Enrico Fermi (Italian: [enˈriko ˈfermi]; 29 September 1901 – 28 November 1954) was an Italian physicist, who created the world's first nuclear reactor, the Chicago Pile-1. He has been called the "architect of the nuclear age", and the "architect of the atomic bomb". He was one of the few physicists to excel both theoretically and experimentally. Fermi held several patents related to the use of nuclear power, and was awarded the 1938 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on induced radioactivity by neutron bombardment and the discovery of transuranic elements. He made significant contributions to the development of quantum theory, nuclear and particle physics, and statistical mechanics. Fermi's first major contribution was to statistical mechanics. After Wolfgang Pauli announced his exclusion principle in 1925, Fermi followed with a paper in which he applied the principle to an ideal gas, employing a statistical formulation now known as Fermi–Dirac statistics. Today, particles that obey the exclusion principle are called "fermions". Later Pauli postulated the existence of an uncharged invisible particle emitted along with an electron during beta decay, to satisfy the law of conservation of energy. Fermi took up this idea, developing a model that incorporated the postulated particle, which he named the "neutrino". His theory, later referred to as Fermi's interaction and still later as weak interaction, described one of the four fundamental forces of nature. Through experiments inducing radioactivity with recently discovered neutrons, Fermi discovered that slow neutrons were more easily captured than fast ones, and developed the Fermi age equation to describe this. After bombarding thorium and uranium with slow neutrons, he concluded that he had created new elements; although he was awarded the Nobel Prize for this discovery, the new elements were subsequently revealed to be fission products. Fermi left Italy in 1938 to escape new Italian Racial Laws that affected his Jewish wife Laura Capon. He emigrated to the United States where he worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II. Fermi led the team that designed and built Chicago Pile-1, which went critical on 2 December 1942, demonstrating the first artificial self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. He was on hand when the X-10 Graphite Reactor at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, went critical in 1943, and when the B Reactor at the Hanford Site did so the next year. At Los Alamos he headed F Division, part of which worked on Edward Teller's thermonuclear "Super" bomb. He was present at the Trinity test on 16 July 1945, where he used his Fermi method to estimate the bomb's yield. After the war, Fermi served under J. Robert Oppenheimer on the General Advisory Committee, which advised the Atomic Energy Commission on nuclear matters and policy. Following 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. He was among the scientists who testified on Oppenheimer's behalf at the 1954 hearing that resulted in the denial of the latter's security clearance. Fermi did important work in particle physics, especially related to pions and muons, and he speculated that cosmic rays arose through material being accelerated by magnetic fields in interstellar space. Many awards, concepts, and institutions are named after Fermi, including the Enrico Fermi Award, the Enrico Fermi Institute, the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, the Enrico Fermi Nuclear Generating Station, and the synthetic element fermium (one of just over a dozen elements named after people).
Enrico Fermi was born in Rome on 29 September 1901. He was the third child of Alberto Fermi, a division head (Capo Divisione) in the Ministry of Railways, and Ida de Gattis, an elementary school teacher. His only sister, Maria, was two years older than him, and his brother Giulio was a year older. After the two boys were sent to a rural community to be wet nursed, Enrico rejoined his family in Rome when he was two and a half. Although he was baptised a Roman Catholic in accordance with his grandparents' wishes, his family, like most Italian families, was not particularly religious; Enrico was an agnostic throughout his adult life. As a young boy he shared the same interests as his brother Giulio, building electric motors and playing with electrical and mechanical toys. Giulio died during the administration of an anesthetic for an operation on a throat abscess in 1915. One of Fermi's first sources for his study of physics was a book he found at the local market at Campo de' Fiori in Rome. Published in 1840, the 900-page Elementorum physicae mathematicae, was written in Latin by Jesuit Father Andrea Caraffa, a professor at the Collegio Romano. It covered mathematics, classical mechanics, astronomy, optics, and acoustics, insofar as these disciplines were understood when the book was written. Fermi befriended another scientifically inclined student, Enrico Persico, and together the two worked on scientific projects such as building gyroscopes and trying to accurately measure the acceleration of Earth's gravity. Fermi's interest in physics was further encouraged by his father's colleague Adolfo Amidei, who gave him several books on physics and mathematics, which he read and assimilated quickly. Fermi graduated from high school in July 1918 and, at Amidei's urging, applied to the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa. Having lost one son, his parents were reluctant to let him move away from home for four years while attending the Sapienza University of Rome, but in the end they acquiesced. The school provided free lodging for students, but candidates had to take a difficult entrance exam that included an essay. The given theme was "Specific characteristics of Sounds". The 17-year-old Fermi chose to derive and solve the partial differential equation for a vibrating rod, applying Fourier analysis in the solution. The examiner, Professor Giuseppe Pittarelli from the Sapienza University of Rome, interviewed Fermi and praised that he would become an outstanding physicist in the future. Fermi achieved first place in the classification of the entrance exam. During his years at the Scuola Normale Superiore, Fermi teamed up with a fellow student named Franco Rasetti with whom he would indulge in light-hearted pranks and who would later become Fermi's close friend and collaborator. In Pisa, Fermi was advised by the director of the