Enrico Fermi Suffered Fools for Science

Published in part by EDGE Media Network as “The Pope of Physics” on Oct 11, 2017

The University of Chicago’s Enrico Fermi Institute was founded after World War II as the “Institute for Nuclear Studies.” Named after one of history’s most influential scientists, the center advances interdisciplinary research, and serves as an example of the city’s pledge to science and the pursuit of truth. Fermi’s love for Chicago is explained in The Pope of Physics (2016) by Gino Segrè and Bettina Hoerlin, reissued in paperback this month.

It didn’t matter that Fermi had “an inside track to God,” he would have earned the title of “Pope” anyway, a designation meant for a man who was always right—one who could guess the mass and velocity of his own immortality. A workaholic with big plans and no room for error, he rarely took sides. If anything defined his illustrious career, it was the simple fact that he chose his battles wisely.

Fermi was born at the turn of the last century to upwardly-mobile parents in the Po Valley, a fertile and culturally vibrant region of Italy. The last of three children born in rapid succession, Enrico learned self-sufficiency at a young age. Later, autonomy, mastery and purpose defined his academic pursuits, his perfectionism foreshadowing a lifetime of accomplishments. The main characteristic of his work was to “take a clear physics notion, understand it in a way others had not, and apply it to one or more important problems.” A sound strategy for a life riddled with war.

Fascism was a drag, and Fermi knew it. He also knew that logic and reason had no love for dictators, so he went to great lengths to separate himself from anti-fascist sentiments, for the sake of science (tweet). Fermi owed a great deal to Benito Mussolini. The leader of Italy’s National Fascist Party and strained bedfellow to Hitler, Mussolini made Fermi a member of the Royal Academy of Italy at the age of 28, a reward for swearing allegiance.

The prestigious appointment paved the way for the funding of countless experiments, groundbreaking papers, and a book, not to mention his escape from Europe. As destiny would have it, Mussolini’s house of horrors couldn’t compete with creating a weapon to end all wars. In 1938, Fermi emigrated to the United States, just as the Führer’s purist dictates threatened the lives of his Jewish wife, Laura Capon, and their two small children.

Fermi left his mark, despite a relatively short career. Physics was largely disregarded until the “Boys of Via Panisperna,” a group of fervent young scientists led by Fermi, legitimized the field. Fermi’s relationships with Orso Mario Corbino and Adolfo Amidei were invaluable to one whose ideas were in the vanguard of scientific innovation.

Even after the war, he refused to politicize physics, serving as a moral compass and galvanizing the field. “The most astonishing fact is that physicists on both sides of a given issue seemed to universally like Fermi, forgiving and excusing his neutrality.” Fermi died of stomach cancer at the age of 53, in Chicago.

At nearly 400 pages, The Pope of Physics avoids dramatization yet sacrifices nothing. An enjoyable read for scientists and historians alike.

Scientists and professionals who support them deserve safe spaces to work, study and connect. Join hundreds of diverse STEM students and professionals “Finding Unity in Community” Nov 16-19 at the 7th Annual oSTEM Conference in Chicago.

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