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Thursday, April 01, 2021

Review: The Pope of Physics - Enrico Fermi and the Birth of the Atomic Age

 I picked up The Pope of Physics as an audio book when it was on sale.  One of the classic interview question types during technical interview is the Fermi estimation problem. But other than that, I realized I didn't know very much about Fermi, so a biography would be well worth reading.

This biography of Fermi turned out to be educational in more ways than just learning about his contribution to physics and how Fermions were named after him. Not only did it cover the rise of physics from being a backwater of intellectual progress (there were more professorships of Math in Italy than there were professors of Physics) to the forefront of war, it also covered the way the rise of fascism in Italy was ignored by high social ranking families who thought they were immune. Fermi's wife, Laura Capon was Jewish, and her father was a (retired) admiral in the Italian Navy and a war hero. Because they thought they were protected, they were complacent about the semitism that was on the rise in Italy at the time. By the time Fermi realized he had to flee, it was almost too late --- he eventually used the Nobel prize ceremony (he won one in 1938) as an excuse for him and his family to visit Stockholm and London and then ran away to the United States. The lesson I take from this is that if you're not a Nobel prize winning physicist and the country you live in is about to turn fascist (and you're not a member of the ruling party), you absolutely cannot wait until the last minute to take precautions and plan to escape.

One would think that after that intrusion of politics into Fermi's personal life would make him more of a political activist, but Fermi truly was a physicists' physicist, happy to make statements about how physicists don't have any special insight about how atomic bombs should or should not be used. In fact, when the hydrogen bomb was initially proposed by Teller, Fermi voted against pursuing it because he and others spotted flaws in the proposed implementation. When a revised implementation plan was proposed, he was so taken by the technical implications that he happily joined in against the effort!

All in all, the book does a great job in providing the context behind an amazing thinker (including many examples of how he was at the same time a theoretical physicist, an experimental physicist, and a teacher --- all of which he did well), as well as a good idea of what it took for him to do this --- his children grew up estranged from him, as he spent more time with his students and experiments than with his children.

Well worth the time. Recommended.

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