Enfield school’s Italian connection: Who was Enrico Fermi?

By Andrew J. Concatelli - ReminderNews Assistant Editor
Enfield - posted Thu., Jul. 21, 2011
A high school in Enfield is named for Enrico Fermi. Photo from NobelPrize.org. - Contributed Photo

As the namesake of one of the town’s high schools, Enrico Fermi may be a familiar Italian-American name to residents of Enfield, but most people know very little about the accomplished physicist – including the key role he played in one of the most controversial and dangerous inventions of all time.

Fermi, one of the top nuclear physicists of his day, received a Nobel Prize and had a hand in the creation of the nuclear bomb. He was one of the leaders of the team of physicists on the Manhattan Project, and, along with J. Robert Oppenheimer, Fermi is often called “the father of the atomic bomb.”

According to The Nobel Foundation, Fermi was born in Rome, Italy, in 1901. As a standout student with a knack for math and science, he earned his doctorate in physics at an Italian university before becoming a professor himself. His work led to the discovery of nuclear fission and the production of elements lying beyond what science then knew as the Periodic Table. The Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to Fermi in 1938 for his work on the artificial radioactivity produced by neutrons, and for nuclear reactions brought about by slow neutrons.

After receiving that prize, Fermi emigrated to America, primarily to flee Mussolini’s dictatorship, according to Nobel. He was appointed professor of physics at Columbia University in New York, and worked on the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb during WWII. Fermi was also said to have initiated the atomic age by being the first to use a neutron to produce the radioactive change of one element to another.

Fermi was the first recipient of a special award of $50,000 - which now bears his name - for work on the atom. He married Laura Capon in 1928, according to Nobel, and they had a son and a daughter. Fermi became an American citizen in 1944 and continued to teach and experiment in Chicago until his death in 1954.

Multiple nuclear reactors are named after Fermi, as are many schools – including Enfield’s. In 1952, element 100 on the periodic table was isolated from the debris of a nuclear test. In honor of Fermi's contributions to science, it was named “fermium.”

For more information about Fermi and his achievements, visit the website http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/1938/fermi-bio.html.

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