Enrico Fermi was born in Rome, the son of Italy's chief railroad inspector (Alberto Fermi) and a schoolteacher (Ida de Gattis). While he was attending Ginnasio Liceo Umberto I, an associate of his father recognized Fermi's talents in physics and mathematics and encouraged him to master several challenging scientific treatises. At the University of Pisa and the Scuola (1918–1922), Fermi published two papers on relativistic electrodynamics and one on general relativity. He completed doctoral theses at each institution. After holding several short-term positions, Fermi attracted the attention of Italian senator and chemist Orso M. Corbino, who helped establish for Fermi the country's first chair of theoretical physics at the University of
Rome. In 1928 Fermi married Laura Capon, and the couple had two children.
As a chair at the University of Rome, Fermi did much of his most important work between 1927 and 1938. Along with the English physicist Paul Dirac but independently, he developed quantum-mechanical statistics that measure particles of half-integer spin (now known as fermions); between 1929 and 1932 he reformulated more simply and elegantly Dirac's then recent work on quantum electronics. In 1933–1934, he published a theory of β -decay that included what became known as the Fermi interaction, Fermi interactions, and the Fermi coupling constant. He also theorized and named the neutrino ("little neutral one"), originally hypothesized by Wolfgang Pauli but not detected experimentally until 1956.
After 1933 Fermi turned increasingly to experimental physics. Inspired by recent work in which artificial radioactive substances were produced by α -particle bombardment, Fermi and several collaborators used neutron bombardment to create several "transuranic" elements heavier than uranium, including plutonium. This work, and his finding that slow neutrons produce nuclear reactions more efficiently than fast ones, earned Fermi wide acclaim and the 1938 Nobel Prize in physics. After accepting the prize in Sweden, Fermi and his Jewish wife immigrated to the United States to escape the Nazis.
After replicating the German fusion of the uranium atom in early 1939, Fermi was recruited to join the secret U.S. atomic bomb project, the Manhattan Project . He initially worked at the project's metallurgical laboratory at the University of Chicago, where he was chief designer of an atomic pile that achieved a sustained nuclear reaction on December 2, 1942. Throughout the war he worked on reactor design and fissionable fuel production at several project facilities.
Fermi became a naturalized U.S. citizen on July 11, 1944. Short in stature and barrel-like, he retained a thick Italian accent and refreshingly unassuming manner throughout his life. Although he supported the atomic bombing of Japan, after the war, as a member of the powerful General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission, he opposed the development of a hydrogen bomb. Fermi moved into new areas of research, including cosmic rays (the "Fermi mechanism" modeled their acceleration) and elementary particle physics. In addition to the Nobel Prize, Fermi was honored with many other distinguished awards, including the Presidential Medal of Merit (1946), the Franklin Medal (1947), the Max Planck Medal (1954), and the Fermi Award (1954). The latter, as well as the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, were named in his honor.
Latil, Pierre de (1964). Enrico Fermi: The Man and His Theories, tr. Len Ortzen. New York: Paul S. Eriksson.
Rhodes, Richard (1986). The Making of the Atomic Bomb. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Segrè, Emilio (1970). Enrico Fermi: Physicist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.