Celebrating the Architect of the Nuclear Energy Age: Enrico Fermi’s Birthday

Science often advances incrementally, with small insights building upon one another and gradually expanding the base of human knowledge. Occasionally, however, advances come in the form of great leaps, often propelled forward by one or more singularly brilliant minds. Enrico Fermi was one such mind. One of the most accomplished and influential scientists of the 20th century, Fermi played a prominent role in unlocking the power of the atom, laying the foundation for everything from the atomic bomb to nuclear energy.

A Scientist is Born

Enrico Fermi was born in Rome on September 29, 1901 as the third child of Alberto Fermi and Ida de Gattis. Inquisitive and industrious from an early age, Fermi's first encounter with physics came shortly after the death of his older brother, Giulio. Overwhelmed by grief, Fermi stumbled upon a pair of worn physics textbooks at a market near his home and began to immerse himself in them. He applied to the University of Pisa at age 17 and was accepted on the strength of a brilliant entrance essay that earned him first place among his peers.

After earning his doctorate in 1922, Fermi spent time studying in Germany with Max Born and in the Netherlands with Paul Ehrenfest. Following the discovery of Wolfgang Pauli's exclusion principle in 1925, Fermi released a paper detailing what subsequently came to be known as Fermi–Dirac statistics, providing an approach for describing the distribution of subatomic particles in certain systems. By 1934, Fermi had turned his considerable attention to the recently discovered neutron. After developing a theory of beta decay that provided a robust framework for much experimental work to come, Fermi set to work bombarding various elements with neutrons to induce radioactivity.

It was this work, which resulted in the discovery of several new elements as well as a deeper understanding of the processes behind nuclear reactions, that earned Fermi the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1938. With a fascist, anti-semitic government exerting control over his native Italy, Enrico and his wife, who was Jewish, used the Nobel Prize ceremony as an opportunity to leave Italy and emigrate to the United States. He arrived in New York in January 1939, where he quickly accepted a position at Columbia University. His contributions to science, however, were far from over.

A Brilliant Legacy

Arriving in New York with a reputation as one of the finest theoretical minds in physics, Enrico Fermi proved to be equally adept at engaging in experimental work. One of his greatest accomplishments began in the basement laboratory at Columbia, where he and his team conducted the first nuclear fission experiments on American soil. Soon, he began to collaborate with Hungarian-born physicist Leó Szilárd. Though the working relationship between the two was uneasy, the relationship ultimately culminated in the design and construction of Chicago Pile-1, the first manmade reactor ever to achieve a self-sustaining nuclear reaction.

Chicago Pile-1 proved to be a landmark step in the massive Manhattan Project, contributing to the knowledge and experimental proof needed to proceed with the quest to build a functional atomic weapon. Fermi's work also opened the door to nuclear reactors used for sustainable energy, among a host of other important applications. At the height of World War II, Fermi became Associate Director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, overseeing theoretical and experimental work, contributing to construction and ultimately assisting with target selection for the bomb. Following the war, he participated in the effort to build a hydrogen bomb despite opposing it on moral grounds. He also continued his lifelong dedication to science, contributing important research on topics as diverse as subatomic particle theories, cosmic radiation and galactic magnetic fields.

Fermi's Work Continues

Enrico Fermi died in 1954 after a battle with stomach cancer, but his legacy and his life's work have continued on to the present day. According to Gexa Energy, nearly 20 percent of all energy in the United States is supplied by roughly 100 nuclear reactors that are possible because of Fermi's work. His outsized role in physics looms large in research conducted by the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland and the preeminent American particle physics laboratory, Fermilab, in Illinois. His theoretical and experimental discoveries still underpin many of today's cutting-edge pursuits throughout the world of physics.

Long recognized as an outstanding teacher, Fermi also helped to inspire the next generation of scientists. His exceptionally detailed notes and teaching papers have been collected into influential books, and his clever methods for arriving at quick, approximate answers to difficult problems is widely taught today as the Fermi estimation. His reputation as the "architect of the nuclear age" is well-founded, and few figures of the 20th century can match the breadth and magnitude of his influence on the modern world.