Enrico Fermi (1898 - 1964)

Fermi had an early start in the academic arena of physics. At the young age of 21, he had gotten his doctorate from the University of Pisa in Italy, and by the age of 24 was working out a new type of statistics applicable to particles obeying the famous Pauli exclusion principle. Unfortunately, Bose-Einstein statistics did not work in this case. The importance of Fermi statistics was immediately appreciated by physicists and established Fermi as a leader in the international community of theoriticians.
Several years later, quantum mechanics had reached its full development; nonrelativistic problems, at least in principle, were solvable except for some small mathematical difficulties. In this sense atomic physics was showing signs of exhaustion and one could expect the next really important advances to be in the study of the nucleus. Realizing this, Fermi decided to switch to nuclear physics. Fermi began to collaborate with such men as Hans Bethe, Edward Teller, Rudolf Peierls, Fritz London, Felix Bloch, George Blazek, among others.

After winning the Nobel Prize in 1938, he decided to leave Italy for good. He barely settled himself in Columbia University in New York, when Niels Bohr brought news of the discovery of fission. This discovery made a tremendous impression on all physicists, because they saw the possibility of the emission of secondary neutrons as the start of a chain reaction. At once, Fermi started experimenting in this direction.

Enrico Fermi was the mastermind of the crucial experiment on December 2, 1942 that produced the chain reaction needed to make an atomic bomb. He conducted this experiment on a bitterly cold day at an unused squash court at the University of Chicago.

He spent most of the period from September 1944 to early 1946 at Los Alamos, New Mexico where he served as a general consultant. He collaborated on the building of a small chain reactor using enriched uranium in U235 and heavy water. He also actively participated in the first test of the atomic bomb in the desert near Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945. Following the successful test of the bomb, he was appointed by President Truman to the interim committee charged with advising the president on the use of the bomb and on many fundamental policies concerning atomic energy.

In 1946, The University of Chicago created the Institute for Nuclear Studies and offered a professorship to Fermi. The offer proved attractive to Fermi, and early in 1946 he and his family left Los Alamos for Chicago. He remained at the University of Chicago for the rest of his life.

For more information on Enrico Fermi:


bulletLaura Fermi, Atoms in the Family, Chicago, 1954

bulletThis is a biography by his wife emphasizing the non scientific aspect of his life.


bulletEmilio Segre, Enrico Fermi, Physicist,Chicago, 1970


bulletSegre, Anderson, and Persico, et. al., eds., Fermi's Collected Papers, 2 vols., Chicago, 1962-1965

bulletThis contains most of his papers and a complete bibliography of his work. There is a biographical introduction by Emilio Segre and a chronology of Fermi's life.