The Pope of Physics: Enrico Fermi and the Birth of the Atomic Age

BOOK REVIEW by JOHN TUCCI:

The Pope of Physics: Enrico Fermi and the Birth of the Atomic Age by Gino Segrè, and Bettina Hoerlin.

 Enrico Fermi was an Italian physicist, who created the world’s first nuclear reactor, He has been called the “architect of the nuclear age and the “architect of the atomic bomb”. Fermi held several patents related to the use of nuclear power.

In fascist-era Italy, he produced a new element. With great fanfare, Italian newspapers trumpeted the discovery. The Italian press, by now largely a tool of state propaganda, opined on how magnificently science flourished under Fascism. Some journalists even speculated that the new element should be named Mussolinium. One publication alleged that Fermi had given a vial of the new element 93 to the Queen of Italy. Thankfully, for the element and science, the element (element 93) discovered by Fermi was named Neptunium.

Fermi was awarded the 1938 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on induced radioactivity.

His colleagues in Rome used to joke that Fermi was infallible, like the Pope. He had acquired the nickname “the Pope of Physics,” now the title of a splendid book, The Pope of Physics: Enrico Fermi and the Birth of the Atomic Age by Gino Segrè, and Bettina Hoerlin.

Despite his allegiance to Italy, Fermi emigrated to the United States because his wife was Jewish and the Italian fascist state imposed draconian Anti-Semitic laws.

Italy’s loss became not only America’s gain, but the gain for all of humanity. It was in America, despite starting his life like many Italian immigrants anew, that his career transcended into immortality. As Fermi wrote, “This is a big and free country where you can live without being crushed by the weight of history. In Italy I was a great man: here I have gone back to being a young physicist, which is infinitely more exciting. Throw away the ballast of the past and begin again.”

Fermi and his family worked very hard to assimilate themselves to American society. His friends observed that “Among adult immigrants, I have never seen a comparably earnest effort toward Americanization.” Fermi’s “earnest effort” meant attempting assiduously to get rid of his Italian accent, making frequent use of colloquialisms in his day-to-day speech, and reading regularly what he thought were the most typical American publications: Reader’s Digest and comic strips.

Yet, this did not completely immunize him from xenophobia. Despite their efforts to fit in, within little more than a year the Fermis and the other recent Italian immigrants would be classified by the American government as enemy aliens.

In one incident, an American desk officer announced Fermi’s presence to an American admiral by stating: “There’s a wop outside.” Fermi’s accent and his appearance, sometimes described as swarthy, had labeled him.

But with Hitler still in power, reports of the mass slaughter of Jews confirmed, and Japan showing no signs of surrender, there seemed little choice but to rely on Fermi and his colleagues to create the atomic bomb hastening the end of World War II. Fermi was arguably the physicist most responsible for the world-changing event that occurred in the New Mexico desert, the creation of the atomic bomb.

Segre and Hoerlin are scientists who write well. A good biography should make the reader feel that the reader has traversed the subject’s life along with the subject. Their accessible writing makes the genius Fermi seem relatable to mere mortal history fans who find Fermi interesting as a proud example subject of our Italian American history. Segre and Hoerlin efficiently guide us on Fermi’s humble beginning in Italy where as a child prodigy when a mentor once asked his young protégé if he wanted to keep a calculus book he had lent him, he was told that it wasn’t necessary because he had thoroughly assimilated the material. As people would repeatedly say over the next forty years, “When Fermi knew something, he really knew it.”

Fermi’s legacy far outlived his short life He died at the age of 53 from stomach cancer. Fermi has the distinction of an astonishing record: six of his University of Chicago students and one student from Rome won Nobel Prizes in Physics. To this day, the record is unmatched.

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