physics laboratory, Luigi Puccianti, who acknowledged that there was little that he could teach Fermi, and frequently asked Fermi to teach him something instead. Fermi's knowledge of quantum physics reached such a high level that Puccianti asked him to organize seminars on the topic. During this time Fermi learned tensor calculus, a mathematical technique invented by Gregorio Ricci and Tullio Levi-Civita that was needed to demonstrate the principles of general relativity. Fermi initially chose mathematics as his major, but soon switched to physics. He remained largely self-taught, studying general relativity, quantum mechanics, and atomic physics. In September 1920, Fermi was admitted to the Physics department. Since there were only three students in the department—Fermi, Rasetti, and Nello Carrara—Puccianti let them freely use the laboratory for whatever purposes they chose. Fermi decided that they should research X-ray crystallography, and the three worked to produce a Laue photograph—an X-ray photograph of a crystal. During 1921, his third year at the university, Fermi published his first scientific works in the Italian journal Nuovo Cimento. The first was entitled "On the dynamics of a rigid system of electrical charges in translational motion" (Sulla dinamica di un sistema rigido di cariche elettriche in moto traslatorio). A sign of things to come was that the mass was expressed as a tensor—a mathematical construct commonly used to describe something moving and changing in three-dimensional space. In classical mechanics, mass is a scalar quantity, but in relativity it changes with velocity. The second paper was "On the electrostatics of a uniform gravitational field of electromagnetic charges and on the weight of electromagnetic charges" (Sull'elettrostatica di un campo gravitazionale uniforme e sul peso delle masse elettromagnetiche). Using general relativity, Fermi showed that a charge has a weight equal to U/c2, where U was the electrostatic energy of the system, and c is the speed of light. The first paper seemed to point out a contradiction between the electrodynamic theory and the relativistic one concerning the calculation of the electromagnetic masses, as the former predicted a value of 4/3 U/c2. Fermi addressed this the next year in a paper "Concerning a contradiction between electrodynamic and the relativistic theory of electromagnetic mass" in which he showed that the apparent contradiction was a consequence of relativity. This paper was sufficiently well-regarded that it was translated into German and published in the German scientific journal Physikalische Zeitschrift in 1922. That year, Fermi submitted his article "On the phenomena occurring near a world line" (Sopra i fenomeni che avvengono in vicinanza di una linea oraria) to the Italian journal I Rendiconti dell'Accademia dei Lincei. In this article he examined the Principle of Equivalence, and introduced the so-called "Fermi coordinates". He proved that on a world line close to the time line, space behaves as if it were a Euclidean space.
A light cone is a three-dimensional surface of all possible light rays arriving at and departing from a point in spacetime. Here, it is depicted with one spatial dimension suppressed. The time line is the vertical axis. Fermi submitted his thesis, "A theorem on probability and some of its applications" (Un teorema di calcolo delle probabilità ed alcune sue applicazioni), to the Scuola Normale Superiore in July 1922, and received his laurea at the unusually young age of 21. The thesis was on X-ray diffraction images. Theoretical physics was not yet considered a discipline in Italy, and the only thesis that would have been accepted was one on experimental physics. For this reason, Italian physicists were slow in embracing the new ideas like relativity coming from Germany. Since Fermi was quite at home in the lab doing experimental work, this did not pose insurmountable problems for him. While writing the appendix for the Italian edition of the book Fundamentals of Einstein Relativity by August Kopff in 1923, Fermi was the first to point out that hidden inside the famous Einstein equation (E = mc2) was an enormous amount of nuclear potential energy to be exploited. "It does not seem possible, at least in the near future", he wrote, "to find a way to release these dreadful amounts of energy—which is all to the good because the first effect of an explosion of such a dreadful amount of energy would be to smash into smithereens the physicist who had the misfortune to find a way to do it." In 1924 Fermi was initiated to the Freemasonry in the Masonic Lodge "Adriano Lemmi" of the Grand Orient of Italy. Fermi decided to travel abroad, and spent a semester studying under Max Born at the University of Göttingen, where he met Werner Heisenberg and Pascual Jordan. Fermi then studied in Leiden with Paul Ehrenfest from September to December 1924 on a fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation obtained through the intercession of the mathematician Vito Volterra. Here Fermi met Hendrik Lorentz and Albert Einstein, and became good friends with Samuel Goudsmit and Jan Tinbergen. From January 1925 to late 1926, Fermi taught mathematical physics and theoretical mechanics at the University of Florence, where he teamed up with Rasetti to conduct a series of experiments on the effects of magnetic fields on mercury vapour. He also participated in seminars at the Sapienza University of Rome, giving lectures on quantum mechanics and solid state physics. While giving lectures of new quantum mechanics based on remarkable accuracy of predictions of Schrödinger equation, the Italian physicist would often say, "It has no business to fit so well!". After Wolfgang Pauli announced his exclusion principle in 1925, Fermi responded with a paper "On the quantisation of the perfect monoatomic gas" (Sulla quantizzazione del gas perfetto monoatomico), in which he applied the exclusion principle to an ideal gas. The paper was especially notable for Fermi's statistical formulation, which describes the distribution of particles in systems of many identical particles that obey the exclusion principle. This was independently developed soon after by the British physicist Paul Dirac, who also showed how it was related to the Bose–Einstein statistics. Accordingly, it is now known as Fermi–Dirac statistics. Following Dirac, particles that obey the exclusion principle are today called "fermions", while those that do not are called "bosons".