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Enrico Fermi – the “architect of the nuclear age" and the "architect of the atomic

bomb", a prominent physicist, excelled both the arenas of theories and experiments
in the 20th century. Not only did Fermi have an outstanding contribution to nuclear
energy and physics, but also in the formation of one of the most powerful military
weapons in history, the atomic bomb. Born in Rome on 29th September 1901, he
possessed a keen interest in mathematics since his early age. From the Scuola
Normale Superiore in Pisa, Fermi received his undergraduate and doctoral degree.

During the early years of Fermi’s career in Rome, his work was concerned with
electrodynamic problems. Fermi and his group made important contributions to
many practical and theoretical aspects of physics, especially in the quantization of the
electromagnetic field. However, when he directed his attention from the outer
electrons towards the atomic nucleus itself. He was the first to apply the Pauli
exclusion principle to systems of multiple electrons not attached to atoms.

In 1926, Fermi discovered the statistical laws, today known as the Fermi statistics. The
Fermi statistics governs the particles subjected to Pauli's exclusion principle.

One of the great contribution of Fermi to physics was his theory of weak interactions.
It still serves as a core part of the Standard Model of High Energy Physics. Wolfgang
Pauli suggested that during the beta decay, along with the electron, an almost
massless neutral particle is also emitted. Fermi successfully incorporated Pauli's
suggestion and thus was born the theory of weak interactions. Fermi named the
particle as a neutrino.

In 1934, Fermi developed the ß-decay theory and was able to demonstrate the
occurrence of nuclear transformation in almost every element subjected to neutron
bombardment. This work was followed by the discovery of slow neutrons that same
year which led to the discovery of nuclear fission.

Enrico Fermi received the Nobel Prize 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."

Fermi conducted a series of experiments inducing radioactivity with neutrons and


concluded that slow electrons were more easily captured than the fast ones. He
developed the Fermi age equation to illustrate this phenomenon. Upon the
bombardment of thorium and uranium with slow electrons, Fermi discovered new
elements and was awarded the Nobel Prize for this discovery.

The discovery of fission, by Hahn and Strassmann, early in 1939, induced Fermi to see
the possibility of emission of secondary neutrons and of a chain reaction. In 1940,
Fermi and his team examined the absorption of a neutron by a uranium nucleus and
found that the nucleus to split into two nearly equal parts, releasing numerous
neutrons and huge amounts of energy which eventually led to the atomic pile and the
first controlled nuclear chain reaction. This took place in Chicago on December 2,
1942 - on a squash court situated beneath Chicago's stadium. Fermi played a
deterministic role in solving the problems connected with the development of the first
atomic bomb which was detonated at Alamogordo Air Base on July 16, 1945.In 1944,
Fermi became an American citizen and served as a professor at the Institute for
Nuclear Studies of the University of Chicago. There he worked on high-energy physics
and led investigations related to the pion-nucleon interaction.

During the last years of his life, Fermi turned his attention to the problem of the
mysterious origin of cosmic rays. He developed a theory, accounting for the energies
present in the cosmic ray particles. According to his theory, a universal magnetic field-
acting as a giant accelerator- governs the energies of the cosmic ray particles.

From the Universities of Utrecht, Heidelberg, Washington University (St. Louis),


Columbia, Yale and Rockford (Illinois) College, Fermi received his honorary degrees.
He was awarded the Franklin Medal by the Franklin Institute in 1947 and the Barnard
Gold Medal from Columbia University in 1950. He was an elected member of the
Royal Society of England. Likewise, he was also a member of the American
Philosophical Society, American Physical Society, and Sigma Xi.
Enrico Fermi was the first recipient of a special award of $50,000, which now bears his
name for the work on an atom.

Fermi’s outstanding contributions to the development of quantum


theory, nuclear and particle physics, and statistical mechanics recognized him to be
one of the prolific scientists of the 20th century.