Enrico Ferm: The Italian Physicist Essay, Research Paper
It is commonly believed that all life evolved from simple single celled organisms. From our single celled ancestors man has evolved to become the most advanced life form on the planet thanks in part to too the vast cognitive abilities of the brain. The human brain has allowed man to separate itself from the rest of the Earthly organisms through speech and manual dexterity. These two important distinctions have led to a rich collection of cultural artistry through paintings, sculpture, music and written word. Despite the beauty of the cultural achievements of man, it was scientific knowledge which has allowed the human race to penetrate the barriers of inner space, outer space and the intricacies of the human body. As man seeks further understanding and knowledge of not only the world but also the universe, one cannot forget the scientific achievements of past intellectuals. Italians have played an important part in the scientific world by putting forth their discoveries for the good of all mankind. One such Italian was Enrico Fermi, who from a young age, showed an enriched intellect that would spawn discoveries impacting both positively and negatively on the world.
The early years of Enrico’s life contained triumphant moments marred by a tragedy. Enrico was born in 1901 in Rome to Alberto Fermi and Ida de Gattis (Segre, 1970). Alberto did not work the land to support his family but rather was employed by various railroad companies as well as the Italian government where he held administrative posts, “Because of mergers among Italian railroad companies, Alberto was on the payroll of several of
them and held various administrative jobs that took him to various parts of Italy” (Segre, 1970). Ida was a teacher of elementary children for the majority of her life and thus had a
profound influence on Enrico’s academic success. Ida was raised with a sense of discipline instilled by her father who was a military officer. Her discipline provided a sound foundation of family values, “The young woman became the stronger influence in the family, she had a stern sense of duty and discipline coupled with intelligence and great devotion to the family” (Segre, 1970). Enrico had two siblings, Maria his sister and Giulio his brother, both of whom were older than Enrico. Maria and Giulio are thought to have been Enrico’s earliest educators teaching Enrico the fundamentals of reading and writing. “Enrico learned to read and write early, probably from his sister and brother.” (Segre, 1970). Maria and Giulio were not simply two people who helped to increase Enrico’s academic awareness but more importantly they provided him with friendship, “His closest friends were his sister and brother, and with the latter he built electric and mechanical toys” (Segre,1970). Enrico was especially close to Giulio who was only a year older and by all indications just as intelligent as Enrico but more artistically gifted. The strong tie between the two brothers was most likely strengthened by psychological factors relating to their gender.
During the year of 1915 a tragic misfortune occurred to the Fermi family which had a direct impact on Enrico. Giulio had unexpectedly died during an operation. Even though Enrico was deeply affected internally by this loss he showed little outward expression, “his rather taciturn and introverted character prevented him from showing his feelings.” (de Latil, 1965). As a means to come to grips with his brother’s loss, Enrico devoted a large portion of his time engrossed in study. This period of intense study allowed Enrico to further appreciate the logistics of math and physics. Enrico satisfied his insatiable knowledge for physics and math by purchasing used books at a book store in one of the open markets within Rome, “He was able to read all manner of books, many of them second hand ones that he had bought at the Campo dei Fiori; for which he picked up a wide variety of knowledge.” (de Latil, 1965). The intelligence that Enrico showed to those around him during his early years in Rome exploded during his time spent at university. Enrico, only being seventeen years old at this time attended the University of Pisa for which at that time was considered an excellent institution for the study of math and science. While at university, Enrico, apart from his usual studies learned to appreciate his humorous side through his friend Franco Rasetti who was the founder of the “Anti-Neighbour Society” whose aim was to perform practical jokes on unsuspecting people, “The tricks they played ranged from placing a pan of water on a door left ajar, which would give a shower to the first person going through, to exploding a stink bomb in a
classroom during a solemn lecture.” (Fermi, 1959). Although Enrico enjoyed the hijinks that he performed as well those that he received, his main focus was that of his studies. Luigi Puccianti, the director of the physics laboratory as well as a physics professor at the University of Pisa saw the intellectual insight that Enrico possessed and it was not long before the student became the teacher, “I am an ass, but you are a lucid thinker and I can always understand what you explain. Fermi, who was never hampered by false modesty, readily agreed and held a course of lessons on Einstein’s relativity for his teacher.” (Fermi, 1959). As the year 1920 rolled by, Enrico graduated from the University of Pisa where he accepted a graduate position at the same institution to further pursue his love of physics. His research focused on the use of X-rays, “After reading much of the pertinent literature, Fermi decided that X-rays was the field that offered the best chance for original research.” (Segre, 1970). Now that Enrico had a thesis which was X-ray diffraction by bent crystals and the images obtained, the equipment to perform the experiments were in poor working condition often disassembled, broken or cannibalised for other experiments. Not willing to switch to another research topic such as spectroscopy for the sake of better equipment, Enrico used his mechanical wizardry, which he learned as a child to either fix or build the equipment he needed. Enrico was a man of integrity, who was not willing to sacrifice his goals for convenience.
