Enrico Fermi Biography

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Enrico Fermi was a leading light in both experimental and theoretical physics, Fermi was an almost once-in-a-generation genius. It was Fermi who built the first operational nuclear reactor in 1942, Fermi who created our understanding of the subatomic particles known today as fermions, and Fermi who helped Oppenheimer father the Bomb. 

From fascist Italy to WWII America, this is the life of Enrico Fermi, the greatest Italian scientist on this side of Galileo. The Quiet Italian One of the themes we’ve touched on, time and again is that - despite what fiction tells you - you usually can’t tell which child is gonna grow up to change the world. Otto von Bismarck, for example, was lazy as a kid. Mathematician Emmy Noether was going to be a language teacher. Johannes Kepler was obsessed with joining the priesthood. 

But there are times when even real-life follows the rules of fiction. Times when you really can just look at a child and think “that kid’s gonna be world-famous one day.” Enrico Fermi was one of those kids. Born in Rome on September 29, 1901, Fermicame from an average family. His father was a government railway inspector, while his mother Ida was a teacher. 

But Ida was above average in one very particular way. She believed acquiring knowledge was almost a sacred duty. You might say this was the closest thing toa religion in the Fermi household. Unusually for the time, the family weren’tCatholic and sent young Fermi to one of the few secular schools in Rome. There, aged only six, Enrico Fermi began to show signs of the genius he would become. Basically, from the moment he started school, Fermi was consistently at the top of his class. Ida had instilled in him a deep love for math, science, engineering, and everything else brainy. When not studying, the boy spent his time building electric motors with his older brother Giulio. 

So, yeah, if you’d been introduced to childFermi circa 1910, you’d have probably thought to yourself “that kid’s gonna be big.” But you might not have guessed he’d be beginning the world of physics. That’s because it’d take a tragedy to set, Fermi, on that particular path. In January 1915, Fermi’s brother Giuliowent into hospital for routine surgery on a throat abscess. Something went wrong, and he died on the operating table, bleeding out aged only 15. 

For the teenage Fermi, this was like God had just cruelly hurled a lightning bolt right into the middle of his life. As a boy, Fermi had always been shy and introverted. But in the wake of Giulio’s death, he became almost catatonically withdrawn. Frightened, Ida tried to convince her son to lose himself in his studies. She found a fifty-year-old book on physics and gave it to the boy to read. What Fermi read there blew his young mind. There was something about the world described in that book that just made sense to Fermi, that made him want to learn more.

From that point on, the boy wouldn’t be a magpie, leaping from one STEM subject to the next. His mind would instead be a high-powered laser, focused solely on physics. In 1918, three years after Giulio died, Fermiapplied to the prestigious Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa. On November 14 that year he sat the entrance exam. 

The task was to write a competitive essay. Fermi chose the topic Characteristics of Sound. When the examiner read it, he nearly fell off his chair. While anyone sitting this exam was naturally intelligent, Fermi was at a whole other level. He’d turned in a paper that would’ve been impressive for a doctoral thesis. 

Fermi was instantly fast-tracked onto the school's doctoral program, with his advisor the director of the physics laboratory. But the director soon realized this kid was such a natural that it was impossible to teach him stuff. 

In just three years of self-study, Fermi had become so good at physics that he could run rings around a department chair. Everybody at the school could agree on one thing. They couldn’t wait to see what he did next. Breaking Italy At the same time Fermi was rising through the physics profession like an out of control weather balloon, another Italian also found himself being catapulted toward stardom. On March 23, 1919 - mere months after Fermisat his exam - Benito Mussolini founded the Fascist Party. 

Although neither Fermi nor Mussolini could've known it at the time, their lives were destined to cross in a way that would change history. Within a year of the Fascist Party’s appearance, chapters had sprung up across the nation, and whole regions descended into violence. Mussolini was a world-class rabble-rouser, a guy who could whip up a mob in the time it takes to boil an egg. As his influence spread, blackshirt militias began attacking leftists, burning down trade union offices, and physically stopping leftwing officials from taking their posts. 

Come July 1922, the whole of Italy knew Mussolini’sname, and either loved or loathed him. With possibly one exception. All his life, Enrico Fermi would be staunchly apolitical, never showing the slightest hint of interest in politics. As Italy fell into the chaos that summer, he was likely thinking of one thing only: defending his thesis. By now, Fermi had already published his first couple of papers, and his planet-sized brain was infamous across Pisa. 

When he actually came to defend his thesis before 11 examiners, it’s said only two of them were capable of grasping what he was talking about. Fermi graduated with honors, almost immediately receiving a government grant to continue his studies. Not that that government would be around much longer. That same summer, Mussolini’s blacks shirts smashed a general strike called by Italian leftists. On 24 October, before a gathering of 40,000fascists, Il Duce declared that the government was incapable of governing and that his party would physically remove it from power. 

Mussolini’s March on Rome was the moment democracy died in Italy. Faced with an insurrection, the government collapsed. Preferring fascism to anarchy, King VictorEmmanuel III invited Mussolini to form a new government. On Halloween that year - a fitting date if there ever was one - Italy’s balder, fatter version of Hitler became Prime Minister, the first fascist leader in history. But while life was about to take a bad turn for Italy in general, it was taking a series of extremely good turns for Enrico Fermi. 

Between 1922 and 1926, Fermi won a series of scholarships, going abroad to teach in Germany and the Netherlands. By the time he settled back in Italy in 1926, he was ready to change the world. Offered the chair of theoretical physics at the University of Rome, aged just 25, Fermi made breakthroughs after breakthroughs. Perhaps his most lasting was the development of what are known as Fermi-Dirac statistics - basically a way of understanding a group of subatomic particles that would otherwise make us go every time we thought about them. 

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