ters indicated the activity of the pile as the control rods were withdrawn. riculture, industry, and research. Shortly after 10:00 a.m., Fermi ordered the emergency rod to be pulled out and Fermi’s success in producing the first locked. The manually operated had markings to show what length controlled nuclear chain reaction had was inside the pile. the greatest impact on the lives of At 10:37 a.m., Fermi ordered the control rod to be pulled to the thirteen-foot people, leading to alternative sources marking. The neutron count increased and leveled off. Seven minutes later, of energy, powerful nuclear weap- Fermi ordered the rod to be pulled out by another foot. The counters stepped up ons, and a variety of by-products. their clicking, and the graph pen edged upward and soon leveled off. The pile Not only a brilliant physician, was not self-sustaining yet. The control rod was pulled out farther at 11:00 a.m., 11:15 a.m., and 11:25 a.m., and each time the counts increased and lev- Fermi was also a respected teacher eled off. Each time, Fermi made the necessary calculations using his slide rule. and colleague. After his death, an At 11:35 a.m., Fermi’s calculations indicated that the pile would go into opera- award inaugurated by the Atomic En- tion soon after. Fermi then called for a lunch break. ergy Commission and given to Fermi The group reassembled at 2:00 p.m. to resume the operation. At 2:20 p.m., was renamed the Fermi Prize with an the manual control rod was pulled out to its pre-lunch position. It was pulled increased value of $100,000. There out six inches at 2:50 p.m. and by another foot at 3:20 p.m. The counters were is the great monument, the Fermi Na- running wildly, and five minutes later Fermi gave the final order to pull the tional Accelerator Laboratory (Fer- control rod by another foot. The clicking of the counters became so rapid that it milab), near Chicago. In 1955, the sounded like a roar. Now the neutron counts did not level off, and Fermi knew year after his death, the new ra- that the first atomic pile was in operation. After operating for twenty-eight dioactive element of atomic num- minutes, the atomic pile was shut down by sending the cadmium rods back in. This historic event launched the nuclear age and laid the groundwork for the ber 100 was named in his development of the atomic bomb. honor. —Rajkumar Ambrose

Further Reading Cooper, Dan. Enrico Fermi: And the Revolutions in Mod- ticular attention to the four papers he published at this ern Physics. New York: Oxford University Press, time and his doctoral thesis. Describes Fermi’s re- 1999. An elegant and simple book on the life and work markable genius, hard work, and training that led to of Fermi in the context of the remarkable develop- his great inventions. Includes forty-four references. ments in physics in the first half of twentieth century. Guerra, Francisco, et al. “Enrico Fermi’s Discovery of Includes important chronology, bibliography, index. Neutron-Induced Artificial Radioactivity: Neutrons Gambassi, Andrea. “Enrico Fermi in Pisa.” Physics in and Neutron Sources.” Physics in Perspective 8 Perspective 5 (2003): 384-397. An in-depth article on (2006): 255-281. This article begins with the discov- the four years of Fermi’s college education. Pays par- ery of neutron and artificial radioactivity and de- 368