On November 9, 1938, Germany's Nazis staged Kristallnacht ("the Night of Broken Glass"), a murderous anti-Jewish rampage that killed nearly 100 people and destroyed thousands of businesses. The next day, in Mussolini's Fascist Italy, the eminent physicist Enrico Fermi (1901-1954) learned that he had won the Nobel Prize in Physics, and soon afterward he was granted official permission to attend the awards ceremony, in Sweden. The award saved his life: Disgusted by fascism and fearful for his Jewish wife, Laura, Fermi escaped to the United States, after accepting his prize.
Fermi was just one of many prominent scientists who fled or were forced out of fascist Europe in the 1930s, but he was one of the few to excel at both theoretical and experimental work. His original theoretical work was on beta-ray emission in radioactivity, which led to experiments in creating radioactive isotopes through neutron bombardment. These experiments, begun in 1934, proved to be the first occurrence of nuclear fission, but this phenomenon went unrecognized for several years.
The delay turned out to be extraordinarily fortunate. If Fermi and his colleagues had understood the ramifications of their work at the time, the Axis powers would have had a critical head start in the creation of an atomic bomb. Yet it was not until Fermi had taken up a professorship at Columbia University that the deeper meaning of his research was revealed.
Working largely with other emigre scientists, Fermi conducted the first controlled nuclear chain reaction in 1942. Within three years, as part of the Manhattan Project, he had helped design and construct the first atomic weapons.
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