Today In History: Enrico Fermi Dies
Today in 1954, Enrico Fermi, the “father” of the nuclear bomb, died. Fermi was the first person to generate a controlled nuclear chain reaction. This scientific achievement made nuclear weaponry possible.
Fermi, an Italian, studied under Max Born, a scientist known for pioneering work in quantum mechanics. Fermi was a prodigal physicist, becoming the youngest person ever elected to the Royal Academy of Italy in 1929.
Building upon the work of Sir James Chadwick and the Curies, Fermi experimented with radioactive beryllium to generate radioactivity. Subsequent testing and experimentation resulted in a Nobel Prize for physics in 1938. Fermi had identified “new radioactive elements,” namely a new form of uranium. The Mussolini government gave Fermi and his wife special dispensation to travel to Sweden to collect the prize, and they did not return to their home country.
From Sweden, the Fermis traveled to Columbia University in New York. There, in collaboration with Niels Bohr, he resumed his experimentation. The practical application of his work became obvious to him. Presciently, he authored a letter to president Roosevelt warning of the potential of a Nazi nuclear weapon being manufactured. Albert Einstein himself delivered the letter by hand in 1939. Roosevelt, alarmed by the letter, initiated The Manhattan Project.
Fermi labored to create that first, groundbreaking controlled nuclear chain reaction. In a bit of an unlikely place, as well; he built a laboratory in a squash court underneath the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field. Fermi got his chain reaction on December 2, 1942. Roosevelt received a cryptic message, “The Italian navigator has just landed in the new world.”
The first nuclear weapon test was conducted on July 16, 1945. Shortly thereafter, the United States dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bombings are still regarded as atrocities by many people around the world, and the advent of nuclear weapons as a tragedy. The world is currently in the grips of the highest nuclear tensions since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Fermi was made a Distinguished Service Professor of Nuclear Studies at the University of Chicago, where he helped build the world’s first large-particle accelerator. He went on to win many more accolades. The most significant was a new element, fermium, being named in his honor.