Enrico Fermi was born in Rome on 29th September, 1901, the son of Alberto Fermi, a Chief Inspector of the Ministry of Communications, and Ida de Gattis. He attended a local grammar school, and his early aptitude for mathematics and physics was recognized and encouraged by his father’s colleagues, among them A. Amidei. In 1918, he won a fellowship of the Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa. He spent four years at the University of Pisa, gaining his doctor’s degree in physics in 1922, with Professor Puccianti.
Soon afterwards, in 1923, he was awarded a scholarship from the Italian Government and spent some months with Professor Max Born in Göttingen. With a Rockefeller Fellowship, in 1924, he moved to Leyden to work with P. Ehrenfest, and later that same year he returned to Italy to occupy for two years (1924-1926) the post of Lecturer in Mathematical Physics and Mechanics at the University of Florence.
In 1926, Fermi discovered the statistical laws, nowadays known as the «Fermi statistics», governing the particles subject to Pauli’s exclusion principle (now referred to as «fermions», in contrast with «bosons» which obey the Bose-Einstein statistics).
In 1927, Fermi was elected Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Rome (a post which he retained until 1938, when he – immediately after the receipt of the Nobel Prize – emigrated to America, primarily to escape Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship).
During the early years of his career in Rome he occupied himself with electrodynamic problems and with theoretical investigations on various spectroscopic phenomena. But a capital turning-point came when he directed his attention from the outer electrons towards the atomic nucleus itself. In 1934, he evolved the ß-decay theory, coalescing previous work on radiation theory with Pauli’s idea of the neutrino. Following the discovery by Curie and Joliot of artificial radioactivity (1934), he demonstrated that nuclear transformation occurs in almost every element subjected to neutron bombardment. This work resulted in the discovery of slow neutrons that same year, leading to the discovery of nuclear fission and the production of elements lying beyond what was until then the Periodic Table.
In 1938, Fermi was without doubt the greatest expert on neutrons, and he continued his work on this topic on his arrival in the United States, where he was soon appointed Professor of Physics at Columbia University, N.Y. (1939-1942).
Upon the discovery of fission, by Hahn and Strassmann early in 1939, he immediately saw the possibility of emission of secondary neutrons and of a chain reaction. He proceeded to work with tremendous enthusiasm, and directed a classical series of experiments which ultimately led to the atomic pile and the first controlled nuclear chain reaction. This took place in Chicago on December 2, 1942 – on a squash court situated beneath Chicago’s stadium. He subsequently played an important part in solving the problems connected with the development of the first atomic bomb (He was one of the leaders of the team of physicists on the Manhattan Project for the development of nuclear energy and the atomic bomb.)
In 1944, Fermi became an American citizen, and at the end of the war (1946) he accepted a professorship at the Institute for Nuclear Studies of the University of Chicago, a position which he held until his untimely death in 1954. There he turned his attention to high-energy physics, and led investigations into the pion-nucleon interaction.
During the last years of his life Fermi occupied himself with the problem of the mysterious origin of cosmic rays, thereby developing a theory, according to which a universal magnetic field – acting as a giant accelerator – would account for the fantastic energies present in the cosmic ray particles.
Professor Fermi was the author of numerous papers both in theoretical and experimental physics. His most important contributions were:
“Sulla quantizzazione del gas perfetto monoatomico”, Rend. Accad. Naz. Lincei, 1935 (also in Z. Phys., 1936), concerning the foundations of the statistics of the electronic gas and of the gases made of particles that obey the Pauli Principle.
Several papers published in Rend. Accad. Naz. Lincei, 1927-28, deal with the statistical model of the atom (Thomas-Fermi atom model) and give a semiquantitative method for the calculation of atomic properties. A resumé of this work was published by Fermi in the volume: Quantentheorie und Chemie, edited by H. Falkenhagen, Leipzig, 1928.
“Uber die magnetischen Momente der AtomKerne”, Z. Phys., 1930, is a quantitative theory of the hyperfine structures of spectrum lines. The magnetic moments of some nuclei are deduced therefrom.
“Tentativo di una teoria dei raggi ß”, Ricerca Scientifica, 1933 (also Z. Phys., 1934) proposes a theory of the emission of ß-rays, based on the hypothesis, first proposed by Pauli, of the existence of the neutrino.
The Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to Fermi for his work on the artificial radioactivity produced by neutrons, and for nuclear reactions brought about by slow neutrons. The first paper on this subject “Radioattività indotta dal bombardamento di neutroni” was published by him in Ricerca Scientifica, 1934. All the work is collected in the following papers by himself and various collaborators: “Artificial radioactivity produced by neutron bombardment”, Proc. Roy. Soc., 1934 and 1935; “On the absorption and diffusion of slow neutrons”, Phys. Rev., 1936. The theoretical problems connected with the neutron are discussed by Fermi in the paper “Sul moto dei neutroni lenti”, Ricerca Scientifica, 1936.
His Collected Papers are being published by a Committee under the Chairmanship of his friend and former pupil, Professor E. Segrè (Nobel Prize winner 1959, with O. Chamberlain, for the discovery of the antiproton).
Fermi was member of several academies and learned societies in Italy and abroad (he was early in his career, in 1929, chosen among the first 30 members of the Royal Academy of Italy).
As lecturer he was always in great demand (he has also given several courses at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; and Stanford University, Calif.). He was the first recipient of a special award of $50,000 – which now bears his name – for work on the atom.
Professor Fermi married Laura Capon in 1928. They had one son Giulio and one daughter Nella. His favourite pastimes were walking, mountaineering, and winter sports.
He died in Chicago on 28th November, 1954.
This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and first published in the book series Les Prix Nobel. It was later edited and republished in Nobel Lectures. To cite this document, always state the source as shown above.