Science, Technology and Discoveries

Fermi, Enrico

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Fermi, Enrico (1901-1954), Italian-born American physicist and Nobel Prize winner, who made important contributions to both theoretical and experimental physics. Fermi’s most well-known contribution was the demonstration of the first controlled atomic fission reaction. Atomic fission occurs when an atom splits apart (see Atom). Fermi was the first scientist to split an atom, although he misinterpreted his results for several years. He also had an important role in the development of fission for use as an energy source and as a weapon (see Nuclear Energy; see Atomic Bomb). He won the 1938 Nobel Prize in physics for his work in bombarding atoms with neutrons, subatomic particles with no electric charge. Initially, Fermi believed that this process created new chemical elements heavier than uranium (see Transuranium Elements), but other scientists showed that he actually split atoms to create fission reactions.

Fermi was born in Rome, Italy. At age 17 he earned a scholarship to the prestigious Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa by writing an essay on the characteristics of sound. He went on to the University of Pisa, where he earned his doctorate in 1922. Fermi studied with German physicist Max Born in Göttingen, Germany, from 1922 to 1924.

In 1924 Fermi returned to Italy to teach mathematics at the University of Florence. He became professor of theoretical physics at the University of Rome in 1927. He was 26 years old—the youngest professor in Italy since 16th-century Italian scientist Galileo. In the 1930s dictator Benito Mussolini introduced anti-Semitic laws to Italy and Fermi feared for the safety of his wife, who was Jewish. In 1938, after traveling to Sweden to accept the Nobel Prize, Fermi immigrated to the United States rather than return to Italy. Fermi became a professor at Columbia University in New York in 1939, and in 1941 moved to Chicago, Illinois, for a professorship at the University of Chicago. During World War II (1939-1945) he was involved in the Manhattan Project, the American effort to develop an atomic bomb. In 1945 Fermi became a U.S. citizen and returned to Chicago, where he remained until his death.