Enrico Fermi

(1901—1954) Italian-born American atomic physicist

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Italian-born US physicist, who made the first ‘atomic pile’, discovered the weak interaction, and was awarded the 1938 Nobel Prize for Physics for his work on nuclear reactions.

The son of a senior government official, Fermi was educated at the University of Pisa, where he gained his PhD in 1924. After spending some time in Germany he returned to Italy to take up an appointment at the University of Florence. While at Florence he made his first major contribution to physics by working out the statistics of those particles (later called fermions) that obey Pauli's exclusion principle.

In 1927 Fermi was appointed professor of physics at the University of Rome. Fermi, probably the greatest Italian physicist since Galileo, contributed to many areas of physics. He is best known, however, for his work on nuclear physics. Following Chadwick's discovery of the neutron in 1932, Fermi used it to probe the structure of the nucleus, discovering over forty new isotopes. He also discovered the increased activity of slow neutrons and was the first to use water, paraffin wax, etc., as moderators. By 1938 Fermi, an antifascist, became apprehensive of the safety of his Jewish wife. As this was the year in which he was awarded the Nobel Prize, he and his wife sailed directly from the Nobel ceremony in Stockholm to New York.

Fermi began his US career at Columbia University. With the outbreak of World War II, however, he moved to the University of Chicago where, working on the development of nuclear weapons, he built the world's first atomic reactor, or pile, as it was then called, in a transformed squash court at the University of Chicago. Fermi continued to work on the project and was present at Los Alamos when the first atom bomb was tested.

After the war Fermi remained at Chicago, working on new problems in nuclear physics. He was also advisor to the US government on a number of issues and served on the general advisory committee of the Atomic Energy Commission. In this capacity he spoke in defence of J. R. Oppenheimer against charges of disloyalty. He died of cancer.

Subjects: Science and Mathematics.

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