Enrico obtained his doctorate with conformation magna cum laude at the young age of 21. He then faced the decision of what he was to do to support himself for which he decided to return to his family in Rome to contemplate his future decisions. Enrico’s ideal vocation would be to become a professor, “He had to find a way of supporting himself, and to him the only desirable positions were within the university.” (Segre, 1970). The only drawback of this plan was that it was virtually impossible to gain tenure without becoming first an assistant to a professor who would then grant the title of libro docente which when translated implies a person who teaches for free. Although Enrico was tempted to work in the university setting he had to decline the idea for he needed money. Seeking something that could stimulate his mind as well providing short term financial independence Enrico had won a fellowship to study in Germany with the theoretical physicist Max Born. During Fermi’s time with Born he learned little, “The Germans, for their part, did not seem to have discerned the spark of genius in Enrico.” (de Latil, 1965) but on the positive side he did gain valuable experience which aided him greatly in attaining a job as a paid teacher of assigned courses at the University of Rome. Through Enrico’s continued research he discovered many principles that would in 1927 result in a tenured position at the University of Rome.
It was during his time in Rome in 1924 that tragedy once again struck a blow to Enrico but it was also a time where he found the women for which he would spend the rest of his life with. It was in the spring that Enrico lost his mother but it had not affected him deeply for his mother had been ill for quite a while. Enrico met the love of his life, Laura Capon, in the spring while with a group of associated friends. “There was an easy self reliance in him, spontaneous and without conceit.” (Fermi, 1959) describes Laura’s first impression of Enrico through his physical appearance and his verbal context. The two would be married in the summer of 1928. Laura thought very highly of her new husband, “I had visions of a life of co-operation, of daily work with a husband whom I had most decidedly placed on a pedestal.” (Fermi, 1959). This statement most obviously shows the ominous presence that Enrico possessed even in the presence of his wife. Laura was a very supportive wife who wanted to take part not only in Enrico’s social life but also in his academic life. As a result of Laura’s eagerness she helped her husband write an introductory physics text, more often hindering the process than expediting it for she questioned Enrico’s thought process many a time. The couple was so devoted to finishing the text that they actually took it with them on their summer vacation.
While at Rome, Fermi’s research centerd on the irradiation of compounds and elements with various types of particles especially neutrons.
No one at that time could have percieved the implications of Fermi’s work which resulted in the discovery of fission (the splitting of an atom into two or more parts). This research claimed the Nobel Prize for Enrico who very much deserved the award. Despite this accomplishement Enrico was concerned about the state of the Italian government, in particular the Fascists who attacked his credibility, “Fermi had been personally attacked by extremist Fascist newsgroups for having transformed the physics institute into synagogue.” (Segre, 1970). This statement was in response to the growing persecution of the Jewish within Italy thus igniting Fermi’s distaste with the Fascists and their alliance with the Nazi’s, “Mussolini was continuously forced into the position of junior partner and finally into that of Hitler’s vassal.” (Segre, 1970). The introduction of the “Laws Against Jews” in Italy was definitely influenced by the Germans for which directly affected Enrico because his wife as well as her family were Jewish, “the racial laws were so revolting to Fermi’s sense of justice and indicated such a degeneration of the fabric of Italian life that he decided to leave.” (Segre, 1970). Fermi now had to find another university, preferably in America that would give him a professorship, “Fermi received prompt answers from all the universities he contacted and decided to accept the offer from Columbia University.” (Segre, 1970). Now that Enrico knew the country where he and his family were going to emigrate to he also had a way of getting there, that is
travelling to the United States of America from Sweden after having accepted the Nobel Prize.
