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Fermi Remembered Paperback – August 16, 2004
(Chris Llewellyn Smith Times Higher Education Supplement 2005-04-11)
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theorists and experimentalists, as well as the gulf between researchers and educators. Happily, Enrico Fermi contributed to no such separation.
One may, if one so chooses, peruse Fermi's notes on Quantum Mechanics, Thermodynamics and Nuclear Physics. (Published by University of Chicago Press). Or, too, the book of Thermodynamics (Dover). Those publications represent Fermi as teacher. As a researcher, we have the Two-Volumes of Collected Papers, or the review article on Quantum Electrodynamics. Whatever the avenue chosen, a happy guide can be found in the
present enterprise: Fermi Remembered. Nine chapters, beginning with Biography (Segre), suffused with letters and correspondence, historical photographs, and reminiscences by students and colleagues. But, as always, Physics remains top priority. Let us read:
(1) "...Fermi would take an accountant's spreadsheet, a merchant calculator, and a slide rule, and with these tools he would convert the partial
differential equations that were involved to the first-order differential equations." (Page 147).
(2) "...Fermi also felt that time spent agonizing over the interpretation of quantum mechanics was a waste." (Page 156).
(3) "...Fermi, who was at once theorist and experimenter, possessed an extraordinary sense for the relation between the physical world and its
mathematical portrayal by theorists." (Page 189).
(4) "...Fermi thought that one should never accept other people's calculations without some independent confirmation." (Page 199).
(5) "...Fermi was highly solicitous with regard to having his students understand physics. With patience and good humor, he was invariably willing
to explain any aspect of physics that had escaped their understanding, and he was readily available." (Page 230).
Arising from a symposium celebrating the anniversary of Enrico Fermi's hundredth birthday (September 29, 2001), this publication contains
a bit of everything; for instance, photocopies of notes from the Fermi archives which provides insight into how Enrico Fermi thought, and solved, physics problems. The symposium emphasized the years, 1945-1954, for which Fermi was Professor of Physics at University Of Chicago.
After perusing this book, one is even more inclined to peruse his notes on quantum mechanics, thermodynamics and nuclear physics.
In fact, the book pressed me into taking another foray into everything written by, or based upon lectures of, Enrico Fermi.
As with the lectures of Pauli or Feynman, it is always best to "learn from the masters."
The decade immediately after World War II was a magical time for physics. The success of the Manhattan Project, Radar, and many other defence applications of physical science attracted much talent to the field. It seemed that almost everyone wanted a PhD in physics, and graduate schools like Chicago were mobbed. Fermi was the center of attention, and the students that he trained, both individually and in classes, went on to illustrious careers.
This book covers many aspects of this exciting time. Space limitations in this review restrict my comments to only a few specifics. Fermi's computer program to calculate charged particle orbits in the cyclotron, written for the Los Alamos Maniac computer, is wonderful. It should be read by every programmer. The review talks by Fermi's colleagues, Richard Garwin, Murray Gell-Mann, and Marvin Goldberger, are not to be missed. The reading public interested in the history of 20th century science, in particular the period 1945-1954 when government support of peacetime research came into being, will find this book full of information not easily obtained elsewhere.