- Hardcover: 368 pages
- Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.; Second Printing edition (October 18, 2016)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1627790055
- ISBN-13: 978-1627790055
- Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.3 x 9.4 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 90 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #500,884 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Pope of Physics: Enrico Fermi and the Birth of the Atomic Age Hardcover – October 18, 2016
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Selected by Philip Tetlock as one of Bloomberg's Best Books of 2016
Shortlisted for Physics World's Book of the Year
One of Booklist's Top 10 Science Books
Editor’s Choice, New York Times Book Review, November 27, 2016: THE POPE OF PHYSICS: Enrico Fermi and the Birth of the Atomic Age. An assured and informative biography of the pioneering nuclear scientist.
"[A] superb biography. . .[the authors] have produced a definitive study of Fermi's life and work."―Andrew Crumey, The Wall Street Journal
“[The Pope of Physics is] the first popular cradle-to-grave biography in English of the most famous Italian scientific investigator since Galileo Galilei…[The authors] quickly hit their stride with a lucid account of how Fermi was born in 1901 to a middle-class family in Rome and became one of the very few physicists to be in the front rank in both theory and experiment.” ―Nature
"[An] impressive new biography...[Segrè and Hoerlin] have combined sophisticated understanding of Fermi’s scientific achievements with intimate, often charming stories of the famed physicist’s personal life, to create a book that’s both intelligent and extremely engaging...a story filled with drama, creativity, adventure."―The Washington Post
"There are many reasons to love The Pope of Physics: Enrico Fermi and the Birth of the Atomic Age, a new biography of the celebrated Italian physicist. It is humane, scientifically astute, and beautifully written. And what a life it chronicles!....Authors Gino Segrè, the nephew of Fermi’s colleague Emilio Segrè, and Bettina Hoerlin, whose father Hermann Hoerlin was an industrial physicist and group leader at Los Alamos National Laboratory, are wonderful writers with a deep sense of the personalities, science, historical backdrop, and locales of Fermi’s story. Although the book told a familiar tale, I literally could not put it down once I started it....lively and charming first-person narrative....I strongly recommend The Pope of Physics for anyone who wants to know more about Fermi or to use his example in teaching."―Physics Today
“Had Fermi turned his intuition to the problem it is likely that fission would have been discovered in Italy in early 1935, and not nearly four years later in Germany. Were that the case, Segrè and Hoerlin point out, it is possible that Hitler would have had an atomic bomb to use during the Second World War.”―Gregg Herken, New York Times Book Review
"[A]n informative biography of Fermi that also manages to deepen the sense of quiet mystery surrounding the legendary physicist...The authors...are to be thanked for deftly fleshing out a young Fermi through the pages of history." ―The Wire
"A valuable new biography"―Albuquerque Journal
"Few writers are better positioned than that duo to bring Fermi's story to light....Combining family lore with intensive research, Segrè and Hoerlin offer unique insights into Fermi's life and work, set against the background of politics and the early years of the Atomic Age."―Dallas Morning News
"Fermi, who excelled in so many areas . . . resists simple iconization . . .a quick-paced and highly readable account that manages to distill Fermi's rich and productive life into a little over 300 pages....[a] welcome and admirable biography."―Natural History magazine
"Authors Segrè and Hoerlin keep the reader riveted with detail. Want to see the world's most heinous war through a lens of emerging technology? Give Pope a try. An enjoyable read for scientist and historian alike."―Edge Media Network
“By placing stunning scientific advances into historical context, this engaging biography of Nobel Prize–winning Italian physicist Enrico Fermi (1901–1954) captures the life and times of one of the 20th century’s most creative and hard-working scientists…fans of pop science and history will thoroughly enjoy this entertaining and accessible biography of a scientist who deserves to be better understood.” ―Publishers Weekly, starred and boxed review
"[An] illuminating biography of the immigrant genius who earned a prime place among the elite scientists who watched the planet’s first mushroom cloud rise above New Mexico sands...By exploring Fermi’s friendships, his marriage and family life, and his postwar concerns about morality in an atomic age, the authors also give readers glimpses into something of Fermi’s personal, nonscientific attributes. A balanced portrait, rich in revealing anecdotes." ―Booklist, starred review
