The Life and Times of the "Pope of Physics"

Oct 31, 2016

A new book brings to life the story of physicist Enrico Fermi.
Credit Macmillan Publishing

Enrico Fermi is a household name in Italy, revered as the greatest Italian scientist of the modern age. But on this side of the Atlantic, he’s less well-known despite having changed the course of history with his work on the Manhattan Project and other atomic-age advances.

Husband-and-wife team Gino Segrè and Bettina Hoerlin have brought Enrico Fermi’s life and times to a wider audience with their new book, The Pope of Physics: Enrico Fermi and the Birth of the Atomic Age. Fermi was known as the “Pope” among his co-workers because they regarded his instincts and research “infallible.”

Fermi fled Europe with his Jewish wife as fascism swept over Italy under Benito Mussolini. That is the backdrop for the story of how this mild, unassuming, and profoundly creative man made discoveries in cosmic rays, nuclear technology, and early computers.

As a key scientist for the Manhattan Project, Fermi has been called the "architect of the nuclear age" and the "architect of the atomic bomb."

“He was fascinated by the science of it, author Gino Segrè told WCAI. “Could it be done? Could the chain reaction be harnessed for a bomb?”

Segrè says Fermi was never terribly interested in the moral questions that were raised by nuclear weapons.

“We was legendarily apolitical,” co-author Bettina Hoerlin told WCAI. “Physics was something he knew about. Politics was not.”

Ultimately, Fermi did have to wade into politics when he was appointed to a panel of physicists who were asked to weigh in on the question of whether dropping the bomb on people was the only way to end World War II.

“The scientists found that there was no acceptable alternative,” to dropping the nuclear bomb on a city, Hoerlin said. “At the same time they stipulated that they had no special competence to make that finding." 

Segrè and Hoerlin's new book gives readers a look into complicated times of Enrico Fermi and how this history-changing scientist answered for himself the questions of the atomic age.

"Part of his legacy, I would like to think, is that we all need to reflect on how to deal with the rapid changes in technology, how they affect the world we live in," Segrè said.