Fermi's accomplishments were in both theoretical and experimental physics, a unique feat in an age in which scientific endeavors have tended to specialize on one aspect or the other.
In 1933, he developed the theory of beta decay, postulating that the newly-discovered neutron decaying to a proton emits an electron and a particle which he called a "neutrino". The theory developed to explain this interaction later resulted in recognition of the weak interaction force. Investigation into the weak force has been one of the major areas of study at Fermilab.
Experimentally, Fermi and his colleagues, during the early 1930's, studied in detail the theory of neutrons; they bombarded most of the elements in the periodic table with them. They slowed down the neutrons, and among other things, produced a strange new product when bombarding uranium with neutrons which later was recognized to be a splitting of the uranium atoms.
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 and his family used the opportunity offered by his trip to Sweden for the awards ceremonies to leave permanently because of their increasing concern about living under the Italian Fascist regime. They came to the United States where Fermi accepted a position as professor of physics at Columbia University.
At that time it was recognized that nuclear fission (the splitting of the atom) had taken place in Fermi's and other similar experiments. Scientists felt that this principle might be applied to construct an "atomic bomb". With World War II raging in Europe, the ability to produce such a bomb was of the greatest importance in the balance of power in the world.
Fermi moved to the University of Chicago to be in charge of the first major step in making feasible the building of a bomb. In the squash courts under the west stand of the University's Stagg Field, Fermi supervised the design and assembly of an "atomic pile", a code word for an assembly that in peacetime would be known as a "nuclear reactor". Today, a plaque at the site reads: "On December 2, 1942, man achieved here the first self-sustaining chain reaction and thereby initiated the controlled release of nuclear energy."
At the end of World war II, the University of Chicago formed its Institute for Nuclear Studies (now named The Enrico Fermi Institute), to keep together the gifted scientists who had worked on the development of the atom bomb. These dedicated scientists to a man rejoiced in the opportunity at the University of Chicago to pursue their research for its intrinsic value, for "peaceful uses" that might follow.
Fermi joined the faculty at the University of Chicago and continued his investigation of the nucleus of the atom, concentrating on the particles that make up the nucleus. He was the prime mover in the design of the synchrocyclotron at the university which was, at the time of its completion, one of the most powerful atom smashers in the world. At the end of its useful life at Chicago in 1973, the machine's large electromagnet was moved to Fermilab, and is in use in experiments here.
Fermi is recognized among physicists as one of the great scientists of the 20th century. Every college physics student sees his name in textbooks as a major contributor to important ideas, not just in nuclear physics, but in many aspects of physical science. He worked always at the forefront of knowledge, and loved the excitement of being involved in breakthroughs in physics.
To Fermi high energy physics was the most exciting area of physics. He accurately predicted that giant accelerators (such as Fermilab's) would be built in the future. In lighter moments, he even dreamed of an accelerator that would be built at the equator and encircle the globe!
In announcing the plan to name the new laboratory in honor of Fermi in 1969, Glenn T. Seaborg, then chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, said, "It is particular fitting that we honor Dr. Fermi in this manner, for in so doing we further acknowledge his many contributions to the progress of nuclear science, particularly his work on nuclear processes."
Fermi's genius and foresight alone make it appropriate that a major laboratory be named for him. But in addition, it is honoring a man who, after making great contributions to the development of nuclear energy in the 1930's and 1940's, could have chosen any scientific position he wished in the United States and, in fact, in the world. He chose to be in Chicago.
Presentation by John Marburger
White House Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy
|last modified 09/16/2013 email Fermilab|