“Given his role in ushering in the Atomic Age, it is surprising that, until now, there has been no major biography of Fermi in English; The Pope of Physics: Enrico Fermi and the Birth of the Atomic Age… does an excellent job of filling that gap… Happily, the authors’ clear explanations ensure that the reader is not only able to follow Fermi’s contributions to science, but also understand their impact on his life story… this comprehensive and enjoyable biography is a valuable introduction to the life of Fermi.” ―BookPage
“The authors use this biography of Fermi's life―beginning with his university days, when he immersed himself in the new field of quantum physics, and culminating in his own groundbreaking accomplishments―to engagingly chronicle the major developments in nuclear physics that were the focus of his life's work. . . . A vivid retelling of events that still shape our lives today.” ―Kirkus Reviews
"Readers of history and physics will enjoy learning about this theoretical and experimental physicist, whose name lives on in the fermion particles, the element fermium, and the national accelerator lab near Chicago." ―Library Journal
“Superbly written. This will set the gold standard for books on Enrico Fermi.”―MICHIO KAKU, theoretical physicist and author of Physics of the Future and The Future of the Mind
“A delightful and compelling history of Enrico Fermi―a hero to anyone who knows about physics…With its detailed scholarship combined with insightful analysis, this book was clearly a labor of love for Segrè and Hoerlin, whose personal and scientific connections to Fermi make them the ideal biographers of this great man.”―LAWRENCE M. KRAUSS, author of The Physics of Star Trek and A Universe from Nothing
“In The Pope of Physics, the first in-depth biography of Enrico Fermi, Segrè and Hoerlin bring the man and his work to life with exhaustive research and authoritative prose.”―SYLVIA NASAR, author of A Beautiful Mind
“This beautifully written biography of Enrico Fermi brings us the whole man―the circumstances that molded him, his genius, his central contributions to the coming of the atomic age, and his very human qualities.”―JEROME FRIEDMAN, Nobel Prize-winner and former graduate student of Enrico Fermi
“Segrè and Hoerlin have artfully incorporated a personal backdrop shedding light on the behaviors that drove the decisions and motivations of Enrico Fermi, a 20th century one-of-a-kind genius―a compelling story.”―NIGEL LOCKYER, experimental particle physicist and director of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory
“In the hands of Segrè and Hoerlin, enriched with fresh material from his inner circle, Fermi’s life becomes a brilliant―and true―historical novel.”―FRANK WILCZEK, Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and author of A Beautiful Question
About the Author
Gino Segrè is a professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Pennsylvania. He has been a visiting professor at M.I.T. and Oxford University, chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Pennsylvania, and director of theoretical physics at the National Science Foundation. He is the author of several books of scientific history, Ordinary Geniuses, Faust in Copenhagen, and A Matter of Degrees.
Bettina Hoerlin taught healthcare disparities at the University of Pennsylvania for sixteen years. She also has been a visiting lecturer at Haverford College and Oxford University. Her career in health policy and administration included serving as Health Commissioner of Philadelphia. The author of Steps of Courage: My Parents’ Journey from Nazi Germany to America, she grew up in the Atomic City of Los Alamos.
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Enter Enrico Fermi, the likes of whom we are unlikely to see for a very long time. Bucking almost every neat scientific distinction, Fermi was the only scientist of the twentieth century who was supremely accomplished in both theoretical and experimental physics. Almost any of his discoveries would have been enough to net a Nobel Prize, and yet he made at least a dozen of them. In addition he was one of the three or four physicists of the century who were universalists, making contributions to and displaying a sound grasp of pretty much every branch of physics, from the microscopic to the cosmic. You could ask him any problem, and as long as he could calculate it he could give you an answer: no wonder that his colleagues called him the "Pope of Physics". It also helped that he lived through a century in which physics made momentous contributions to the human intellect and condition, and he was both fortunate and supremely qualified to be a major part of these contributions. As just one aspect of his extraordinary imprint on physics, no scientist has as many measurements, rules, laws, particles, statistics, units, and energy levels named after him as Fermi. He was also one of America's greatest immigrants.
