Enrico Fermi has been called the last scientist who knew all of physics, having attained the heights of the profession as a theorist and experimentalist. Unique in numerous ways, this 20th century physicist was entirely self-taught; the breadth and depth of his research remain unparalleled. Fermi’s 1938 Nobel Prize was picked up en route in his flight from fascist Italy with his Jewish wife and children to a new life in America. In 1942 he became the lead scientist in the University of Chicago experiment that produced the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, a key precursor to building the atomic bomb. His role in the success of the Manhattan Project was critical.
This lecture combines Fermi’s personal life with his scientific contributions and illustrates how he was shaped by history and how he, in turn, shaped history. Legendarily apolitical, Fermi was reluctantly involved in American political decision making during the war and afterwards. The many challenges he faced, including the tensions between politics and science, are still relevant today.