Enrico Fermi

The father of the atomic bomb

Deirdre Pirro
May 5, 2011

On December 10, 1942, a dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan replaced the annual Nobel Prize award ceremony in Stockholm, which had been suspended in 1939 because of World War II. Eleven of the 28 laureates then living in the United States attended. Most of them had fled Europe to escape Hitler and had become vital to the Allied war effort. One of them was Enrico Fermi, the Italian physicist known as the ‘father of the atomic bomb.'

 

The son of a railway employee, Fermi was born in Rome on September 29, 1901. As a teenager, he became fascinated by mathematics, having bought two books in Latin on the subject at a street stall. Guided in his studies by an engineer friend of his father's who recognised the boy's extraordinary intelligence, Fermi won a place at the prestigious Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa and graduated in physics from there in 1922. For the next two years, he taught at the University of Florence and then became professor of theoretical physics in Rome. For his research there, focused on neutron behaviour, he won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1938. Concerned because the Fascists had recently passed anti-Semitic laws in Italy, after accepting his award in Sweden, Fermi, together with with his Jewish wife and two children, escaped to the United States. There, he continued his experiments on nuclear fission as a professor of physics at Columbia University in New York where he and his colleague Leo Szilard co-invented the first small nuclear reactor, which Fermi dubbed the ‘pile.'

Realising both the potential of an atomic bomb to bring the war to a close and the catastrophic outcome if the Germans developed it first, the US government poured 2 billion U.S. dollars into the bomb's development. Fermi was appointed head of the Manhattan Project at the University of Chicago, where, on December 2, 1942, he and his team produced the first nuclear chain reaction from the full-scale nuclear ‘pile' they had built in a squash court under the stands of the university's football stadium. From that moment on, the construction of the bomb was merely a matter of assemblage. To celebrate, Fermi opened a bottle of Chianti, drinking it together with his fellow scientists from paper cups.

 

In 1944, the project was moved to a desolate area in the American Southwest, Los Alamos in New Mexico, and on July 16, 1945, the first atomic bomb was detonated in the desert at Alamogordo Air Base. Less than a month later, President Truman announced that an atomic bomb had exploded over Hiroshima, its devastating consequences only becoming fully apparent some time later. It was soon followed by another bomb, again dropped on Japan, this time at Nagasaki.

 

A dark-haired man of average height with piecing grey-blue eyes and a resolute manner, Fermi was not always easy to work with. Because he was seemingly infallible, he was nicknamed ‘the pope' by his fellow emigré colleagues, Hungarians Szilard, Eugene Wigner, John von Neumann and Edward Teller, whom Fermi called ‘the Martians' because of their superhuman-like minds and their strong accents when they spoke English, and German Hans Bethe; together they formed the backbone of the ‘bomb squad.' Another colleague, Sam Allison said of him, ‘He's a tougher character and good at saying no. He refused to do administrative work. He doesn't have a phone and refused to have a secretary. General Groves hates my guts. But he hates Fermi's guts worse.' Not surprisingly, his wife, Laura, painted a softer picture of him in her book Atoms in the Family, describing how her husband suffered far more from his shortcomings in his preferred sports of skiing, swimming and mountain climbing than from any setbacks in his scientific experiments.

 

Nonetheless, on that December day in Chicago in 1942, when Fermi achieved the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, the world changed forever. The Atomic Age had begun. It triggered the arms race and the knowledge that, for the survival of the planet, even an uneasy peace was better than any prospect of future global warfare.

 

In fact, the jury is still out on whether the splitting of the atom brought with it lasting benefits, and the pro and con nuclear debate continues to rage on. Supporters maintain that it opened the way to harnessing energy for peaceful purposes, for example, its use in nuclear power plants. However, after incidents like the 1986 accident in Chernobyl and multiple failures in the reactors at Fukushima following the recent Japanese earthquake and tsunami, adversaries say its disadvantages heavily outweigh its advantages. Still others insist on its merits, pointing to advanced techniques in nuclear medicine, breakthroughs that arrived too late to help Fermi, who died, aged 53, of stomach cancer on November 28, 1954, probably caused by his exposure to radiation.

 

 

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