Enrico Fermi : The Architect of The Nuclear Age And The Atomic Bomb

This world has seen a lot of Physicists. Some are genius in their theoretical work and some are brilliant as Experimentalists. However, there are very few minds that excel in both theoretical physics and experimental physics. And Enrico Fermi is one among them. The creator of the world's first nuclear reactor, the Chicago Pile-1, Fermi is undoubtedly the "architect of the nuclear age and the atomic bomb". Today, on his 118th birth anniversary, let's dig a bit deeper into the life and works of this brainiac !

Enrico Fermi
Enrico Fermi
Image Courtesy: Britannica.org

Early life and Education:

Enrico Fermi was born in Rome, Italy, on 29 September 1901. His father Alberto Fermi, worked in the Ministry of Railways. His mother Ida de Gattis was an elementary school teacher. When Enrico was 14, he lost his brother, Giulio. This incident completely devastated Fermi. To console him, his parents encouraged his studies. There, he came across a couple of physics books which totally enthralled him. He attended a local grammar school, followed by winning a fellowship of the Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa in 1918. After that, he spent four years at the University of Pisa, gaining his doctor’s degree in physics in 1922.

Theoretical contributions:

Fermi's first major theoretical contribution was in the field of statistical mechanics. In 1926, Fermi discovered the statistical laws, known as the Fermi statistics. These governed the particles that obey Pauli’s exclusion principle (now referred to as fermions) . Fermi was instrumental in developing a model to explain momentum and energy conservation in Beta decay. He achieved so by making use of the neutrino, an almost undetectable particle that was postulated a few years earlier by Wolfgang Pauli. Moreover, during the early years of his career in Rome, he worked on some electrodynamic problems. He also contributed to theoretical investigations on various spectroscopic phenomena.

Experiment work and the Nobel Prize:

Fermi did some groundbreaking work in the field of experimental physics as well. Through his experiments which focused on inducing radioactivity with the neutron, Fermi found that slow neutrons are more easily captured by atomic nuclei than fast ones. He developed the Fermi age equation to describe this. After bombarding thorium and uranium with slow neutrons, he concluded that he had created new elements. Eventually, he received the 1938 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the artificial radioactivity produced by neutrons, and for nuclear reactions brought about by slow neutrons.

The World War II and Atomic bomb:

Enrico Fermi played an important part in solving the problems connected with the development of the first atomic bomb . During the World War II, he was one of the leaders of the team of physicists on the Manhattan Project for the development of Nuclear energy and the Atomic bomb. After the war, Fermi served on the General Advisory Committee, which advised the Atomic Energy Commission on nuclear matters. After the detonation of the first Soviet fission bomb in August 1949, he strongly opposed the development of a hydrogen bomb on both moral and technical grounds.

Chicago Piler 1 - The First Nuclear Reactor ( Scale Model )
Chicago Pile 1 - The First Nuclear Reactor ( Scale Model )
Image Courtesy - Fine Art America

Also Read: These 8 Facts About Nuclear Physics Will Completely Blow Up Your Mind

Professorship and Honours :

Apart from being an excellent researcher, Fermi was an astounding teacher as well. He was always in demand as a lecturer. Enrico Fermi served as a Lecturer in Mathematical Physics and Mechanics at the University of Florence from 1924-1926. In 1927, he was elected the Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Rome. He was also appointed the Professor of Physics at Columbia University, N.Y. during late 1930s. Not only the Nobel Prize of 1938, Fermi has several other awards and honours as well in his account of facilitations. These include the Franklin medal, Hughes medal, Max Planck medal and many more. Not only this, many awards and institutions have also been named after him as a tribute to this genius.

Enrico dedicated his entire life to Physics. Even during his last days, he didn't take any break. Rather, he occupied himself with the problem of the mysterious origin of cosmic rays. He died in Chicago on 28th November, 1954. Enrico Fermi was the author of numerous papers both in theoretical and experimental physics, which continue to inspire and guide the scientific community today as well. Undoubtedly, Enrico Fermi is one of the most intellectual minds the mankind has ever witnessed.

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