Enrico Fermi

Sandy Smith
March 20, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: Enrico Fermi in the 1940s. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Enrico Fermi revolutionized nuclear physics. His accomplishments are tremendous and are still being felt today. As an Italian physicist, Fermi worked on projects such as nuclear reactors but most notably the Manhattan Project, developing the atomic bomb. Fermi, born in 1901, is known as the man who began the studies and research of atomic physics. [1]

Early Life

Born in 1901 to two working parents, Fermi, pictured to the right, was encouraged to pursue academics. He grew up in the days of World War I, which really had an effect on the youth in Europe. [2] His mother was an elementary school teacher and his father worked in the railroad industry. A tragedy struck their family in 1915 when Fermi's older broth Giulio passed away. However, this event triggered his devotion and focus to academics even more. He studied at schools in his hometown of Rome, acquiring a scholarship to Scuola Normale Superiore at Pisa where he graduated in 1922 and then went on to study at the University of Göttingen, University of Rome at Leyden and the University of Florence. [3] A very well-educated man (Fig. 1), Fermi studied science beyond just the black and white facts - he began to consider and research science in qualitative and philosophical ways, expanding his wealth of knowledge.


At a time when physics research was minimal and even somewhat complicated, Fermi emerged into, what his colleagues called him, "the world's outstanding nuclear physicist." Between 1924 and 1926, Fermi created his first contribution to "theoretical physics": the Fermi-Derac statistics. This theory can be summed up in saying that he discovered that no two electrons can exist in an atom in the same state. [3] Of his greater achievements was that of the Nobel prize he received in 1938. [4] The origin of this prize came not only from all his previous accolades and accomplishments prior to 1938 but also because of his discovery of atomic transmutations. He discovered two types of transmutations that led to the emission of protons and then a third one transmutation in which the neutron was captured by the emission of a gamma ray. [4] Fermi, however, left Italy during the fall of 1938 during the anti-Semitic efforts.

Legacy and Conclusion

Continuing his research, teachings, and work at Colombia, he joined H.L. Anderson, Zinn, and Szilard on a project to develop a chain reaction to uranium. They worked tirelessly, even taking their work to the University of Chicago before achieving their goal in 1942. He jumped into the next project shortly after, working with Oppenheimer on the atomic bomb. [4] When he spoke on any topic regarding physics, people listened. His death, which came in 1954 at only 53 years old, was a shock to the whole scientific community, but his legacy lives on as someone who was both intellectually curious, driven, and philosophically able to write, teach, and research physics in ways other scientists couldn't. He had a gift that he shared with the world in many different ways and his achievements are still seen today.

© Sandy Smith. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] D. Cooper, Enrico Fermi: And the Revolutions of Modern Physics, (Oxford University Press, 1999)

[2] E. Segre, Enrico Fermi Physicist (University of Chicago Press, 1970)

[3] E. H. Cone, "Enrico Fermi," Am. Sci., 38, 442 (1950).

[4] E. Bretscher and J. D. Cockcroft, "Enrico Fermi. 1901-1954," Biogr. Mem. Fellows R. Soc. 1, 69 (1955).