Heroes of Space: Enrico Fermi

The physics pioneer best known in the space industry for his famous Fermi paradox

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Fermi continued to work on his theories surrounding nuclear physics until his final day. Image Credit: NASA

Fermi continued to work on his theories surrounding nuclear physics until his final day. Image Credit: NASA

Born in Italy in 1901, Enrico Fermi’s passion for physics was reportedly the result of a tragedy in his younger days. When he was just 14 his older brother died and his parents encouraged the young Fermi to dedicate more time to his education, to console him in his grief. Picking up a variety of physics, mathematics and astronomy books, the inquisitive teen quickly became enthralled by the infinite possibilities of the world of physics.

Fermi won a scholarship to the prestigious Scuola Normale Superiore University in Pisa with an entry essay so impressive it would have been commendable for a doctorate degree. Fermi was even asked by his teachers to organise his own seminars on quantum physics. Even while studying, Fermi’s exceptional skills meant he was largely self taught, and he graduated with honours in 1922. He went on to win a Rockefeller Fellowship and studied under renowned physicist Max Born in Germany where he also met Albert Einstein. Between 1926 and 1927 Fermi and English physicist Paul Dirac developed new methods known as Fermi-Dirac statistics, which were concerned with subatomic particles obeying a certain law of quantum mechanics. These particles, now known as fermions, were a monumental contribution to the worlds of atomic and nuclear physics.

Continuing to impress and excel, Fermi was elected professor of theoretical physics at the Sapienza University of Rome. While working there he gathered a team of talented students, such as Emilio Segrè and Ettore Majorana. They referred to Fermi, their leader, as ‘the pope.’ It was at Rome that he began his most important work; Fermi began to look into the field of nuclear physics. In 1934, he discovered that nuclear transformation could occur in most elements. One of the atoms Fermi split was uranium, and this led to the phenomenon of slowing down neutrons, which in turn led to the creation of new elements beyond the periodic table.

Fermi continued his work is professor of physics at Columbia University and his experiments led to the first nuclear chain reaction. Image Credit: NASA

Fermi was professor of physics at Columbia University and his experiments led to the first nuclear chain reaction. Image Credit: NASA

Fermi was awarded a Nobel Prize for his contributions to physics, which came at just the right time as he was keen to get his family out of the anti- Jewish, fascist Italy. He used the prize money to escape with his family to America. Fermi continued his work as professor of physics at Columbia University, and his experiments led to the first nuclear chain reaction. As WWII broke out, Fermi was employed as a major part of the team that developed the atomic bomb.

Fermi became a full American citizen in 1944, and worked with a variety of distinguished scientists such as James Cronin and Jack Steinberger. While working in America he began to direct his attention away from nuclear physics and towards particle, or high- energy, physics. Fermi dedicated a lot of his time to studying the origin of cosmic rays and also investigated magnetic fields in the arms of a spiral galaxy. He also raised a question now known as the Fermi paradox – ‘Where is everybody?’ – concerning why no extraterrestrial civilisations have been found and no contact made. Sadly, by 1954, Fermi was suffering with incurable stomach cancer and he died in his sleep aged 53. Today Fermi is remembered for his work in the creation of the first nuclear reactor and the development of the nuclear and hydrogen bombs. Many things have been named in Fermi’s honour, such as the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope and the Fermi 1 and 2 nuclear power plants.

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