Nobel Prize Winner: Enrico Fermi

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            Enrico Fermi was born in Rome on September 29, 1901, to a family that originally was composed of peasants from a rich agricultural region near Piacenza, in the Po Valley in northern Italy. Stefano Fermi, Enrico’s grandfather, was the first member of the family who did not work the soil with his own hands. By hard, stubborn toil he had improved his social status and had obtained a modest position in the service of the Duke of Parma, one of the minor princes who rules in the Po Valley after Napoleon’s downfall and the Peace of Vienna (Black). The Dukes of Parma were string Austrian influence and represented reactionary and autocratic ideas, but they seem to have been close to their subjects, who were few in number and concentrated in a small region. Stefano, we can surmise, was a hard, parsimonious man who combined ambition and intelligence with a purposeful narrowness of mine. Enrico in his infancy met him and long remembered his stern grandfather. Despite his hard work, Stefano remained relatively poor (Haven and Clark). At his death in 1905, at the age of eighty-seven, he owned a small house and some land in Caorso, near Piacenza. Stefano’s wife, Guilia Bergonzi, born in 1830, was thirteen years younger than Stefano. She was a typical nineteenth-century Italian woman of the countryside, a type often described by Italian novelists. She was devoted to the church, had large family, worked long hours in the house, and possessed all the domestic virtues. In the presence of others, at least, she always called her husband simply “Fermi.” She was loved by her children and grandchildren, and spent her leisure time reading I Promessi Sposi, the classic catholic novel by Manzoni, and here book of devotions – but she never learned to write (Leroy). The children were brought up religiously, and all except Alberto, Enrico’s father, remained faithful to the church. As a grandmother, Guilia was sorry that Alberto’s children had not followed the family’s religious tradition, but she respected the will of the parents. When the grandchildren visited her, she always has little presents for them, of no trivial import to her extremely tight budget (Dardo).

            Fermi’s mother, Ida de Gattis, was born at the other end of Italy, in Bari, on April 10, 1871, the daughter of an army officer. She was trained as a school teacher and taught in the elementary schools most of her life. She was considered unusually intelligent and able by her children and their friends. At the time of their marriage in 1898, Alberto was forty-one years old and Ida twenty-seven. Despite this disparity in age, however, the young woman became the stronger influence in the family. For ten years the couple lived in an apartment in Via Gaeta 19, near Rome’s railroad station. In 1908 they moved to Via Principe Umberto 133, an apartment house in which Enrico spent his early youth (Fermi and Cronin).

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            The Fermi’s first child was a girl, Maria, born in 1899. In 1990 a boy, Giulio, was born, and on Septemper 29, 1901, a second boy, Enrico. The infants were sent to wet nurses in the country, a common practice at the time, and Enrico was returned to his family only when he was two and a half years old. He adjusted rapidly to his family and became very much attached to his parents and siblings. His mother has a stern sense of duty and discipline, but this was coupled with intelligence and great devotion to the family. She had a strong influence on her children and inspired them by example to a serious conception of life and work. Her love also has a deep unifying effect on the family. The children did not receive religious instruction although they had been baptized in deference to the grandparents’ feelings. Enrico Fermi’s attitude to the church eventually became one of indifference, and he remained and agnostic all his life (Segrè).

            Enrico learned to read and write early, probably from his sister and brother. He soon displayed a prodigious memory, which he exercised by learning excerpts from Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, a heroic-comic poem written around 1530. Its subjects are chivalry and the love madness of Roland, and the story is set in the time of the Moors’ invasion of Spain. It can be quite amusing and was greatly appreciated by Galileo. I can only wonder why it so fascinated Enrico, but his sister remembered that he recited it with great glee. As an adult, he didn’t seem to remember Ariosto very well, certainly not to the extent to which he remembered Dante (Levinovitz and Ringertz).

            His formal scholastic record continued to be excellent; he was easily the best student in his class. Because of his habits or order and discipline, he had considerable free time, most of which he seems to have devoted to scientific studies (Leroy).

            His closest friends were his sister and brother, and with the latter he built electric motors and other mechanical or electrical toys. Guilio, one year older than Enrico, was by all indications just as bright as Enrico, but he had a more artistic and warmer temperament and was his mother’s favorite. The two brothers, who always played together, formed a little world that was somewhat closed outsiders but perfectly sufficient for them (Fermi and Cronin).

            On January 12, 1915, when Enrico was not yet fourteen, a very severe blow fell suddenly and unexpectedly on the Fermi family. Guilio developed an abscess in his throat and had to be operated on. Nobody thought there was any danger; then unexpectedly, he died under anesthesia. This tragedy completely devastated Mrs. Fermi, who became deeply melancholic, often cried for hours, and could not help the family face the sorrowful situation. Enrico also was extremely affected, but his rather taciturn and introverted character prevented him from showing his feelings. He had lost his only brother and his best and almost only playmate. Study was one of Enrico’s consolations at this sad time, and he gave himself to even deeper and more difficulty study (Segrè).

            Soon he was fortunate in finding a new friend, Enrico Persico, who had been a schoolmate of Guilio, but not a particular friend of either brother, because Guilio and Enrico had kept so much to themselves. Enrico Persico, was born in Rome in 1900, he too was interested in science, and he and Fermi were to become the first two professors of theoretical physics in Italy (Ostdiek and Bord).