This is a fine biography of Fermi written by a practicing physicist and a historian of science, both of whom had connections to Fermi through family. The authors document Fermi's upbringing in politically troubled Italy. Fermi was a child prodigy who combined great intellect with hard self-reliance and perseverance, qualities which were inculcated by his hardworking parents. A life-changing tragedy at age fifteen - the sudden death of his brother with whom he was best friends - turned him toward physics and mathematics. His performance as a seventeen year old in the entrance examination for a well-known university in Pisa displayed knowledge that would have been substantial for a graduate student. From then on his scientific development proceeded smoothly, and before he was 30 he was both Italy's greatest physicist as well as one of the world's greatest scientists.
The book lays out many of Fermi's major discoveries. Two in particular bracket his unsurpassed talents as both a theoretician and an experimentalist. In 1933 Fermi came up with a mathematical theory of radioactive decay and the weak nuclear force. And in 1942 he and his team assembled the world's first nuclear reactor. It is almost impossible to imagine any other scientist accomplishing these two very different and very important feats; the famed historian C. P. Snow paid Fermi the ultimate tribute in this regard when he said that, had Fermi been born twenty years before, he could have discovered both Niels Bohr's quantum theory of the atom (theory) and Ernest Rutherford's atomic nucleus (experiment). In the 1930s Fermi and his team became the world expert on neutrons; life in the physics institute on Via Panisperna in Rome was bucolic in spite of being intense. He almost single-handedly discovered the power of slow neutrons which are used to harness nuclear energy in reactors. He and other leading physicists also narrowly missed discovering nuclear fission, mistaking fission products for elements beyond uranium. Rome under his scientific tutelage became a magnet for scientists like Hans Bethe and Edward Teller who learnt the art of problem-solving in physics from the master. Fermi's marriage to a very intelligent and resourceful woman, Laura, cemented his family life. But the pall of fascism was dropping on Italy through the person of Benito Mussolini. Laura was Jewish, and by 1938 Fermi realized that he had to emigrate to another country. Fortunately the receipt of the 1938 Nobel Prize gave him the perfect opportunity to flee to the United States. Along with other brilliant scientists like Bethe, Albert Einstein, Leo Szilard and John von Neumann, Fermi became one of fascism's greatest gifts to this country.
In the United States Fermi was already known as the leading nuclear physicist of his generation. When nuclear fission was discovered in Germany at the end of 1938, there were legitimate fears that the Nazis would harness it to build an atomic bomb. Efforts to investigate fission in the US kicked into high gear, especially after Pearl Harbor. It was not surprising that the scientific community turned toward Fermi to assemble the world's first nuclear reactor. The book's account of this tremendous feat involving black graphite bricks and faces, the squash stand at the university and the sometimes amusing consequences of secrecy is worth reading. First at Columbia and then memorably at Chicago, Fermi and his team achieved the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction on December 6, 1942: a coded telegram went out to the leaders of the Manhattan Project saying that the "Italian navigator had landed in the New World". Even if he had accomplished nothing else this would have been sufficient to enshrine Fermi's name in history. But he kept on making major contributions, first at Chicago and then at Los Alamos. At Los Alamos Fermi's universal expertise was so valued that Oppenheimer created an entire division named after him (the F division). He became a kind of all-round troubleshooter who could solve any problem in theoretical or applied physics, or in engineering for that matter. He had an uncanny feel for numbers, and became known for posing and solving 'Fermi problems' which benefited from quick, back of the envelope, order-of-magnitude estimates. The iconic realization of the Fermi method was during the world's first atomic test in New Mexico on July 16, 1945, when, as the shockwave reached him, Fermi threw pieces of paper into the air and calculated the yield of the test based on the distance at which they fell. This calculation compared favorably with more sophisticated measurements that took several days to acquire.
