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Featured Scientist - Enrico Fermi

From the Fall 1999 sciencelines

On May 11, 1974, the National Accelerator Laboratory was officially named Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in honor of the Nobel prize winning physicist Enrico Fermi. Fermi excelled in both the theoretical and experimental areas of physics, contributed many ideas to all areas of physical science, and created many tools of physics.
The following is a simulated interview based on readings done by the writer.
Enrico, thank you for taking time from your very busy schedule to participate in this interview. Please tell us about your work at the University of Chicago.

After World War II, the University of Chicago formed the Institute for Nuclear Studies* where I have been able to continue my investigation of the atom's nucleus. The other scientists and I are working to find numerous peaceful uses of nuclear power. To study the particles inside the atom, I'm designing a synchrocyclotron, which when finished will be a powerful atom smasher to help us learn more about the way particles inside the atom behave. Whenever I find I do not have a tool that I need for an idea to work, I create that tool. I have always enjoyed designing and building things. In addition to my research I teach physics classes on the campus of the University.

What makes you a teacher your students will remember?

First, I believe it's the way I teach. If students are having trouble learning, I think up different ways to helpthem learn. When I began teaching at the University of Chicago, I taught advanced physics classes. It didn't take long to realize the students were having trouble following the ideas. To understand the advanced classes, the basic science courses need to be taught well. My solution was simple. The next semester, I began teaching an elementary physics course.
The second thing students will remember are the little questions which I frequently ask them to solve. The students usually think the question impossible to solve because they do not have enough information. But I show them how to break the problem down into smaller parts by asking questions and estimating. I feel that working through this type of problem will instill a spirit of independence, creativity and pride in my students.

Do you have any hobbies?

I enjoy mountaineering, skiing, swimming and hiking. Hikes are very important to me; they clear my mind. When I'm relaxed I'm able to think through problems in physics which may be puzzling me in the laboratory.

Tell us about your early life.

I was born in Rome, Italy on September 29, 1901. My father worked for the railroad, and my mother had been a schoolteacher. I had an older sister Maria and an older brother Giulio. At six I began public school where it didn't take long to realize I didn't have to do much to be a good student. This sometimes got me into trouble. After high school I went to the University of Pisa where I received my Ph.D. in physics in 1922. I received a fellowship to work at the University of Gottingen in Germany. Next I taught mathematics at the University of Rome for a short time. Then I studied more at Leyden in the Netherlands, returning to teach mathematics at the University of Florence. I began to publish scientific papers, dealing mostly with theoretical physics. I began to study applied physics. I wanted to learn as much as possible. I became the first theoretical physics professor at the University of Rome. I've been teaching, researching, thinking, and learning all my life.

Tell us about your family.

I share my love of learning and science with my wife Laura. We have a daughter Nella and a son Giulio. We emigrated to the United States in 1938. One of the proudest days of my life was the day in 1944 that Laura and I became U.S. citizens.

What factors influenced you to choose a career in science?

I've always been fascinated by things I could observe but didn't understand. I loved to read about mathematics and science. My brother, Giulio, shared this interest with me. We spent hours reading, designing and building mechanical things, such as electric motors and airplane engines. I admired Galileo and Albert Einstein. When I was 14, shortly after my brother's death, I met Enrico Persico. His friendship and shared interest in physics and mathematics helped me with the loss of my brother. Enrico and I did many experiments together. The one with tops made us think of many questions to which we could not find the answers. We spent much of our allowances on books. The more we learned, the more we wanted to know.

Did you have a mentor

My first mentor was Engineer Amidei, a colleague of my father. His hobby was physics and mathematics. Intrigued by my questions, he loaned me books, gave me mathematical problems to solve, increasing the difficulty as I solved each one. When I graduated high school, Amidei persuaded my parents to let me apply for a fellowship to the Reale Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa. I passed the examination and was in.
There I found my second mentor, Professor Puccianti. The professor came to my defense when pranks with a friend nearly got me expelled. He recognized that we were both bored having to do experiments in class that we had already done on our own before arriving at the school. He convinced the committee to give us probation, and we buckled under and worked hard. I added more studies which Professor Puccianti monitored. He allowed me to conduct my own research and experiments even when he didn't understand them.

What advice would you give students interested in a career in science?

Don't be afraid to look at things in a different way-challenge the old beliefs and suggest new ones. Change is essential to science. Also, simple experiments are best. Break difficult problems into smaller sections. Ask questions!

You've earned many awards and recognition, including the Nobel prize in 1938. What do you want to be most remembered for?

I would hope people remember me as a scientist who could explain complex theories in simple terms-someone who loved science and wanted to know as much as possible about everything and how it worked. I want them to remember all the peaceful uses for nuclear energy that are being developed because of my work.

What is your hope for the future?

To me high-energy physics is the most exciting area of physics. To find smaller and smaller particles of an atom, a giant accelerator will be built. Perhaps, we'll even be able to build an accelerator to encircle the globe at the equator!

NOTE: Enrico Fermi died on November 29, 1954 due to stomach cancer, the result of years of exposure to radiation. He is buried in Chicago.

*The Institute for Nuclear Studies is now named The Enrico Fermi Institute. Scientists at the institute are involved in projects in many areas. Equipment designed and constructed at the institute is used in experiments on the space shuttle, spacecrafts on missions to inner and outer space and on mountain observatories.


de Latil, Pierre, Enrico Fermi: the man and his theories, Paul S. Eriksson, Inc., New York, 1966.

Gottfried, Ted, Enrico Fermi: Pioneer of the Atomic Age, Facts on File, New York, 1992. (ISBN 0-8160-2623-8). *Excellent biography for middle school readers.

Fermi, Laura, Atoms in the Family, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1954.

Segre, Emilio, Enrico Fermi: Physicist, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1970.

Sherrow, Victoria, Great Scientists, Facts on File, New York, 1992. (ISBN 0-8160-2540-1). *Excellent biographical summary for middle school readers.