            At the time that Fermi was studying physics in books he was also acquiring various skills by performing experiments. He had started by building electric motors, airplane models, and electrical and mechanical toys with his brother; later, he and Persico increased their knowledge of physics and refined the subjects and the art of their experiments. I know, for instance, that they tried to measure accurately the acceleration of gravity at Rome, the density of tap water, and similar quantities. They wrote down the results of some of their work, and their notes include impressive discussions of the errors and of the precision of the measurements. At about this time they also made a memorable study of the top, or gyroscope, whose behavior gave a great deal of trouble to the young scientists. After great efforts, Fermi succeeded in developing a theory that was satisfactory to himself and his friend, but the details of this work were lost (Zuckerman).

Enrico Fermi the Physicist

            Enrico Fermi was the most complete physicist of the last century – a world class theoretician who carried our experimental work of the highest order. No other physicist since Fermi has switched between theory and experiment with such ease, and it is unlikely that anyone will do so again. The field has become too large to permit the crossover (Fermi and Cronin).

            His major contribution to physics was an analysis of the behavior of certain fundamental particles that make up matter. (These particles – such as protons, neutrons and electrons – are now called fermions in his honor.) Fermi showed that, when matter is compressed so that identical fermions are brought close together, a repulsive force comes into play that resists further compression. This fermionic repulsion plays an important role in our understanding of phenomena as diverse as the thermal conductivity of metals and the stability of white dwarf stars (Webb).

            Soon after, Fermi’s theory of beta decay (a type of radioactivity in which massive nucleus emits an electron) cemented his internal reputation. His theory demanded that a ghostly particle be emitted along with the electron, a particle he called the neutrino – “little neutral one.” Note everyone believed in the existence of this hypothetical fermion, but Fermi was proved correct. Physicists finally detected neutrino in 1956. Although the neutrino remains rather ghostly in its reluctance to react with normal matter, its properties play a profound role in present-day astronomical and cosmological theories (Ostdiek and Bord).

            In 1938, Fermi won the Nobel Prize for physics. The award was partly in recognition of a technique he developed to probe the atomic nucleus. His technique led him to the discovery of new radioactive elements; by bombarding the naturally occurring elements with neutrons, he produced more than 40 artificial radioisotopes. The award also recognized his discovery, but it has profound practical applications, since slow-moving neutrons are more effective than fast neutrons at including radioactivity. This principle is used in the operation of nuclear reactors (Haven and Clark).

            News of the award was tempered by the worsening political situation in Italy. Mussolini, increasingly influenced by Hitler, initiated an anti-Semitic campaign. Italy’s fascist government passed laws that were occupied directly from the Nazi Nuremberg edicts. The laws did not directly affect Fermi or his two children, who were considered to be Aryans, but Fermi’s wife, Laura, was Jewish. They decided to leave Italy, and Fermi accepted a position in America (Black).

Summary and Conclusion

            The death of his brother Guilio may be a tragedy to Enrico Fermi, but this was also the trigger to which he found his great motivation to study more on physics. He got to know Enrico Persico, and together they worked hard to reach their achievements in this field.

            Enrico Fermi is credited with many major discoveries in the field of physics. He developed new statistical model electrons, neutrons, protons, and the beta decay process. He discovered and named neutrinos and discovered the “Weak Force,” one of the four basic forces of nature (Zuckerman).

            But Fermi is most famous for creating the world’s first self-sustained nuclear reaction; he opened the door to nuclear power (Haven and Clark).

            By the age of 23, Fermi had already established a solid international reputation and returned home to create Italy’s first modern schools of physics at the University of Rome (Leroy).

            The 1932 discovery of neutrons shifted Fermi’s focus into the core of an atom. As a leading physics experimenter, he recognized that neutrons could solve a problem of subatomic physics. Then at 1938, the fruit of all his labor, the Nobel Prize Award for physics was given to him (Dardo).

            His achievements are ever countless, all these because of his brother Guilio. He may have passed away, but this moment in his life left a great mark in his heart and to inspire him to move on with his life. Indeed, his efforts were never gone to waste.

Works Cited:

Black, Harry. Canada and the Nobel Prize: Biographies, Portraits and Fascinating. Ontario, CA: Pembroke Publishers Limited, 2002.

Dardo, Mauro. Nobel Laureates and Twentieth-Century Physics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Fermi, Enrico, and James W. Cronin. Fermi Remembered. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Haven, Kendall F., and Donna Clark. 100 Most Popular Scientists for Young Adults: Biographical Sketches and Professional Paths. Englewood, Colorado: Libraries Unlimited, 1999.

Leroy, Francis. A Century of Nobel Prizes Recipients: Chemistry, Physics, and Medicine. New York: CRC Press, 2003.

Levinovitz, Agneta Wallin, and Nils Ringertz. The Nobel Prize: The First 100 Years. Stockholm, Sweden: World Scientific, 2001.

Ostdiek, Vern J., and Donald J. Bord. Inquiry into Physics. Melbourne, AU: Thomson Brooks/Cole, 2005.

Segrè, Emilio. Enrico Fermi: Physicist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Webb, Stephen. If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens…Where Is Everybody?: Fifty Solutions to the Fermi Paradox and the Problem of Extraterrestial Life. New York: Springer, 2002.

Zuckerman, Harriet. Scientific Elite: Nobel Laureates in the United States. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1996.

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