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Enrico Fermi: Atomic Energy, 9147

An Exceptional Student

Enrico Fermi was born September 29, 1901, in Rome, Italy; he was the youngest of three children of Alberto Fermi, a railroad official, and Ida de Gattis, an elementary teacher with firm expectations.

The death of his brother, Giulio, in 1915 during minor surgery was a crushing blow to the family. While his mother was deeply grieving, Enrico filled the emptiness he felt with study. Reading physics and mathematics texts became his hobby. His wife, Laura Fermi, describes Enrico telling how he used to keep warm at home while studying by sitting on his hands and how he would "turn the pages of his book with his tongue."

A colleague of his father, Ingegner Amidei, encouraged young Enrico and directed him to the Reale Scuolo Normale Superiore, a subsidiary of the University of Pisa, which was specifically targeted at promising and talented students and admitted them through competitive examinations. Enrico Fermi submitted an essay on vibrating strings that amazed the examining professor. Fermi was admitted to the school and declared "exceptional." So, at 17, he moved from Rome to Pisa, site of Galileo's famous experiments hundreds of years earlier.

While at the University of Pisa, Fermi advanced in his theoretical approach to spectroscopy. He obtained a doctorate from the university in July 1922 with his thesis on the investigation of X-rays.