While thousands worked on the Manhattan Project, it is doubtful that e = mc2 would have been translated into the atomic bomb without Enrico Fermi. 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, by husband and wife authors Gino Segrè and Bettina Hoerlin, does an excellent job of filling that gap.
Although Fermi didn’t discover nuclear fission, he arguably made the greatest contributions towards harnessing its power. The first nuclear chain reaction took place in December 1942, at the University of Chicago, under his direct supervision. Afterward, he was a leader in the development of the atomic bomb.
The main problem for any biographer of Fermi is the nature of his work, which depended upon complex mathematical models, an intuitive understanding of the workings of the atomic nucleus, and intricate experimentation. 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.
Segrè and Hoerlin both had family connections with Fermi: His uncle was one of Fermi’s closest colleagues, and her father worked with him on the Manhattan project. Together, they paint an affectionate and honest portrait of a man who was defined by his contradictions. Fermi, nicknamed “The Pope” for his infallibility, was both a theoretical and an experimental physicist, nearly a contradiction in terms. He was deeply apolitical, but politics nevertheless molded his life, from his increasingly uneasy relationship with Mussolini, which culminated in his arrival as a refugee to the United States, to his defense of Robert Oppenheimer during the McCarthy era. Unemotional, he inspired great love from his wife, friends and colleagues, and yet his own children suffered from his aloofness.
In all, this comprehensive and enjoyable biography is a valuable introduction to the life of Fermi.