Enrico Fermi: Creator of the first nuclear reactor
Enrico Fermi was the creator of the world’s first nuclear reactor, the Chicago Pile-1.
Enrico Fermi was born on September 29, 1901, in Rome as the son of Alberto Fermi and Ida de Gattis. Alberto Fermi was a chief inspector of the Ministry of Communications, and Ida de Gattis was a school teacher. Enrico’s aptitude for mathematics and physics was recognised early during his school days and was encouraged by his father’s colleagues.
In 1918, Enrico Fermi won the University of Pisa’s distinguished Scuola Normale Superiore scholarship. He spent four years at the University of Pisa and received his doctor’s degree in 1922 along with Italian physicist, Professor Puccianti.
In 1923, Enrico Fermi was awarded a scholarship from the Italian government, and he spent some months with German physicist and mathematician Professor Max Born in Gottingen. After receiving a Rockefeller Fellowship in 1924, Fermi moved to Leyden to work with Austrian theoretical physicist Paul Ehrenfest. In the same year, he returned to Italy, accepting the position as a lecturer in mathematical physics at the University of Florence. He started his research in general relativity, statistical mechanics, and quantum mechanics.
During 1926 and 1927, Enrico Fermi and English theoretical physicist Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac independently developed new statistics, known as the Fermi-Dirac statistics. To handle the subatomic particles, they developed the statistical laws, now known as the Fermi statistics, governing the particles subject to Pauli’s exclusion principles. These particles are now known as fermions. Pauli’s exclusion principles were introduced by Austrian theoretical physicist Wolfgang Ernst Pauli. It states that two or more identical particles with half-integer spins cannot occupy the same quantum state within a quantum system simultaneously.
Enrico Fermi was one of the leaders of the team of physicists on the Manhattan Project for the development of nuclear energy and the atomic bomb.
In 1927, Fermi was elected Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Rome. He retained this post until he emigrated to the United States in 1938, primarily to escape from Mussolini’s fascist leadership. During his initial days in Rome, Fermi focused on electrodynamic problems and theoretical investigations of various spectroscopic phenomena. The turning point in his scientific career came when he directed his attention from the outer electrons towards the atomic nucleus itself.
Enrico Fermi married Laura Capon in 1928, and the couple had one son, Giulio, and one daughter, Nella.
In 1934, Fermi developed the ß-decay (Beta-decay) theory combining his previous works on radiation theory with Pauli’s idea of the neutrino. Following Marie Curie’s and Joliot’s discovery of artificial radioactivity, Fermi demonstrated that nuclear transformation occurs in almost every element subjected to neutron bombardment. This research led to the discovery, in the same year, of slow neutrons, which led to the discovery of nuclear fission and the elements lying beyond what was, until then, the Periodic Table.
Fermi became an American citizen in 1944 and accepted the position of Professor at the Institute for Nuclear Studies of the University of Chicago.
Enrico Fermi continued his research on neutrons after migrating to the United State. He saw the possibility of the emission of secondary neutrons and a chain reaction upon the discovery of fission by Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman in 1939. With tremendous enthusiasm, Fermi directed a series of experiments on the topic, which led to the atomic pile and the first controlled nuclear chain reaction. These experiments took place on a squash court situated beneath Chicago’s stadium on December 2, 1942.
Enrico Fermi was one of the leaders of the team of physicists on the Manhattan Project for the development of nuclear energy and the atomic bomb. He played an essential part in solving the problems connected with the development of the first atomic bomb.
Fermi became an American citizen in 1944 and accepted the position of Professor at the Institute for Nuclear Studies of the University of Chicago. He held this position until he died in 1954. During his stint there, he focussed on high-energy physics and led investigations into the pion-nuclear interactions.
In the final years of his life, Fermi focused on the problem of the origin of cosmic rays, formulating a theory that a universal magnetic field functioning as a massive accelerator would be responsible for the incredible energy found in cosmic-ray particles.
Fermi was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1928 for his work on the artificial radioactivity produced by neutrons and for nuclear reactions brought about by slow neutrons.
Enrico Fermi passed away in Chicago on November 28, 1954.
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