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Inventors Enrico Fermi

Enrico Fermi - Image DOEEnrico Fermi was born in Rome, Italy, on September 29, 1901. The son of a railroad official, he studied at the University of Pisa from 1918 to 1922 and later at the universities of Leyden and Gottingen. He became professor of theoretical physics at the University of Rome in 1927.

Fermi's accomplishments were in both theoretical and experimental physics, a unique feat in an age in which scientific endeavors have tended to specialize on one aspect or the other.

In 1933, he developed the theory of beta decay, postulating that the newly-discovered neutron decaying to a proton emits an electron and a particle which he called a "neutrino". The theory developed to explain this interaction later resulted in recognition of the weak interaction force. Investigation into the weak force has been one of the major areas of study at Fermilab.

Experimentally, Enrico Fermi and his colleagues, during the early 1930's, studied in detail the theory of neutrons; they bombardedmost of the elements in the periodic table with them. They slowed down the neutrons, and among other things, produced a strange new product when bombarding uranium with neutrons which later was recognized to be a splitting of the uranium atoms.

Enrico Fermi received the Nobel Prize in 1938 for "his discovery of new radioactive elements produced by neutron irradiation, and for the discovery of nuclear reactions brought about by slow neutrons." Fermi and his family used the opportunity offered by his trip to Sweden for the awards ceremonies to come to the United States where Fermi accepted a position as professor of physics at Columbia University.

At that time it was recognized that nuclear fission (the splitting of the atom) had taken place in Fermi's and other similar experiments. Scientists felt that this principle might be applied to construct an "atomic bomb". With World War II raging in Europe, the ability to produce such a bomb was of the greatest importance in the balance of power in the world.

Fermi moved to the University of Chicago to be in charge of the first major step in making feasible the building of the atomic bomb. In the squash courts under the west stand of the University's Stagg Field, Fermi supervised the design and assembly of an "atomic pile", a code word for an assembly that in peacetime would be known as a "nuclear reactor". Today, a plaque at the site reads: "On December 2, 1942, man achieved here the first self-sustaining chain reaction and thereby initiated the controlled release of nuclear energy." He was the prime mover in the design of the synchrocyclotron at the university which was, at the time of its completion, one of the most powerful atom smashers in the world.

Fermiís momentous accomplishments caused him to be recognized as one of the great scientists of the 20th century. Following his death on November 28, 1954, a number of science institutions and awards have been named in his honor.

Enrico Fermi: Inventions and Patents
A list and summary of Fermi's patents.

Enrico Fermi
Inventor of the neutronic reactor - National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Enrico Fermi
Winner of the 1938 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Enrico Fermi
A short biographical sketch.

Figures in Radiation History
Enrico Fermi's first significant accomplishment in nuclear physics was providing a mathematical means for describing the behavior of certain types of subatomic particles.

Related Innovations
Nuclear Innovations

Information and photo provided by D.O.E.

©Mary Bellis

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