by Beth Piper
The splitting of the atom did more than simply expand our knowledge of physics – it halved the course of history, dividing us with the before and the after.
Like a bookmark in the pages of time, Enrico Fermi’s discoveries changed not only every field of physical science, but also the entire world of which we are conscious.
While the development of nuclear energy was the result of many scientists working in tandem, it was Fermi who built and tested the first self-sustaining nuclear reactor at the University of Chicago in 1942, paving the way for the Manhattan Project and all future uses of atomic power. He has been called the greatest Italian scientist since Galileo; the greatest Italian voyager into new worlds since Christopher Columbus.
Fermi’s First Life
Born in Rome in 1901, Fermi started studying physics at a young age and obtained his doctoral degree in 1922 from the University of Pisa. In 1927, Fermi formulated statistical laws governing the behavior of subatomic particles that obey the Pauli exclusion principle. These particles are known as “fermions” in his honor.
In 1934, he began working with neutrons, which had been discovered just two years prior in 1932 by James Chadwick. Fermi bombarded atomic nuclei with neutrons and discovered a host of transuranium elements. These achievements brought Fermi the 1938 Nobel Prize in Physics.
The award couldn’t have come at a more fortuitous time for the Italian scientist: Kristallnacht and the passing of anti-Semitic laws boded ill for Fermi and his wife Laura, who was of Jewish descent. Using the Nobel ceremonies in Stockholm, Sweden, as an opportunity to make an escape, Fermi didn’t return to Italy but instead headed across the Atlantic to a new home in the United States.
Nuclear chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann’s research and discovery of uranium fission events – known as a nuclear chain reaction – in 1939 opened up new possibilities just months after Fermi accepted a position as “maestro” and researcher at Columbia University. Soon Fermi, with the help of Leo Szilard and a team of collaborating physicists, began work to construct the first nuclear reactor in a squash court under the stands of the University of Chicago’s football field. Funded by the United States government, their research was considered to be of “military importance” and kept secret. On December 2, 1942, the reactor successfully went “critical”, sustaining a carefully controlled nuclear chain reaction for 4.5 minutes at one-half watt of power.
On December 19th, 1944, Fermi and Szilard filed for a joint patent as co-inventors of the atomic pile, describing how the self-sustained nuclear chain reaction was achieved. Fermi’s team proved that the peaceful, controlled use of atomic energy was now possible. They also showed that the construction of an atomic bomb was within reach – thereby triggering the Manhattan project (and Fermi’s relocation to Los Alamos) the first atomic bomb in New Mexico in 1945 and ultimately, the conclusion of World War II.
Post-war work found him back in Chicago, where he continued teaching at the University of Chicago. Here he began using the nuclear reactor as a means to study slow-neutron properties, and later the physics of subatomic particles. Sadly, his exceptional capabilities were cut short by his untimely death in 1954 of stomach cancer. In the early 1950s, the Atomic Energy Commission funded the Argonne Cancer Research Hospital, which became the Franklin McLean Institute in 1973.
Fermi was remembered by those who knew him as a hardworking man who was a gifted instructor and possessed of considerable mathematical skill. Besides being a first-rate theoretician, Fermi was an avid and excellent experimenter – a rare double-threat. He was a master at coming up with impromptu estimates and calculations that were surprisingly accurate, a skill that’s now referred to as “Fermi estimation.”
His contributions to physics remain integral to today’s conversations regarding the progression of science and energy. His discoveries related to neutrons and beta decay, along with his statistical work with fermions, are among his most important and lasting additions to the field. Without Fermi’s work in Chicago and Los Alamos, it’s possible that functional nuclear power reactors wouldn’t have appeared for many years or even decades. Additionally, by refining insights that would pave the way for further advancements in the field of quantum mechanics, Fermi’s work spans the digital divide and continues even in the realms of encryption, cyber-security and worldwide Internet communication.
Atomic Energy Today
The birth and development of Fermi’s school of atomic physics has enabled nuclear power provide carbon-free commercial energy solutions in the United States for over half a century. Today, almost all the US nuclear generating capacity comes from reactors built between 1967 and 1990. However, following a 30-year period in which few new reactors were built, it is expected that five new units will come on line by 2021.
Research into subatomic particles and nuclear power continues at Fermilab in Warrenville, Illinois, the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland, and many other facilities around the world.
Enrico Fermi was a champion of science and a pioneer in the field of physics. We largely have him to thank for the introduction of the exciting, sustaining world of nuclear power. The breadth of his accomplishments and their impact on our world have led to his being rightly regarded as one of the most important minds of all time.
Ms. Piper is a science author from Chicago, Ill., with a strong interest in nuclear power as a clean energy source.