Exile and Creativity: Enrico Fermi
This series presented by the Italian Cultural Institute in collaboration with Centro Primo Levi highlights the stories of those Italian artists, scientists, and intellectuals who were forced to leave Fascist
This series presented by the Italian Cultural Institute in collaboration with Centro Primo Levi highlights the stories of those Italian artists, scientists, and intellectuals who were forced to leave Fascist Italy for political reasons or racial persecution, and fled to the United States. Panels of scholars and writers will explore how their exile not only influenced their professional pathway and personal lives but also changed the intellectual scene in Italy and America.
Free and open to the public. Make your reservations.
The first of the events is dedicated to Enrico Fermi and is a conversation with David N. Schwartz, author of the book: The Last Man Who Knew Everything, Enrico Fermi’s compelling biography, and William Allen Zajc (Professor of Physics at Columbia University). Moderator: Mario Calvo Platero, journalist.
The series is held in collaboration with Renato Camurri, Professor of Contemporary History at Università di Verona and director of a series of studies entitled “Italiani dall’esilio”, published by Donzelli, and the Primo Levi Center (CPL Editions).
A Remarkable Man Among Remarkable Men and Women
Albert Einstein once remarked that he had sold himself body and soul to science, “being in flight from the I and the we to the it.” Einstein’s transformation followed from and repudiated an early-adolescent phase of intense religiosity. Enrico Fermi, the Italian-American physicist whose long list of achievements includes co-inventing the nuclear reactor, escaped into science as well, but in his case the impetus was traumatic: the sudden death of his beloved older brother, Giulio, during throat surgery when Fermi was 13.
That loss precipitated an intense lifelong privacy and a personal and scientific strategy of quantifying the world. Fermi wielded a six-inch slide rule as we today wield our iPhones, to plumb the essence of events. He ranks high in the second tier of 20th-century physicists, behind figures like Einstein and the Danish theoretician Niels Bohr. There have been other accounts of his life, yet David N. Schwartz’s new portrait, “The Last Man Who Knew Everything,” is the first thorough biography to be published since Fermi’s death 64 years ago in 1954.
Schwartz, the author of “NATO’s Nuclear Dilemmas,” cautions that the record of Fermi’s life is thin: no personal journals, few letters, little more than the testimony of colleagues, family and friends. The biographer was forced to devote most of his effort to Fermi’s work life.
With a subject like Fermi, that restriction is a limit but hardly a loss. When Fermi died of stomach cancer at 53, Hans Bethe, the theorist who taught us how the sun shines, wrote his colleague’s widow, Laura, “There is no one like Enrico, and there will not be another for a hundred years.” Schwartz calls Fermi “the greatest Italian scientist since Galileo.” Add to these tributes that Fermi was a natural leader — charming, gregarious, bursting with energy, easy in command — and one is left wondering why a full biography has been so long delayed.
The American part of Fermi’s life began in 1938. When the Swedish Academy decided to award him that year’s Nobel Prize in Physics for his work with radioactive elements and nuclear reactions, it took the unusual step of having Bohr ask Fermi privately if he could accept it. Adolf Hitler had banned the Nobels in Germany after a German peace activist was awarded the 1935 Peace Prize. In 1938, the academy feared Italy’s Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, might follow suit. Fermi knew Mussolini was hungry for national honors and told Bohr so.
The advance notice gave the Fermis time to prepare their escape, urgent because Laura was Jewish and Mussolini was promulgating increasingly harsh anti-Semitic laws. The Nobel, worth more than $500,000 today, set up the family in its new country, where a professorship at Columbia University awaited the new laureate. Fatefully, the Fermis sailed from Italy the same week that two Berlin radiochemists discovered nuclear fission.
That discovery was totally unexpected. In spring 1939, working at Columbia with the Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard, Fermi set out to answer a crucial question about it. Uranium atoms release a burst of energy when they fission, enough per atom to make a grain of sand visibly jump. But what then? Was there a way to combine those individual fissions, to turn a small burst into a mighty roar?
Szilard, ever-resourceful, acquired hundreds of pounds of black, greasy uranium-oxide powder from a Canadian mining corporation. Fermi and his students packed the powder into pipe-like tin cans and arranged them equally spaced in a circle within a large tank of water mixed with powdered manganese. At the center of the arrangement they placed a neutron source.
Neutrons from the source, slowed down by the water, would penetrate the uranium atoms in the cans and induce fissions. If the fissioning atoms released more neutrons, those “secondary” neutrons would irradiate the manganese. Measuring the radioactivity induced in the manganese would tell Fermi if the fissions were multiplying. If so, then a chain reaction might be possible, one bombarding neutron splitting a uranium atom and releasing two neutrons, those two splitting two other uranium atoms and releasing four, the four releasing eight, and so on in a geometric progression that could potentially produce vast amounts of energy for power — or for an atomic bomb. The experiment worked.
In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized a program to build atomic bombs, hoping to defeat a Germany that was potentially a year or more ahead in the deadly race. Fermi, working now at the University of Chicago, undertook the building of a full-scale reactor to demonstrate that a chain reaction could be achieved and controlled. By then it was known as well that a nuclear reactor would breed a newly discovered element, plutonium, an alternative nuclear explosive. Fermi’s reactor would also demonstrate the breeding of plutonium.
Instead of water, which absorbed too many neutrons, the demonstration reactor would use graphite, the form of carbon found in pencil lead, to slow the neutrons. Graphite blocks the size of planter boxes, drilled with blind holes to house slugs of uranium metal, would be stacked layer by layer to form a spherical matrix. Fermi, who loved American idioms, called his creation a “pile.”
Across the month of November 1942, Fermi supervised the building of Chicago Pile No. 1 on a doubles squash court under the west stands of the university football stadium. It was ready on the frigid morning of Dec. 2, 1942. Through the morning and early afternoon, wielding his slide rule, Fermi slowly took the pile critical, with a characteristically Fermian break for lunch. It worked, which meant a bomb would almost certainly work as well.
Historically, no other development in Fermi’s life ranks as high as the nuclear reactor, mighty versions of which produce more than 11 percent of the world’s electricity today. Fermi continued to contribute original scientific work throughout the war and postwar at the University of Chicago. He advised the United States government on atomic energy and worked on weapons problems during summer stints at Los Alamos. He opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb more vehemently than J. Robert Oppenheimer but escaped the ruination visited upon Oppenheimer by the vindictive chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, Lewis L. Strauss. He went on to help build the first hydrogen bomb.
I kept wishing this biography were livelier, lit with more surprises, but Schwartz, working with limited sources, tells the story well. A few infelicities are distracting. “Disinterested” doesn’t mean “uninterested.” “Fulsome” still means “offensively flattering,” not “generous,” though the meaning is changing. Brig. Gen. Leslie R. Groves of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, not Oppenheimer, held “authority over the entire Manhattan Project.” Oppenheimer was the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, one part of the project, where the first bombs were designed and built.
Still, these are minor mistakes. All in all, Schwartz’s biography adds importantly to the literature of the utterly remarkable men and women who opened up nuclear physics to the world.