After the war Fermi became a professor at Chicago where he again served as a magnet for the new generation of physicists exploring the frontiers of particle physics and cosmology. He was an incredibly clear and succinct teacher, and gave his students a true feel for the entire landscape of physics. Teaching was not just limited to classrooms but spilled over into the lunch cafeteria and on hikes. Physicists like Freeman Dyson and Richard Feynman made pilgrimages to see him from around the country, and six of his students received Nobel Prizes. Even after winning enough accolades for a lifetime, he worked harder and more diligently than anyone else. His colleagues joked that he was the man with an inside track to God, so all-encompassing were his scientific and computing abilities. His notes on thermodynamics, quantum mechanics and nuclear physics are still available and they attest to his clarity. At Chicago he not only made important contributions to experimental particle physics but he also made the first forays into computing. The so-called Monte-Carlo method which allows one to explore features of a system by making random jumps bears his imprint.
While not a very sentimental man, Fermi's friendliness, integrity, modesty and impartial, non-emotional attitude endeared him to almost everyone he came in contact with. He was friendly and had an impish sense of humor, but while not cold was also not a warm person who engaged intimately with those around him; this quality led to a family life which while not unhappy was also not particularly joyous, and his relative lack of affection was reflected in the brisk relationship that Fermi had with his daughter and son. He despised politics but still served on important government committees because of his feelings of duty toward his adopted country. Remarkably, his neutrality through some very politically fraught times was not detested, and he was one of the very few scientists who was admired by people who were each other's sworn enemies. While he opposed the hydrogen bomb on moral terms and testified on behalf of Oppenheimer during the latter's infamous hearing, he also served as a consultant to Los Alamos once he realized that the Russians might also get the bomb; characteristically enough, he correctly predicted how long it would take them to build their first thermonuclear weapon. People looked to him for impartial guidance in almost every matter which could benefit from rational introspection.
Art and music baffled Fermi, but his rational analysis of these things only endeared him more to his friends and colleagues. At an art exhibit on the immigrant experience for instance, he calculated the ratio of the lengths of legs and heights of the immigrants in the photos and concluded that his own dimensions fit the statistical distribution. At Los Alamos he quickly memorized the rules of square dancing and danced with unerring accuracy but almost zero passion. His modesty and tendency to shun the limelight was also a great draw. He could as easily chat with janitors as with other Nobel Laureates. No task was beneath him, and his great ability to perform routine work without complaints or fatigue was instrumental in his success: whatever it took to solve a problem, Fermi would do it. When flabbergasted scientists asked him how he did it, Fermi would often reply with a smile, "C.i.f, con intuito formidable" ("with formidable intuition"). Often his distinguishing quality was pure stamina; whether it was a tennis match or a physics problem, he would beat the problem (and his opponents) into submission by sheer perseverance and doggedness. His manner of playing sports mirrored his manner of doing science: shun the style and elegance, and go straight and relentlessly for the solution using every technique at your disposal. The method of approximate guesses which came to be named after him has been used to estimate a wide variety of disparate numbers, from the number of extraterrestrial civilizations in the galaxy to the number of piano tuners in Chicago (his favorite example).
This giant of science was struck down by cancer in 1954 when he was still in his prime. The book talks about visits made by various famous scientists and friends to the hospital where he was installed after exploratory surgery indicated no hope. They could not believe that the indefatigable Enrico would soon be no more. All came away shaken, not because they saw an emotionally fraught man in pain but because they saw a perfectly calm and rational man who had reconciled himself with reality. He knew exactly what was happening to him and was making plans for publishing his last set of notes. Characteristically, he was measuring the rate of saline intake and calculating how many calories he was getting from it. When he came home and his wife rented a hospital bed for him, he predicted that he would only need it until the end of the month. True to his amazing calculating prowess, he passed away two days before the predicted date, on November 28, 1954.
