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Enrico Fermi: The Obedient Genius

Giuseppe Bruzzaniti
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
Springer Biographies
[Reviewed by
Charles Ashbacher
, on

The rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s led to one of the qualitatively greatest migrations in the history of human civilization: the movement of scientists, mathematicians and other people of great skill from Europe to the United States. These people had an enormous influence on the U. S. victory in World War II as well as the dramatic expansion of the U. S. economy after the war. One of the major players in this movement was Italian physicist Enrico Fermi.

This is an excellent biography of Fermi, one of the major players in the development of the new physics and its frightening consequence, the construction and use of nuclear weapons. Chapter one is a brief summary of his life, covering the personal details from birth to death. Consuming 44 pages, it is extremely concise. There are several mentions of the growing intensity of the political situation in Europe.

The context for the main work of Fermi is laid in the second chapter, called “20th Century Physics: 1900–1933.” As the name implies, this covers the dramatic changes in the collective physics mindset as relativity, quantum mechanics and the transmutation of elements became staples of physics research. It is impossible to understand the work of Fermi to any extent without this knowledge and it is well presented.

The third chapter has the title “Enrico Fermi: Research Itineraries, 1921–1933” and uses the foundation laid in the previous chapter to give a detailed explanation of what amounted to the early years in Fermi’s career. He was one of the most prolific actors in this rapidly changing field and although all that work cannot be completely detailed in one chapter, at the conclusion the reader knows the relevant and significant details.

The fourth chapter has the title “20th Century Physics: 1934–1955” and the context for Fermi’s work in those years is well-laid. Once again, the necessary background is given for an understanding of the following chapter, “Enrico Fermi: Research Itineraries 1934–1955.” The splitting of the topics into the physics background followed by the work of Fermi is a tactic that works extremely well in this book. The subject matter is complex, it is much easier to understand when presented in this manner.

This is not a soft biography: the technical details are not in any way absent. The reader that lacks at least a basic knowledge of the physics being discussed will struggle to understand.

The current migration from the Middle East to Europe has been described as the greatest since World War II. As I read this book I could not help wondering how many outstanding talents may be present in that wave, talents that could have profound consequences for the western countries if only they were given a chance to demonstrate and use their skills. 

Charles Ashbacher splits his time between consulting with industry in projects involving math and computers, and teaching college classes. In his spare time, he reads about these things and helps his daughter in her lawn care business.

See the table of contents in the publisher's webpage.