Who Was Enrico Fermi?Enrico Fermi was a physicist whose important discoveries about the atom led to the splitting of the atom (atomic bombs) and the harnessing of its heat into an energy source (nuclear energy).
Dates: September 29, 1901 -- November 29, 1954
Also Known As: Architect of the Nuclear Age
Enrico Fermi Discovers His PassionEnrico Fermi was born in Rome at the very beginning of the 20th century. At the time, no one could have imagined the impact his scientific discoveries would have on the world.
Experimenting With AtomsFor the next several years, Fermi worked with some of the greatest physicists in Europe, including Max Born and Paul Ehrenfest, while also teaching at the University of Florence and then at the University of Rome.
Slowing Down the NeutronThough it doesn't seem to make sense, Fermi found that by slowing down the neutron, it often had a larger impact on the nucleus. He found that the speed at which the neutron was most impacted differed for every element. For these two discoveries about atoms, Fermi was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1938.
Fermi EmigratesThe timing was just right for the Nobel Prize. Antisemitism was strengthening within Italy at this time and though Fermi was not Jewish, his wife was. Fermi accepted the Nobel Prize in Stockholm and then immediately immigrated to the United States. He arrived in the U.S. in 1939 and began working at Columbia University in New York City as a professor of physics.
Nuclear Chain ReactionsFermi continued his research at Columbia University. Though Fermi had unknowingly split a nucleus during his earlier experiments, credit for splitting an atom (fission) was given to Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann in 1939. However, Fermi quickly realized that if you split an atom's nucleus, that atom's neutrons could be used as projectiles to split another atom's nucleus, causing a nuclear chain reaction. Each time a nucleus was split, an enormous amount of energy was released.
Fermi's discovery of the nuclear chain reaction and then his discovery of a way to control this reaction led to both the construction of atomic bombs and of nuclear power.
The Manhattan ProjectDuring World War II, Fermi worked diligently on the Manhattan Project to create an atomic bomb. After the war, however, he believed the human toll from these bombs was too large. In 1946, Fermi worked as a professor at the University of Chicago's Institute of Nuclear Studies. In 1949, Fermi argued against the development of a hydrogen bomb. It was built anyway.
On November 29, 1954, Enrico Fermi succumbed to stomach cancer at the age of 53.