Enrico Fermi

Enrico Fermi

Enrico Fermi, an Italian physicist, is well-known for his achievements in both theoretical and experimental physics. This is an exceptional achievement in a period where scientific accomplishments have focused on one aspect or the other. He is mainly remembered for his work on the advancement of the first nuclear reactor, and for his contributions to the development of quantum theory, nuclear and particle physics, and statistical mechanics. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1938 for “his discovery of new radioactive elements produced by neutron irradiation, and for the discovery of nuclear reactions brought about by slow neutrons.”


Early Years and Career:

Enrico Fermi was born in Rome, Italy on 29th September, 1901. His father, Alberto Fermi was a Chief Inspector of the Ministry of Communications, and his mother, Ida de Gattis was a school teacher. He received his early education from a local grammar school and at an early age developed a great interest in physics and mathematics. Fermi’s aptitude for physics and mathematics was highly encouraged by Adolfo Amidei, one of his father’s friends, who gave him several books on physics and mathematics, which he read and understood quickly.

In 1918, Fermi joined the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa. Here he spent four years and gained a doctor’s degree in physics in 1922, with Professor Puccianti. A year later he was awarded a scholarship from the Italian Government and spent few months with Professor Max Born in Göttingen. With a Rockefeller Fellowship, in 1924, he moved to Leyden to work with P. Ehrenfest. The same year he returned to Italy where he served for two years as a Lecturer in Mathematical Physics and Mechanics at the University of Florence. From 1927 to 1938, Fermi served as the Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Rome. During 1939, he was employed as the Professor of Physics at Columbia University, N.Y until 1942. Later on in 1946, accepted a professorship at the Institute for Nuclear Studies at the University of Chicago, a position which he held till his death.

Contributions and Achievements:

In 1926, Fermi discovered the statistical laws, nowadays known as the Fermi statistics.

It was during his time in Paris, Fermi and his team marked major contributions to many practical and theoretical aspects of physics. In 1934, while at the University of Rome, Fermi carried out his experiments where he bombarded a variety of elements with neutrons and discovered that slow moving neutrons were particularly effective in producing radioactive atoms. Not realizing he had split the atom, Fermi told people about what he thought were elements beyond uranium. In 1938, Fermi won the Nobel Prize for Physics for his work on nuclear processes.

He continued to conduct nuclear fission experiments at Columbia University. In 1940, Fermi and his team proved that absorption of a neutron by a uranium nucleus can cause the nucleus to split into two nearly equal parts, releasing numerous neutrons and huge amounts of energy. This was the first nuclear chain reaction. Later in 1944 this work was carried forward to New Mexico, and on July 16, 1945, the first atomic bomb was detonated at Alamogordo Air Base.


Fermi’s historic accomplishments caused him to be recognized as one of the great scientists of the 20th century. He died of cancer at the University of Chicago on 28 November 1954.