Enrico Fermi and the First Self-Sustaining Nuclear Chain Reaction
Enrico 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.
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.
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."
Fermi's 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.
Additional information about Enrico Fermi and his work is available in full-text DOE reports and on the Web.
The Future of Atomic Energy; Fermi, E.
"Where is Everybody?" An Account of Fermi's Question
The Nuclear Thomas–Fermi Model
Neutron Physics. A Revision of I. Halpern's Notes on E. Fermi's Lectures in 1945; Beckerley, J.G.
Summary of the Activities of the Experimental Section of the Nuclear Physics Division in the Past Month [June 1943]; Fermi, E., et al.
Studies of Nonlinear Problems. I; Fermi, E., et al.
Taylor Instability of Incompressible Liquids; Fermi, E.
Establishing Site X: Letter, Arthur H. Compton to Enrico Fermi, September 14, 1942
"The Enrico Fermi Award is a Presidential award–one of the oldest and most prestigious science and technology awards given by the U.S. Geovernment. It recognizes scientists of international stature for their lifetimes of exceptional achievement in the development, use, or production of energy (broadly defined to include the science and technology of nuclear, atomic, molecular, and particle interactions and effects)."
Fermium – The 100th element in the Periodic Table, named for Enrico Fermi
Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (FNAL) – A U.S. Department of Energy National Laboratory
The Enrico Fermi Institute – A component of the Physical Sciences Division at the University of Chicago
FGST (Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope)
Additional Web Pages:
"Last Universal Scientist" Takes Charge – Argonne National Laboratory
Conference Examines Enrico Fermi's Impact on Modern Physics from Manhattan Project on
Featured Scientist – Enrico Fermi – Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (FNAL)
Mysterious Little Particle Has Long Argonne History: Fermi "invents" the neutrino – Argonne National Laboratory
Enrico Fermi – Public Broadcasting System (PBS), The American Experience, including educational materials
"Fermi was a physicist's physicist whose legacy
was one of style as well of substance – a style so attractive
and so productive for science that it became substantive in itself."
Excerpt from "Enrico Fermi's Impact on Science" by John Marburger, White House Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, at the Italian Embassy on November 27, 2001.
Understanding the Atom; Fermi, E.
Century of the Atom – audio clip
Fermi's account of the first self-sustaining controlled nuclear chain reaction – video clip.
The First Reactor (40th Anniversary Commemorative Edition)
US PATENT 2,708,656 [May 17, 1955]; Fermi, E., et al.
Additional Information about peaceful uses of the atom
The Centennial of Fermi's Birth
Fermi Facts, Fables: Colleagues and Friends Share Memories, – Argonne National Laboratory (ANL)
Symposium with a retrospective focus on the period when Fermi was a faculty member at Chicago and laid the groundwork for the field of elementary particle physics. Included will be the issuing of a commemorative Fermi stamp by the United States Postal Service – The University of Chicago
Beyond the Bomb
100th Anniversary Commemorative Stamp
| Photo courtesy of the
United States Postal Service (USPS)
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