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The doubly dextrous physics of Enrico Fermi

Catherine Westfall lauds a candid life of a Manhattan Project scientist at home in theory and experimentation.

The Last Man Who Knew Everything: The Life and Times of Enrico Fermi, Father of the Nuclear Age David N. Schwartz Basic: 2017.

Nobel laureate Enrico Fermi contributed to the discovery of nuclear fission and was part of the Manhattan Project, which built the first atomic bombs. Unlike his contemporaries, Fermi was proficient in both theory and experiment, knowing everything there was then to know about physics. It is therefore surprising that political scientist David Schwartz’s new biography is one of just a handful.

Until a few years ago, Fermi featured in only two full-length accounts. In 1954, the year he died, his wife Laura Fermi published Atoms in the Family, a charming, sometimes cheeky account of their marriage and family life. In 1970, Enrico Fermi, Physicist by former student Emilio Segré nicely added explanations and details of Fermi’s physics. Segré’s nephew Gino and co-author Bettina Hoerlin provided a more complete life and work in their lyrical The Pope of Physics (Henry Holt, 2016), reviewed in these pages (G. Farmelo Nature 538, 168–169; 2016).

Now, Schwartz’s The Last Man Who Knew Everything offers the most comprehensive description of Fermi’s work so far, as well as fresh insights into his personality. (Interestingly, Schwartz’s father, physics Nobel laureate Melvin Schwartz, met Fermi in 1953 and passed up the chance of working with him.)

Fermi’s tribulations and successes were framed in tumult. He emigrated from Italy to the United States in 1938 to ensure that his Jewish wife escaped the anti-Semitic laws of Benito Mussolini’s fascist government. By then, he had already conducted ground-breaking theoretical research in Italy that illuminated the weak interaction and beta decay. The famous ‘Rome School’ of physics he founded gathered many up-and-coming young researchers (including Bruno Pontecorvo and Emilio Segré) and put Italy on the physics map.

With this group, Fermi performed radio­activity-inducing experiments with the newfangled neutron, which James Chadwick had discovered in 1932. These experiments revealed (among other results) that the particles are captured more readily when they are slow. The resulting expertise — and his genius for practical, intuitive problem-solving and painstaking experimental execution — enabled Fermi to make key advances. He demonstrated the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, and built the world’s first nuclear reactor at Stagg Field, at the University of Chicago in Illinois. It was this proof of concept that spurred the US military, with support from Britain and Canada, to develop the atomic bomb during the Second World War.

In particular, The Last Man Who Knew Everything reveals much more about the context of Fermi’s contributions. Schwartz deftly positions Fermi’s early research on beta decay within the overall development of quantum mechanics. He also sets Fermi’s work as an adviser and ad hoc problem solver at Los Alamos against the full drama of the Manhattan Project. In those intense and hectic days, Fermi’s door was always open to provide on-the-fly solutions to any technical problem experienced by an engineer or a physicist designing the weapons. At the same time, Fermi and Laura heartily joined in the social life of Bathtub Row, the street where J. Robert Oppenheimer and other project members lived. (Schwartz notes, however, that Fermi watched the square dancing with some puzzlement, while Laura joined in.)

The book is rich in political, historical and technical detail. But its prose style is awkward. And I was irked by Schwartz’s tendency to dwell on an issue, puzzling through various philosophical considerations and conflicting interpretations. In my view, for instance, there is no need to ponder whether Fermi should be called the father of the nuclear age. His work with the first reactor clearly qualifies as a seminal event in the development of nuclear power, even if Fermi was not, as Schwartz notes, an architect of the first bombs.

Eventually, however, I learnt to appreciate the wrangling with Fermi’s personae and legacy. Like other biographers, Schwartz shows Fermi’s sweet side: his loyalty to friends and family, humour and quiet dignity. This is a man who accepted his own abrupt diagnosis of terminal cancer in 1954 without fuss, noting that the timing of his death would probably boost sales of his wife’s book. But we also meet the Fermi who could be cold and lost in his work, to the detriment of relationships, particularly with his family — as Graham Farmelo noted in his review of The Pope of Physics. This is the man who did little to help his wife adjust to the United States after their immigration, and later alienated his son Giulio.

In short, Schwartz’s blunt style cuts through the gauze of hero worship. And ironically, that unflinching gaze accentuates Fermi’s stature. The Last Man Who Knew Everything yields an intimate and engaging portrait of an extraordinary physicist who was also very human.

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