Enrico Fermi
first nuclear chain reaction in 1942

1901 - 1954

Enrico Fermi, an Italian-born American physicist, designed the first atomic pile and produced the first nuclear chain reaction in 1942. He later worked on the atomic bomb project at Los Alamos, N. Mex.

Fermi won the 1938 Nobel Prize for physics for his work on nuclear processes. He also made important contributions to quantum theory and other areas of physics.

Fermi began bombarding many elements with neutrons in 1934. He proved that slow neutrons are very effective in producing radioactive atoms. This discovery was particularly important, because slow neutrons can split U-235. As a result of these experiments, Fermi announced in 1934 what he thought were elements lying beyond uranium, not realizing that he had actually split the atom. Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann of Germany performed a similar experiment in 1938. Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch showed that the uranium atom had been split, and named the process nuclear fission.

Fermi was born in Rome. He received a doctor's degree from the University of Pisa in 1922. He then returned to Rome, where he became professor of theoretical physics at the University of Rome in 1927. Fermi left Italy in 1938 to escape the Fascist regime and settled in the United States. He became a professor of physics at Columbia University in 1939. He moved to the University of Chicago as a professor of physics in 1942. Fermi led the work on the first nuclear chain reaction. He became an American citizen in 1944. After World War II, he pioneered in research on high energy particles.

Contributor: Roger H. Stuewer, Ph.D., Prof. of History of Science and Technology, Univ. of Minnesota, Twin Cities Campus.

Additional resources

Fermi, Laura. Atoms in the Family: My Life with Enrico Fermi. Univ. of New Mexico Pr., 1988. First published in 1954. A biography by Enrico Fermi's wife.

Segre, Emilio G. Enrico Fermi: Physicist. Univ. of Chicago Pr., 1970.


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