Enrico Fermi

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Fermi, Enrico

(ĕnrē`kō fĕr`mē), 1901–54, American physicist, b. Italy. He studied at Pisa, Göttingen, and Leiden, and taught physics at the universities of Florence and Rome. He contributed to the early theory of beta decay and the neutrino and to quantum statistics. For his experiments with neutrons he was awarded the 1938 Nobel Prize in Physics. Fermi's wife, Laura, was Jewish, and the family did not return to Fascist Italy after the journey to Stockholm to receive the Nobel award, but continued on to the United States. Fermi was professor of physics at Columbia (1939–45) and at the Univ. of Chicago (1946–54). He created the first self-sustaining chain reaction in uranium at Chicago in 1942 and worked on the atomic bomb at Los Alamos. Later he contributed to the development of the hydrogen bomb and served on the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission, which named him to receive its first special award ($25,000) shortly before his death. Fermi was outstanding as an experimenter, theorist, and teacher. He wrote Elementary Particles (1951). In 1954 the chemical element fermiumfermium
[for Enrico Fermi], artificially produced radioactive chemical element; symbol Fm; at. no. 100; mass no. of most stable isotope 257; m.p. 1,527°C;; b.p. and sp. gr. unknown; valence +2, +3. Fermium is a member of Group 3 of the periodic table.
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 of atomic number 100 was named for him. Publication of his Collected Papers (ed. by Edoardo Amaldi et al.) was begun in 1962.


See L. Fermi, Atoms in the Family (1954, repr. 1988); biographies by E. Segrè (1970), G. Segrè and B. Hoerlin (2016), and D. N. Schwartz (2017).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Fermi, Enrico


Born Sept. 29, 1901, in Rome; died Nov. 28, 1954, in Chicago. Italian physicist.

Fermi, who made a substantial contribution to the development of contemporary theoretical and experimental physics, graduated from the University of Pisa in 1922 and subsequently studied in Germany and the Netherlands. From 1926 to 1938 he was a professor at the University of Rome, where he made an important contribution to the formation of the Italian school of contemporary physics. He emigrated from Fascist Italy in 1938. From 1939 to 1945, he was a professor at Columbia University and directed research in the USA in the use of nuclear energy. He became a professor at the University of Chicago in 1946.

Fermi was instrumental in the development of the principles of quantum physics. In 1925 he developed the statistics of particles that obey the Pauli exclusion principle (see). In 1934 he constructed a quantitative theory of 0-decay based on W. Pauli’s hypothesis that (3-particles are emitted simultaneously with neutrinos. From 1934 to 1938, Fermi, together with his colleagues, studied the properties of neutrons and laid the foundations of neutron physics. He was the first to observe induced radioactivity, which is caused by neutron bombardment of a number of elements, including uranium. He discovered the phenomenon of neutron moderation and developed the theory of the phenomenon. For this discovery he received a Nobel prize in 1938. In December 1942, Fermi became the first to achieve a nuclear chain reaction, in the world’s first nuclear reactor, which was constructed by Fermi and used graphite as the neutron moderator and uranium as fuel.

In the last years of his life, Fermi performed research in high-energy physics. He initiated the experimental investigation of interactions between charged pions of various energies and hydrogen and obtained a number of fundamental results. Fermi also carried out theoretical research in high-energy physics, dealing with such topics as the statistical theory of multiple meson production in collisions between two nucleons and the theory of the origin of cosmic rays.


“Zur Quantelung des idealen einatomigen Gases.” Zeitschrift für Physik, 1926, vol. 36, issue 11/12.
“Artificial Radioactivity Produced by Neutron Bombardment.” Proceedings of the Royal Society, series A, 1934, vol. 146, no. 857.
“Artificial Radioactivity Produced by Neutron Bombardment.” Proceedings of the Royal Society, series A, 1935, vol. 149, no. 868. (With others.)
“On the Absorption and the Diffusion of Slow Neutrons.” Physical Review, series 2, 1936, vol. 50, no. 10. (With E. Amaldi.)
“Tentativo di una teoria dei raggi β.” Nuovo Cimento, 1934, vol. 11, no. 1.
In Russian translation:
Iadernaia fizika. Moscow, 1951.
Lektsii po atomnoi fizike. Moscow, 1952.
Elementarnye chastitsy, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1953.
Molekuly i kristally. Moscow, 1947.
“Elementarnaia teoriia kotlov s tsepnymi iadernymi reaktsiiami.” Uspekhi fizicheskikh nauk, 1947, vol. 32, fasc. 1, pp. 54–65.
Lektsii o π-mezonakh i nuklonakh. Moscow, 1956.
Nauchnye trudy, vols. 1–2. Moscow, 1971–72.
Termodinamika, 2nd ed. Kharkov, 1973.


Pontecorvo, B. “Enriko Fermi.” Uspekhi fizicheskikh nauk, 1955, vol. 57, fasc. 3.
Fermi, L. Atomy u nas doma. Moscow, 1958. Translated from English.)


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Fermi, Enrico

(1901–54) physicist; born in Rome, Italy. His precocity in physics and mathematics was encouraged by a family friend throughout his education. While a lecturer at the University of Florence (1924–27), he developed a new form of statistical mechanics to explain the theoretical behavior of atomic particles (1926). At the University of Rome, he and his colleagues split the nuclei of uranium atoms by bombarding them with neutrons, thus producing artificial radioactive substances. For this breakthrough, Fermi received the 1938 Nobel Prize in physics. Fearing for his Jewish wife because of Mussolini's anti-Semitic legislation, Fermi went directly from the prize presentation in Stockholm to Columbia University, where he became a professor (1939–42). His suggestion to the U.S. Naval Department to develop weapons utilizing atomic chain reactions led to his move to the University of Chicago (1942–54), where he constructed the first American nuclear reactor. On December 2, 1942, he initiated the atomic age with the first self-sustaining chain reaction, after which he became known as "father of the atomic bomb." The element fermium is named for him.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.