October 7, 2004

New book about Fermi

Fermi acceleration. Fermi liquid. Fermi pressure. Fermi gas. The Fermi paradox. Fermi questions. The Fermi-Thomas model of the atom. The Fermi-Turkevich gap. Fermium and fermions. Enrico Fermi High School in Enfield. Conn. The Fermi National Accelerator in Batavia, Ill. The Enrico Fermi Institute at the University.

Okay, so this guy did something with his life.

James W. Cronin, a University of Chicago physicist and Nobel laureate, has brought together an impressive array of writers and scientists in a tribute to one of the greatest scientists of the twentieth century, Enrico Fermi. The book, titled Fermi Remembered, describes the multi-faceted scientific legacy of Fermi, who made significant contributions to 20th-century physics.

In a review of the book, Steve Koppes writes:
Albert Einstein’s relativity theory and the quantum mechanics developed by Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrodinger are often cited as milestones in 20th-century physics. But for sheer breadth of achievement, Fermi left a unique signature on modern physics.

“He gave to science all he had, and with him disappeared the last universal physicist in the tradition of the great men of the 19th century, when it was still possible for a single person to reach the highest summits, both in theory and experiment, and to dominate all fields of physics,” wrote the late Nobel laureate Emilio Segre of Fermi in 1962.

Although not a biography, the book contains reminiscences of Fermi from 25 scientists who knew him, as well as material from his research notebooks, correspondence, speech outlines and teaching.

Among Fermi’s early accomplishments was to apply quantum mechanics, which explains the behavior of atoms and subatomic particles, to the physics of solids and gases, Cronin said. In the 1920s, he built on quantum theory by formulating concepts called Fermi energy and, with Paul Dirac, Fermi-Dirac statistics. These concepts later became vital to the development of semiconductors and other electronic devices.

Fermi went on to earn the Nobel Prize in 1938 for his discovery of new radioactive elements produced by the addition of neutrons to the cores of other atoms, and for the discovery of nuclear reactions brought about by slowly moving neutrons. He also directed construction of the first nuclear reactor at the University during World War II as part of the effort to develop the atomic bomb. But he turned his attention to an entirely new topic after the war.

While researching the book, Cronin discovered a 1945 letter from Fermi outlining his vision for the newly formed research institute that now bears his name at the University. “That was to do high-energy physics, not nuclear physics, not following up what he had done with the bomb,” Cronin said. “He was looking far, far ahead of that.”
In addition to his remarkable work as a physicist, Fermi also contributed to cosmological and metaphysical discussions by introducing the (in)famous Fermi Paradox, in which he contemplated the unexplained 'Great Silence' from other possible intelligent life-forms in the Universe.

1 comment:

George said...

Here's an excerpt from the book: