Enrico Fermi and the Birth of the Atomic Age

Gregg Herken in the New York Times:

20herken-blog427In a controversial lecture more than 50 years ago, the British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow suggested that natural scientists had “the future in their bones.” Snow was speaking in 1959, when the public still held scientists — particularly physicists — in a kind of awe, because of their role in the invention of the atomic and hydrogen bombs. But Snow might well have had in mind the Italian-born physicist Enrico Fermi, the subject of a new scientific biography by the husband-and-wife team of Gino Segrè and Bettina Hoerlin. Fermi’s “intuito fenomenale” — phenomenal intuition — and his near infallibility in predicting the results of experiments were characteristics that prompted colleagues at the University of Rome to designate him “the Pope.” One of his graduate students marveled: “Fermi had an inside track to God.”

The title stuck, for a different reason, when Fermi; his wife, Laura; and their two small children emigrated to America in December 1938, a move hastened by the racial purity laws of Mussolini’s ally, Nazi Germany. (Laura’s parents were Jewish; both would perish in the Holocaust.) In contrast to other scientists who fled European fascism, Fermi exuded an almost ethereal calm, and he remained unflappable in the face of both triumph and disaster. Lacking Einstein’s nimbus of white hair, Oppenheimer’s tortured introspection or Teller’s mercurial temperament, Fermi — “small, dark and frail-looking” as a child, according to his sister — more closely resembled a middle-aged Fiat mechanic than a mover of the universe.

More here.