Some biographies of Enrico Fermi

Impressions of some biographies of the Italian scientist Enrico Fermi

Publication note: This page was originally published on Substack, but I've moved it on to this web site.

I started reading about Enrico Fermi for tangential reasons. My mother was friends with Enrico Fermi’s daughter-in-law, Sarah Fermi, and we quite often visited the family even though they lived in Cambridge and we lived in Bristol. I was a little bit curious about Enrico Fermi and his relationship with his son, Sarah’s husband Judd. My mother died in 1988, but the last time I saw Sarah and Judd Fermi was in 1996, when I was living in Cambridge. Unfortunately although Judd appeared to be in good health when I met him, he suddenly died a few weeks after that.

Sarah had bought a plate rack from me which my father had got me to construct, but then refused to sell in his shop (Kitchens Catering Utensils), due to my inadequate joinery, and the rather poorly-made plate rack was actually still hanging on Sarah’s wall at the time we visited.

Atoms in the family

“Atoms in the Family” by his wife Laura Fermi covers his life up to 1953. It was written and published during Fermi’s lifetime.

The book is available to read online at Reading the whole book requires a registration.

Apparently Fermi did not like mowing the lawn.

The Pope of Physics

“The Pope of Physics” by Gino Segre and Bettina Hoerlin

Published in 2016

The title alludes to Fermi’s nickname “The Pope” given to him by Italian colleagues.

The book goes far beyond “Atoms in the Family”. I learnt some things I didn’t know about Fermi, such as that his quantum field theory paper was considered seminal by people like Feynman, or that he was the person who first came up with a theory of beta decay. I had thought that he was the person who proposed the neutrino, but apparently that was Pauli, not Fermi.

Fermi also came up with his own workings for general relativity when only nineteen years old, and initially learnt physics studying by candlelight.

Unfortunately it focuses too much on the atomic bomb part of Fermi’s career, going into far too many details which don’t involve Fermi, and gets quite boring.

The Last Man Who Knew Everything

“The Last Man Who Knew Everything” by David N. Schwartz

Published in 2017

A lot of this book consists of paraphrasing of “Atoms in the Family”. The date of death of Judd Fermi is wrong, it gives 1995 but he died in 1996. This book mentions that Judd had attempted suicide as a teenager, and that he died of a heart attack. It says that he was a heavy smoker, although I don’t remember seeing him smoke at all.

More references

There are some more books on this page by Olivia Fermi, a descendant of Enrico Fermi on another branch of the family from my mother’s friend Sarah.

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