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the last man who knew everything

12 december 2018

Several people called Enrico Fermi "the last man who knew everything," but as biographer David Schwartz notes, they meant "everything about physics." Fermi was not particularly a renaissance man, having little interest in wider culture or in other sciences. But he really did know everything there was to know about physics, from the time he systematically took up the field as a teenager till his premature death in his early 50s.

And as Schwartz documents, those were the decades that created modern physics. When Fermi (1901-1954) was a child, Albert Einstein proposed his theories of relativity, and Niels Bohr introduced the quantum theory of the atom. In the next 25 years, physicists around the world elaborated those insights and partly reconciled them with each other. It's tempting, if maybe idle, to ask whether those elaborations came about because so many great minds happened to be born around the year 1900, or whether the basis provided by Einstein, Bohr, and great experimentalists like Marie Curie and Ernest Rutherford generated complicated but soluble problems in "normal science" for the generation that happened to come along.

Something of both, most likely. Fermi was unique, though, in understanding every aspect of the new physics, and in being equally at home as a theoretician and an experimentalist. Schwartz identifies Fermi's two greatest achievements as the development – around the same time as Paul Dirac – of a statistical approach that explains how subatomic particles behave, and the invention – along with Leo Szilard – of the nuclear reactor. No physicist alive today could remotely dream of two such fundamental achievements in theory and engineering. No physicist alive today could even carry on mundane research in two such disparate subdisciplines.

Fermi was equally at home analyzing everyday stuff like vibrating strings or the interface between oil and water – and theorizing about the interior of distant stars. If Fermi had a weakness, Schwartz posits, it's that he was uncomfortable with abstruse mathematics. This is not to say that Fermi was bad at math, or anything. But he would only theorize about things that he could physically, even visually, conceive.

And it's not like Fermi never made a mistake. He produced nuclear fission in his laboratory, but misinterpreted the result as the production of heavier-than-uranium elements instead of the breakdown of uranium into lighter elements. In fact, Fermi won his Nobel Prize for producing heavier-than-uranium elements, when he'd actually done the opposite. You have to be a heck of a scientist to win the Nobel Prize on one of your off-days. Fermi would go on to make a crucial miscalculation in the physics of his early reactors that nearly torpedoed the plutonium-bomb aspect of the Manhattan Project. But in time the miscalculation would prove somewhat irrelevant to the functioning of the reactors, so his oversight (committed as well by Szilard and everyone else working on them) proved immaterial.

Fermi was a brilliant and generous teacher, addicted to thorough explanation of everything; and as Schwartz paints him, even happier to explain something the second time through to a slow student than to give an initial lecture. His graduate students form a roll call of Nobel Prize winners who formed a cadre for a whole generation of American physics.

American, despite the fact that Fermi was Italian, and that aspect of the story is also central to Schwartz's biography. Fermi's personal, social, and political lives were complicated. It's not that his makeup was particularly complicated, but that the world prevented him from aligning straightforwardly with the course of history. Fermi stood still, his attention on the laws of nature, and watched humanity spin out of control around him.

Fermi established himself as a world-class scientist almost entirely within the context of Italian fascism. He went along to get along, though Mussolini was such an ignoramus that Fermi's accommodations didn't get him very far. Fermi joined the Fascist Party and became a member of Mussolini's royal academy. Italian fascists had a peculiar way of being comfortable with advances in art, architecture, and science without freaking out about the ideology of every achievement à la Stalin or Hitler. Until the 1938 racial laws threatened Fermi's wife Laura (who was of Jewish descent), he kept his attention on his neutrons and remained apolitical.

In December of 1938, Enrico and Laura Fermi traveled to Stockholm with their two children and a maid, to pick up Enrico's Nobel Prize. By this point, Hitler had furiously forbidden Germans to collect the Scandinavian gongs, but Mussolini was still pretty proud of Italian winners. Schwartz retells odd anecdotes of the 1938 Nobel ceremony, at which the only recipients were Fermi and Pearl Buck ("wondering why she had been selected for this honor", as Laura cattily suggested). After pocketing the Prize, the Fermi family slipped away to New York City and never lived in Italy again. (I wonder what relatives and friends the maid left behind.)

Fermi joined the faculty at Columbia, teaching a 3/3 load – apparently, in 1939, if you were going to be a college professor in America, you damn well taught college classes for your living. (Fermi would continue to teach 2 or 3 courses a semester at Columbia and the University of Chicago, except for leaves when he was off working on the atomic bomb, for the rest of his life.) Fermi may not have been a literary type, but he was awfully good at languages, fluent in German and easily able to take on university teaching in English. Leo Szilard convinced Fermi that the U.S. had better develop fission weapons before the Germans did, and the rest is history. It is a history, as Schwartz acknowledges, often retold, most classically in Richard Rhodes' Making of the Atomic Bomb, and in retelling it here, Schwartz tries his best to limit himself to Fermi's direct contributions; though the larger story often tempts him away.

Then it's on to Fermi's postwar career, which lasted only a few years but was rich in mentoring and institutional development. (His impact was far-ranging; after retiring from a career in manufacturing, my grandfather worked as carpenter and handyman at the National Accelerator Laboratory in northern Illinois, the great cyclotron that Fermi envisioned and would later be renamed Fermilab – so my family was partly supported by the jobs that Fermi brought to the Chicago area.) Fermi stayed amazingly energetic after the war, but in 1954 his health faded quickly. He died of abdominal cancer that was perhaps caused by his prewar habit of running down laboratory corridors clutching irradiated foils to his belly, so that he could check them at Geiger counters far from his neutron-drenched main test facility.

Schwartz's story is readable and exciting. I have no way of knowing if he conveys the physics that Fermi worked on accurately. Schwartz himself admits that this isn't really a technical history of science, but Fermi's life was all about his techniques, and it's hard to tell his life story without getting into the details. Schwartz is, here and there, loose with details about Italy, an area I know slightly better. He mentions "the height of the fighting over" Rome as taking place in 1945, but must mean 1944 (p.264); that's just a typo. But earlier, he states that "cultural or political anti-Semitism was virtually unknown in Italy" in the early 1930s (77) – entirely too sanguine a statement about a country whose dominant church was still energetically anti-Judaic.

These are quibbles which may or may not speak to other inaccuracies in The Last Man Who Knew Everything. I hope not. On the whole, I was rapt by Schwartz's narrative and learned a great deal about the culture of academic physics, and the life of a curiously focused polymath at the heart of its greatest era.

Schwartz, David N. The Last Man Who Knew Everything: The life and times of Enrico Fermi, father of the nuclear age. New York: Basic [Hachette], 2017. QC 16 .F46S39