At Columbia University, Fermi’s research focussed on the moderating effects that graphite has on neutrons. Let it be known that Enrico chose to study neutrons because of their neutrality, which if used to bombard an object are not affected by electric fields produced by protons and electrons as well as outside sources which could distort their trajectory as they approach the atom (Prescott et. al, 1993). As Fermi continued his work, other researchers across the country were working to develop ways to produce the required radioactive material also known as fuel needed to intiate a nuclear chain reaction for use in the Atomic bomb. There were two ways to produce the fuel for the bomb, “by the separation of uranium isotopes or by the preparation of plutonium 239 in quantity by means of a nuclear reactor.” (Segre, 1970). The separation of uranium isotopes (isotopes are same elements having a differing number of neutrons) was a difficult procedure which produced only a tiny portion of the required isotope. Using plutonium was a more attractive method because the yield produced would be more substantial, yet nuclear reactors had not been created at this time. Enrico was summoned to the University of Chicago in 1942 where he would work on the development of a nuclear pile in the Metallurgy laboratory. Enrico was not entirely pleased while working in Chicago
because the work was top secret and thus he could not discuss it with his family and the Americans declaration of war against Italy after the Pearl Harbour invasion resulted in restrictions being placed on him. With all of Enrico’s objections to how he and his family were treated, he continued to work on the atomic pile when on December 2, 1942 Enrico achieved the first self sustaining chain reaction, “For the first time, Man had drawn his energy from another source than directly from the sun: he had made his own sun.” (de Latil, 1965). This first atomic pile went critical for 28 minutes producing one half watt of power (internet). Enrico had thus made two accomplishments: a fully functioning precursor to the nuclear reactor and a practical method to produce plutonium. Between 1942 and 1944 Enrico travelled the country supervising the production of reactors in Washington Sate and Tennessee which produced the plutonium needed for the Manhattan Project. The Manhattan Project headed in Los Alamos New Mexico was a government funded initiative to produce atomic weapons. Fermi thought that his knowledge would be best served at Los Alamos to assist with any problems associated with the project since he was the foremost expert in nuclear and theoretical physics. So in 1944 Fermi relocated with his family to Los Alamos where he was given the assumed name Eugen Farmer as were all the other scientists as a means to keep the project a secret. After his successful involvement in the creation of the atomic bomb which helped to end WWII, Enrico and his family moved back
to Chicago and the university where he continued his research and teaching. Fermi died in late November 1954 from stomach cancer.
Enrico Fermi was considered one of the world’s greatest scientist and as such raised Italy into the global intellectual spotlight. His accomplishments allowed man to conquer the nuclear age thus giving rise nuclear energy and nuclear medicine, both having increased the quality of man’s life. For the worldly achievements that Fermi produced he was rewarded not so much by financial gains but rather immortality through historical writings and scientific theorems bearing his name. As the new millennium rapidly approaches the human race will enter a new dawn of discovery, that of exploration. This exploration, from the smallest sub-atomic particle to the unimaginable vastness of the universe will drive man to tap the limits of imagination and ingenuity which will further advance the attained knowledge of the human race. It was once said that in order to proceed ahead one cannot forget the contributions from the past for they are the foundation in which the new knowledge is built upon.
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Prescott L.M., Harley J.P. & D.A Klein, (1993). Microbiology
2nd Ed., Volume 1 (pp A1). Dubuque: Brown Publishers.
Segre E., (1970). Enrico Fermi, Physicist (pp7, 20, 25, 95,
96, 97, 98, 119). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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