This book in general lays out a warm and engrossing picture of Enrico Fermi. As I see it, it is up against two challenges. Firstly, it's relatively sparse on the science and does not always provide adequate background. In this context it is a light read and comes across somewhat unfavorably compared to Richard Rhodes' seminal book "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" which goes into great depth regarding Fermi's work, especially on the Chicago nuclear reactor. Rhodes' volume is also better on giving us a detailed picture of Fermi's contemporaries. Secondly, it cannot resist comparison with two old Fermi biographies. His wife Laura's endearing biography of him named "Atoms in the Family", published only a few months before his death, provides as intimate a picture of the personally reticent Fermi as we can expect. This book's view understandably is not as intimate. The same goes for "Enrico Fermi: Physicist", a biography of Fermi written by his friend, fellow Nobel laureate and uncle of one of the present book's authors, Emilio Segre. Segre was a top-notch physicist who worked with Fermi from the beginning and who does much recreating the early days of Fermi's experiments in Rome. That description provides another personal touch which is again not as vivid in this volume.
Notwithstanding these comparisons, I am glad that Segre and Hoerlin wrote this book to introduce one of history's greatest and most unique scientists to a new generation. No scientist has contributed more practically and in a more versatile manner to modern physics. And few scientists have combined extraordinary and universal scientific talents with the kind of personal humility and decency that Fermi exemplified. For all this his life story needs to be known anew.
Born in 1901 in Italy Enrico Fermi was a withdrawn child, "dark and frail looking". The death of a brother when Fermi was a teenager caused him to withdraw into himself and books. He had several older mentors who recognized that he was a gifted mathematician and encouraged him. Soon science, and eventually physics, became his major interest. Fermi was a high school drop-out. But he impatiently pursued his passion for science at scientific institutions and study with older distinguished scientists, earning his doctorate in physics at 22 and at the age of 24 he became a professor at the University of Rome.The physics department was located at 89a Via Panisperna and he and the three young physicists who were his students called themselves The Boys of the Via Pernisperna and embarked on investigating what was then a new field, subatomic physics. They built the equipment they needed for their exploration with hardware store purchases and although the science was rigorous the atmosphere was lively. Each was given a nickname. Fermi was The Pope because he seemed infallible in his solutions to problems. His scientific instincts and intelligence fueled the rest of his career.
From this beginning Fermi's accomplishments were increasingly important to the new science and in 1939 he was awarded the Nobel Prize. By that time he was married to a Jewish woman, Laura Capon. It eventually became increasingly clear that Mussolini's Italy was not a safe place for his family. Like many of his fellow European physicists he emigrated to the United States, first to New York and then to Chicago and eventually to Los Alamos where he was a consultant to the developers of the atomic bomb.
When Enrico Fermi died Edward R. Murrow, the famous newscaster, said "The story of the lighting of the first atomic furnace will be told as long as stories can be listened to, for it was certainly one of the most dramatic moments in the unfolding of human knowledge." THE POPE OF PHYSICS, in telling that story, enlarges our knowledge of how the world was changed by the discoveries of Fermi and his fellow scientists. The science that readers need to understand is provided in a manner that is clear and accessible. This book should be of special interest to readers who have always lived in the post Hiroshima age because is not only a compelling biography of a complex, fascinating human being, it is the story of that period in our recent history that led to the world in which we live.
Segre and Hoerlin are uniquely qualified to tell this story. Emilio Segre, Gino's uncle was one of the Panisperna students. and the author's access to his papers and his family lends special weight to this book. Gino Segre is a professor of physics at the University of Pennsylvania and has written several books about the scientists who were Fermi's contemporaries. Bettina Hoerlin's father was a physicist at Los Alamos and her parents fled Hitler's Germany because her mother, like Laura Fermi, was Jewish. She has written a book about their experience.