Trinity Remembered

Enrico Fermi (1901-1954)

Enrico Fermi

On December 2, 1942, the first man-made and self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction was achieved, resulting in the controlled release of nuclear energy. This feat took place in a squash court beneath the stands of an unused football stadium at the University of Chicago. The scientist who led the achievement was Enrico Fermi. The first practical use of the ability to control nuclear energy was in the atom bombs that were used at the end of World War II.

Enrico Fermi was born on September 29, 1901, in Rome. He was the youngest of three children. His father was a railroad worker, his mother a schoolteacher. At 17 Fermi entered the University of Pisa on a scholarship. He was soon teaching theoretical physics to his own physics instructor.

In 1922 he earned his doctorate in the subject, and after further study in Göttingen, Germany, and in Leiden, the Netherlands, he began teaching at the University of Rome. Here Fermi met Laura Capon, a science student at the university who became his wife in 1928. They had a daughter and a son. In 1934 Fermi worked out a theory of beta-ray disintegration in radioactivity. Soon he was experimenting with neutrons and learned to make about 40 chemical elements radioactive. For this work he won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1938.

To escape fascism in Italy, the Fermi family immigrated to the United States after going to Sweden to accept the Nobel Prize. Fermi taught at Columbia University in New York City and did research on uranium. He became a United States citizen in 1944.

On Dec. 7, 1941, the United States entered World War II. Early in 1942 Fermi transferred to the University of Chicago. In a squash court under the football stadium he developed a method of causing nuclear fission. With this method he and his group produced a chain reaction that released the explosive nuclear energy.

After the war Fermi continued as a University of Chicago professor. In 1954, he was given the first special Atomic Energy Commission award of $25,000 dollars. Several days later, on November 28, he died of cancer in Chicago. Element 100 was named fermium (Fm) in his honor.