Enrico Fermi

  • From:

    University of Chicago │ Chicago, Illinois

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  • Citation:

    For research in the practical use of energy stored in the nuclei of certain heavy atoms.

Enrico Fermi was born in Rome, Italy, in 1901. He studied at the University of Pisa from 1918 to 1922 and later at the universities of Leyden and Gottingen. He became professor of theoretical physics at the University of Rome in 1927.

Dr. Fermi was a unique scientist, in that his accomplishments were in both theoretical and experimental physics, an unusual feat for the times. In 1926, Fermi discovered the statistical laws, now known as the Fermi statistics, governing the particles subject to Pauli's exclusion principle (now referred to as fermions, in contrast with bosons which obey the Bose-Einstein statistics). In 1933, he developed the theory of beta decay, postulating that the newly-discovered neutron decaying to a proton emits an electron and a particle which he called a "neutrino." The theory developed to explain this interaction later resulted in recognition of the weak interaction force.

He received the Nobel Prize in 1938 for his "discovery of new radioactive elements produced by neutron irradiation, and for the discovery of nuclear reactions brought about by slow neutrons." Fermi and his family used the opportunity to leave Italy permanently because of their increasing concern about living under the Italian Fascist regime. They came to the United States where Fermi accepted a position as professor of physics at Columbia University. Fermi then moved to the University of Chicago to be in charge of the first major step in making possible the building of a bomb. At that time it was recognized that nuclear fission (the splitting of the atom) had taken place in Fermi's and other similar experiments. Scientists felt that this principle might be applied to construct an "atomic bomb." With World War II raging in Europe, the ability to produce such a bomb was believed to be of the greatest importance in the balance of power in the world.

At the end of World War II, the University of Chicago formed its Institute for Nuclear Studies (now The Enrico Fermi Institute), to keep together the scientists who had worked on the development of the atom bomb. Fermi joined the faculty at the University of Chicago and continued his investigation of the nucleus of the atom, concentrating on the particles that make up the nucleus. He was the prime mover in the design of the synchrocyclotron at the university which was, at the time of its completion, one of the most powerful atom smashers in the world.

Information as of 1947