Enrico Fermi: Biography, Inventions & Contributions

Instructor: Lori Jones

Lori has a degree from Stanford, was Principal of a K-12 private school that she started, has a Master's degree, and taught at the high school level.

Enrico Fermi was a Nobel Prize winning Italian physicist who helped create the world's first nuclear reactor. In this lesson, we will cover his life, his inventions, and his contributions to the field of particle physics.

Enrico Fermi

About 40 miles southwest of the city of Chicago, you'll find numerous places to visit. There's the charming town of Geneva, the nationally recognized city of Naperville, and a 6,800-acre particle physics laboratory, the second largest in the world, where the smallest building blocks of matter, energy, space and time are studied.

This facility is called 'Fermilab', named after Enrico Fermi, a pioneer in nuclear fission and the creation of the atomic bomb.

Let's learn a little more about his life and the impact he had in the field of Nuclear Physics.

Enrico Fermi
Enrico Fermi

Biography

Enrico Fermi was born in Rome in 1901, the youngest of three children. His love for physics began at age 14 when he immersed himself in the study of quantum physics, a fairly new field at the time. He continued to study physics on his own, which helped him land a scholarship in 1918 to the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, a university for gifted students. The school was so impressed that they soon placed him, not as a freshman, but as a doctoral student. He graduated with his doctorate in physics just four years later, in 1922.

After spending four years studying and working in Germany, and then at the University of Florence, he moved back to his hometown of Rome in 1926. While there, not only did he secure a job as a physics professor at the University of Rome, he also met and married his wife Laura Capone in 1928 and had two children.

One of the highlights of Fermi's life came in 1938, when he won the Nobel Prize for Physics for his discovery of new radioactive elements through nuclear fission (the splitting of the atom). This award allowed him and his family to escape the growing fascism in Italy, and immigrate to America in 1939.

After arriving in the U.S., Fermi became a physics professor at Columbia University where he continued his work on nuclear fission. Fermi and his family called America home after becoming American citizens in 1944.

Fermi spent the latter part of his life in the Midwest, living and working primarily in Chicago. While there, he became one of the leaders of The Manhattan Project, the project dedicated to the creation of the atomic bomb, and through his discoveries, became the most important player in the development of this weapon for the U.S..

In his final years, he continued his work as a physics professor at the University of Chicago, beginning in 1946. He kept this position until he passed away from illness in 1954.

Inventions

Does your electricity come from nuclear power? If so, you have Enrico Fermi to thank for that. In 1942, he and a team of scientists constructed the first nuclear reactor, famously called the Chicago Pile-1 to produce the first self-sustaining and controlled reaction. Currently, his reactors are used in nuclear power plants around the world, providing energy to millions.

Artist sketch of the first nuclear reactor - the Chicago Pile-1
Chicago Pile-1

Fermi's subsequent inventions were all changes in and improvements to reactors and how they operate. Some of these are listed below:

  • The materials that make up reactors need to be tested to determine if they can withstand nuclear reaction. Fermi therefore invented a way of testing the nuclear properties of materials that are used in nuclear reactors.
  • If you wanted to build a nuclear reactor, you'd probably want to know how to use it. Not to worry because in 1957, Fermi received a posthumous patent for his invention of the method of operating a reactor.
  • Because of the dangers of radiation during nuclear reactors, Fermi devised a shield, called the Neutronic Reactor Shield to protect those working around reactors.

Contributions

As a scientist, Enrico Fermi had one of the most significant contributions in history. Not only did he have an impact on nuclear energy and physics, but his work also culminated in the creation of one of the most powerful military weapons in history, the atomic bomb.

Just as Rome wasn't built in a day, the atomic bomb wasn't built in one either. In the years leading up to its creation, Fermi's continued research, discoveries and contributions paved the way for him to create the one thing that would usher the world into the nuclear age.

Fermi Statistics

One of Fermi's earliest contributions to physics came in 1926. Up until that time, the behavior of certain particles was not fully understood. But Fermi discovered the laws of behavior, called Fermi statistics, that apply to all the particles that make up matter. These particles were dubbed fermions and include electrons, protons, and neutrons. The discovery of Fermi statistics helped him gain a greater understanding of particles and led to his other contributions and discoveries.

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