The Last Man Who Knew Everything

The Book of the Week is “The Last Man Who Knew Everything, The Life and Times of Enrico Fermi, Father of the Atomic Age” by David N. Schwartz, published in 2017.

Born to a wealthy family in September 1901 in Italy, Fermi was mentored in science by a colleague of his father, who worked for the railroad. This, after suffering the trauma of having his older brother die unexpectedly having throat surgery in 1914.

Fermi had a photographic memory, which helped to make him a brilliant student in mathematics and physics from studying textbooks. He was required to learn German too, to keep abreast of developments in the scholarly journals.

Fermi eventually became a physics professor at the University of Rome. His teaching gig, which he was also really good at, lasted from 1926 to 1938. He married in July 1927 and several years later, he wrote, and his wife edited and translated, a high school physics textbook that became part of the standard high school curriculum in Italy.

Quantum statistical mechanics was his specialty. Athleticism was another. Fiercely competitive, he always outdid his colleagues in hiking and climbing the hills around Rome. He became well traveled, thanks to attendance at international physics conferences. Some were hosted in the United States, which had better research funding than his native country.

By the late 1920’s, Fermi had cofounded a world-class nuclear physics research institute in Rome. The first entering class consisted of three graduate students. The younger generation was reflecting on new quantum theories to which the old-school Italian physicists were resistant. Fermi was in the former group.

In spring 1929, Mussolini selected members, of which Fermi was one, for an elite scientific society. He offered them big money so that they would do Italy proud (like academic and athletic scholarships bestowed upon fiercely competitive students, dispensed by elitist schools in the United States nowadays).

In the early 1930’s, Fermi supervised scientists who traveled internationally to different labs to learn from their fellow Europeans; yet they also competed with physicists at prestigious institutions in Berlin, Paris, Berkeley in California, and Cambridge in England.

In October 1934, Fermi’s team discovered that “…slowing down neutrons enhanced the radioactivity induced by neutron bombardment.” In connection therewith, he applied for a patent in Italy and the United States. He got a new lab.

By 1936, Mussolini was finding that invading Ethiopia was an expensive proposition. He began to depend on financial aid from Nazi Germany. By summer 1938, Hitler had control over ruining careers of Jews in licensed professions, civil servants, and white collar jobs in Italy.

In late 1938, after much red tape and worrisome scheming, Fermi and his wife (who had been deemed Jewish) escaped Italy first for the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm, at which he took his trophy and money, and then for the United States. He ended up working at Columbia University.

At a Washington, D.C. conference in January 1939, physicists announced they had figured out how to produce fission, the process required to detonate an atomic bomb. Some were concerned that if Hitler’s scientists got hold of such knowledge, he would order mass destruction of his enemies before they could stop him. Fermi felt there was a low probability that Germany could build such a device. But Fermi was persuaded to share the thereafter-secret formula with the United States Navy. This would show his loyalty to America at a time when Italy was not exactly America’s ally.

Read the book to learn the parties involved with, locations of, trials and tribulations regarding, and Fermi’s role in the Manhattan Project; what Fermi did thereafter; and the Edward Teller/J. Robert Oppenheimer dispute, plus other physics-related occurrences up until Fermi’s death.