Enrico Fermi, Remarkable Scientist, Great teacher and the Father of Nuclear Physics
“Enrico Fermi was the greatest Italian scientist of modern times and was highly creative both as a theoretical and experimental physicist.” – The Cambridge Dictionary of Scientists –
The early days and Fermi’s Interest in Physics
For those of us who are not so familiar with modern scientists, this is an eye opener indeed. Enrico Fermi an Italian, was born on 29 September 1901 in Rome to an Engineer father and a school teacher mother. While in school, Fermi is said to have had a prodigious memory and an above average aptitude for mathematics. Leaving school with an excellent record; and as advised by his mentor, his father’s colleague Adolfo Amidei, he entered the ‘Reale Scuola Normale Superiore’ an elite Italian institute for study and research. This institution had been set up by Napoleon himself in 1810 and was associated with the Pisa University. Fermi sat for his PhD at the age of 21 with his thesis being research on X-rays. With the Fellowship from the Italian Ministry of Public Instruction safely in his pocket, Fermi was able to enter the University of Gottingen in Germany and from there to Leiden in Netherlands where he worked from 1880 to 1933. Fermi returned to his native land in 1924 and joined the University of Florence as a lecturer in mathematical physics and mechanics.
Youngest Full Professor in a Rome University
It was in 1926 that Fermi began his studies on statistical mechanics of particles and was the first scientist to apply the principle of Pauli exclusion to systems of multiple electrons unattached to atoms. Another scientist by the name of Dirac too had mastered the same principle, and the result was named the Fermi-Dirac Statistics. He was only 25 years old when Fermi was appointed the Professor of theoretical Physics at the University of Rome where he worked for 12 years. Not only did Fermi become the youngest Full Professor in Rome at that time, he also became the first person to have the honor of occupying a chair in theoretical physics. Although this was a great achievement for a young scientist, it would have been considered an unattainable fete in normal circumstances because of the nature of traditional Italian universities those days. While there was no argument about Fermi’s suitability for the post since he had after all published 30 valuable research papers and established his reputation, it would not have been easy for a youngster like Fermi to obtain the post if not for being patronized by one of the most notable Italian physicists of his time and a senator to boot, Orso Mario Corbino. It was with Corbino’s support that Fermi was able to form a group of young theoretical physicists which was later named as the “Rome School” This group of experimental physicists were instrumental in changing the nature of Physics in Italy and across the world.
Fermi’s Exceptional Discoveries
In 1939, under Mussolini’s government, Fermi immigrated to the USA because he was publicly accused of being fascist extremists. Fermi was a well known figure in the States where he had visited before to teach quantum electrodynamics at the Michigan University. He had also been a visiting professor and had in fact been offered a permanent position at the Columbia University which Fermi had politely rejected at that time, At Columbia, he became an exceptional teacher who used the simplest of methods to teach his students theoretical physics no matter how complicated it was. This was succinctly stated by another scientist when talking about Fermi “….. He was master of achieving important results with a minimum of effort and mathematical apparatus.”
The Father of Nuclear Physics in No More
After many note worthy contributions, Fermi was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1938 for discovering neutron induced radioactivity. Fermi was also responsible for constructing the first nuclear reactor in 1942. It is also worth mentioning that Fermi was an important part of the team that built the first atomic bomb. On 16 November 1954, President Eisenhower presented Fermi with the Atomic Energy Commission’s special award for lifetime accomplishments in physics and in particular for the development of atomic energy. Soon afterwards on 28 November, 1954 Fermi died in Chicago at the comparatively young age of 53. Enrico Fermi, the father of nuclear physics was no more. His contributions however are so remarkable; it is said that there’s no one to match the versatility of Fermi in the history of modern physics.