On this day in 1954, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Enrico Fermi, the first man to create and control a nuclear chain reaction, and one of the Manhattan Project scientists, dies in Chicago at the age of 53.
Fermi was born in Rome on September 1, 1901. He made his career choice of physicist at age 17, and earned his doctorate at the University of Pisa at 21. After studying in Germany under physicist Max Born, famous for his work on quantum mechanics, which would prove vital to Fermi’s later work, he returned to Italy to teach mathematics at the University of Florence. By 1926, he had been made a full professor of theoretical physics and gathered around him a group of other young physicists. In 1929, he became the youngest man ever elected to the Royal Academy of Italy.
The theoretical became displaced by the practical for Fermi upon learning of England’s Sir James Chadwick’s discovery of the neutron and the Curies’ production of artificial radioactivity. Fermi went to work on producing radioactivity by means of manipulating the speed of neutrons derived from radioactive beryllium. Further similar experimentation with other elements, including uranium 92, produced new radioactive substances; Fermi’s colleagues believed he had created a new, “transuranic” element with an atomic number of 93, the result of uranium 92 capturing a neuron while under bombardment, thus increasing its atomic weight. Fermi remained skeptical, despite his fellow physicists’ enthusiasm. He became a believer in 1938, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for “his identification of new radioactive elements.” Although travel was restricted for men whose work was deemed vital to national security, Fermi was given permission to go to Sweden to receive his prize. He and his wife, Laura, who was Jewish, never returned; both feared and despised Mussolini’s fascist regime.
Fermi left Sweden for New York City, Columbia University, specifically, where he recreated many of his experiments with Niels Bohr, the Danish-born physicist, who suggested the possibility of a nuclear chain reaction. Fermi and others saw the possible military applications of such an explosive power, and quickly composed a letter warning President Roosevelt of the perils of a German atomic bomb. The letter was signed and delivered to the president by Albert Einstein on October 11, 1939. The Manhattan Project, the American program to create its own atomic bomb, was the result.
It fell to Fermi to produce the first nuclear chain reaction, without which such a bomb was impossible. He created a jury-rigged laboratory, complete with his own “atomic pile,” in a squash court in the basement of Stagg Field at the University of Chicago. It was there that Fermi, with other physicists looking on, produced the first controlled chain reaction on December 2, 1942. The nuclear age was born. “The Italian navigator has just landed in the new world,” was the coded message sent to a delighted President Roosevelt.
The first nuclear device, the creation of the Manhattan Project scientists, was tested on July 16, 1945. It was followed less than a month later by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the war, Fermi, now an American citizen, became a Distinguished Service Professor of Nuclear Studies at the University of Chicago, consulting on the construction of the first large-particle accelerator. He went on to receive the Congressional Medal of Merit and to be elected a foreign member of the Royal Society of London.
Among other honors accorded to Fermi: The element number 100, fermium, was named for him. Also, the Enrico Fermi Award, now one of the oldest and most prestigious science and technology awards given by the U.S. government, was created in his honor.