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Enrico Fermi was a theoretical and experimental physicist from Italy who worked on the Manhattan Project in the United States. He won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1938 for creating the first nuclear reactor and discovering transuranic elements. His later work in theoretical physics led to the naming of the Fermi paradox which explores the contradiction between high probability estimates and insufficient evidence.

Young Life and Education

Enrico Fermi was born on September 29, 1901, in Rome, Italy. The youngest son of Alberto Fermi, a Ministry of Railways division head, and Ida de Gattis, a teacher at the local elementary school.[1] He and his older brother, Giulio, shared a love of motors and mechanics. Giulio died under anesthesia in 1915.[2] Fermi sought out scientific information through reading and working on science and physics projects with his friend, Enrico Persico. His father’s friend, Adolfo Amidei, encouraged his interests and provided Fermi with several scientific books.

In July 1918, he graduated from high school and Amidei persuaded him to apply to Pisa’s Scuola Normale Superiore. He received first place on the entrance exam by deriving and solving the partial differential equation of a rod vibrating. His advisor was Luigi Puccianti, the director of the physics department, and when he switched to a physics major, Puccianti gave him and the two other students full access to his laboratory.

Enrico Fermi received an extensive and rigorous education that created the foundation for his major scientific discoveries.

They began researching X-ray crystallography on Fermi’s suggestion.[3] He submitted his thesis, "A theorem on probability and some of its applications,” exploring X-ray diffraction, and received his degree in July 1922 at only 20 years old.He first discovered the possibility of nuclear potential energy while writing an appendix for August Kopff’s 1923 Fundamentals of Einstein Relativity.[4]

Fermi joined the Grand Orient of Italy’s masonic lodge in 1924.[5] Then he began an academic trip across Europe, where he studied under Max Born, the University of Göttingen, and Paul Ehrenfest, Leiden. He also met Pascual Jordan, Werner Heisenberg, Albert Einstein, Hendrik Lorentz, Jan Tinberger, and Samuel Goudsmit. He taught theoretical mechanics and mathematical physics from January of 1925 until 1926 while giving lectures at Sapienza University of Rome. Fermi’s paper, "On the quantization of the perfect monoatomic gas,” from 1925 applied Wolfgang Pauli’s new exclusion principal to create his statistical formula. The formula was simultaneously developed by Paul Dirac, a British physicist, and it is now called Fermi-Dirac statistics.[6]

Enrico Fermi, The Professor

Erico Fermi first applied to the University of Cagliari, Sardinia, but Giovanni Giorgi received the position of mathematical physics professor. He applied in 1926 to the Sapienza University in Rome, an opportunity newly created by Professor Orso Mario Corbino at the request of the Minister of Education, and was accepted.[7] On July 19, 1928, Fermi married Laura Capon, a fellow student, and they couple born two children, Nella in 1931 and Giulio in 1936.[8] Fermi became intrigued with neutrons in March 1934 and hypothesized he could induce radioactivity using Rasetti’s, his former university companion and colleague, polonium-beryllium neutron source, eliminating the need for a particle accelerator.[9] He switched to a radon-beryllium neutron source and successfully created radioactive isotopes of 22 elements.[10] On March 25, 1934, he reported the results in the journal La Ricerca Scientifica.[11] He also discovered a diffusion equation, later called the Fermi age equation, that colliding hydrogen atoms with neutrons slowed down the neutrons and the slower neutrons became more radioactive. He won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1838 for these two discoveries.[12]

The Manhattan Project

Enrico Fermi and his family moved to New York City on January 2, 1939.[13] On January 25, 1939, after the discovery of nuclear fusion the previous year, Fermi and other Columbia scientists conducted the first experiment using nuclear fusion in the United States.[14] Experiments with uranium revealed a chain reaction could be caused by the neutron bombardment and the idea of a nuclear reactor was born by Fermi and Leó Szilárd.

Enrico Fermi spoke out against the dangers of nuclear power on more than one occasion, but continued his work for the sake of science.

On March 18, 1939, Fermi gave a cautionary speech warning military leaders against the possible consequences of nuclear energy. Fermi moved to the University of Chicago to begin experimenting to see if the reaction could produce plutonium rather than enriched uranium. On September 27, 1944, they successfully produced plutonium.[15]

The Fermi Paradox

Sometimes mistakenly referred to the Fermi Problem, the “Fermi Paradox” refers to the argument made by Enrico Fermi in 1950. During a conversation with fellow physicists Emil Konopinski, Herbert York, and Edward Teller while at work in Los Angeles National Laboratory, they discussed a cartoon by Alan Dunn that blamed missing trash cans on alien abductors and supposed recent UFO sightings. Later that day during lunch, Fermi suddenly cried, “Where are they?”, or “Where is everybody?” He then proceeded to list the probability of planets that can sustain life, the chance of life itself, and the likelihood of technological advancement meant we should have been contacted already many times.[16]

Later Career and Death

The University of Chicago made Enrico Fermi a Professor of Physics on July 1, 1945, and he taught there until his death. He continued to provide consulting work for the Los Alamos Lab as well.[17] Fermi died of stomach cancer in his Chicago home on November 28, 1954. He is buried in Oak Woods Cemetery.[18]



Bernardini, C., & Bonolis, L. (2004). Enrico Fermi: His Work and Legacy. New York:Springer-Verlag.

Cooper, D., & Fermi, E. (1998). Enrico Fermi: And The Revolutions in Modern Physics. New York: Oxford University Press. 
Fermi, L. (1954). Atoms in the Family: My Life with Enrico Fermi. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Rhodes, R. (1995). The Making of the Atomic Bomb. New York: Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group. 
Segrè, E. (1970). Enrico Fermi, Physicist. London: University of Chicago Press.


  1. Segre, 1970
  2. Fermi, 1954
  3. Segre, 1970
  4. Bernardini & Bonolis, 2004
  5. Collegio Circoscrizionale dei Maestri Venerabili della Lombardia. (2016). Enrico Fermi. GOI Lombardia.
  6. Bernardini & Bonolis, 2004
  7. Fermi, 1954
  8. Cooper & Fermi, 1998
  9. Bernardini & Bonolis, 2004
  10. Guerra, F., & Robotti, N. (2009). Enrico Fermi’s Discovery of Neutron-Induced Artificial Radioactivity: The Influence of his Theory of Beta Decay. Physics in Perspective, 11(4), 379–404. doi:10.1007/s00016-008-0415-1
  11. Fermi, E., Amaldi, E., D’Agostino, O., Rasetti, F., & Segre, E. (1934). Artificial Radioactivity Produced by Neutron Bombardment. Proceedings of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, 146(857), 483–500. doi:10.1098/rspa.1934.0168
  12. Bernardini & Bonolis, 2004
  13. Cooper & Fermi, 1998
  14. Rhodes, 1995
  15. Bernardini & Bonolis, 2004
  16. Jones, E. M. (1985, March). “Where is Everybody?”: An Account of Fermi’s Question.
  17. Bernardini & Bonolis, 2004
  18. Find A Grave. (2001, January 1). Enrico Fermi (1901 - 1954). Find A Grave Memorial.

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