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To Fermi ~ with Love – Part 4

Manhattan Project Locations:

The fourth and final part of the program details Fermi’s postwar work with the Institute of Nuclear Studies at the University of Chicago, and describes his outrage over the revocation of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s security clearance. Friends and colleagues recall his teaching style and boundless energy, and reflect on his character and personality. For his closest friends, his legacy extends beyond his remarkable scientific contributions. They remember his gift for teaching, simplicity, honesty, and lack of conceit. The program narrates the end of Fermi’s life, and concludes with an excerpt from his speech at the tenth anniversary of the operation of Chicago Pile-1.

Date of Interview:
September 12, 1971
Location of the Interview:


[Thanks to Ronald K. Smeltzer for donating the record “To Fermi with Love” to the Atomic Heritage Foundation.]

Narrator: Only thirty-one months had passed since Stagg Field. What followed the Trinity event is now history. Within forty-eight days of its demonstration near Alamogordo, the atomic bomb formally brought World War II to an abrupt end on September 2, 1945. It foreclosed the prospect of a long, bloody conflict. General [Leslie] Groves had never estimated the chance of success at more than sixty percent. Ironically, only six and a half years had elapsed since [Niels] Bohr’s arrival to America with the news of fission. John Wheeler characterizes the meaning of that eventful January day in 1939.

John Wheeler: It was truly an accident that fission should have come here. Driven here really in some ways by Hitler, yet we seized the opportunity. We did not let it fall; we carried the ball. We ran with it, and we did things that we never knew we had in our power to do. As a result, we have achieved a position of responsibility in the world that no nation has ever had before at any time in history.

Narrator: There was one fact that most Americans never realized. Following the defeat of the Nazis in Europe on May 8, 1945, Allied military plans had set November 1, 1945 as the date for the invasion of the Japanese mainland. Troop ships were being loaded with war-weary soldiers from the European Theater for combat in the Far East. Dr. Wheeler underscores the true meaning of the scientific success at Hanford and Los Alamos.

Wheeler: And we see here also something that to me means very much. The empty hospitals overseas prepared for the invasion of Japan that were never used tell only part of the story: the half million or more casualties that were expected on the American side, of course only a fraction of those that would have occurred all together. So this reactor means a great deal to me.

Narrator: The long, arduous years of scientific endeavor had come to an end. Success was never preordained. It was an endeavor performed in wartime, in secrecy, almost in isolation. It was the story of many sacrifices. The Manhattan Project was a symbiosis between American and European scientists, a display of gratitude to a country that had offered aliens asylum. Walter Zinn, a Canadian himself, recalled perhaps the one subtle advantage that ensured success of the project.

Walter Zinn:  The United States enterprise, however, had one asset which overbalanced all of the above, and that was Enrico Fermi. He guided the effort along the most direct path and, by his great intuition of physical matters, bypassed most of the false leads that nature puts in the way of any development.

Narrator: In the final analysis, the success of these six long years of concerted effort was directly related to people. People who had labored long and hard up the dark pathway behind them for a vision they could scarcely see. Walter Zinn and Crawford Greenewalt remember.

Zinn: I wish I knew the secret of getting such an organization going because I think it would be wonderful to do anything—build power reactors or even space flight and so on—if we really knew how to get it. But I do not think there was a formula for getting it. I think it was a matter of people and you do not find Arthur [Holly] Compton and Enrico Fermi in very many projects.

Crawford Greenewalt: But I think my own faith rested more on people than it did on experiments. I think that really my own feeling at the time was that you really ought to have faith in people. Now I had accumulated, in a very short period of time, unbounded faith in Enrico Fermi. 

Narrator: After four years of war work, Fermi and his family boarded still another train at Los Alamos on New Year’s Eve, thirty minutes before 1946. He was returning to Chicago, eventually to accept a professorship in the newly created Institute for Nuclear Studies at the University of Chicago. He had declined the directorship – again, a persistent reluctance to take on administrative responsibilities. Physics was the essence of his life. All he really wanted to do was to live in peace, to work, to teach. 

Herb Anderson: Fermi just loved to teach. He would always teach twice as much as anybody else, and do it twice as easily, with less preparation. He felt that it was an essential exercise, and he enjoyed the process of explaining things to people and making them clear. Here is a man that could give you answers when you needed them. You didn’t have to get them yourself.

Narrator: Fermi led a simple, frugal life. His sincerity and integrity were immersed in a sea of understatement. He never truly had outgrown a severe, industrious, middle-class upbringing.

Anderson: He was very regular in his habits. He used to leave promptly at six o’clock, no matter what happened. If something had to go on, he would leave it to me, and he would go home and have his dinner. Then in the evening, he never worked on physics. But he might get up at four in the morning, and he used to come to work at eight o’clock, but he had already been working three hours. So he had already figured out everything that had to be figured out. He was already very well prepared. 

Narrator: Home for the Fermi family was a large, three-story house at 5327 University Avenue. His lectures at the university were always crowded. The constellation of students who studied under Fermi was immense. As C.N. Yang once remarked, “His distillation, his simplicity of reasoning, conveyed the impression of effortlessness.”

Anderson: I think the impressive thing was that he was always very well prepared, and he always thought through everything that had to be done and any question that anybody might conceivably answer. Of course, he always knew the answer; he had already thought about it. He always knew, and it was always accurate. He never had to reverse himself. So it was natural that everybody came to see him. Everything he said would be very significant and reflect constructively on the work that they were doing.

Narrator: Fermi indeed worked hard, with an unbounded energy and physical stamina. He celebrated the sheer fact of being alive by physical exertion—by hiking, skiing, swimming.

Anderson: He certainly got a great deal of pleasure out of living and doing things. In a sense, this was very infectious. He loved to walk, to climb mountains, to swim. One thing we did in Chicago is every day, without fail during the summer, swim in Lake Michigan.

Narrator: Throughout his entire life, Fermi was eternally embarrassed by notoriety. He could never stand on ceremony. Eleven years after his hurried exodus from Italy, he finally returned to his homeland in 1949. Again, he was on the push, lecturing, discussing: a man on fire with ideas.

Anderson: He was one of the few physicists who were equally at home in theoretical and experimental physics. He could do theoretical physics or experimental physics, depending on the interest and the timing. So much so that when I came to the point of writing my thesis, he says, “You write your thesis,” – which I had to do myself – “and I’ll do theoretical physics.”

So he stopped doing all experimental work, and he started to do theoretical physics and wrote some important papers. Then when I was through with my thesis, he started to work in experimental physics again.

Narrator: His entire life was based upon an unstinting drive for simplicity. Perhaps it is the intuitive nature of all physicists to look for such simplicity and beauty. The path to his door was continually populated with a great number of visitors.

Anderson: So in his later years in Chicago, he almost never read anything. There was such a constant stream of physicists coming to see him. He would ask them what they were doing, and then he would tell them, try to explain it to them in his own way. They would learn so much from that. They would go away very much enlightened, and he would know what was going on. He hardly ever had to read anything. It took too long to read.

Narrator: Much of this narrative has been based upon the unsolicited memories of the people who were fortunate to have worked with Fermi. The ever-recurring Fermi trait: his straightforward honesty, integrity, and total non-conceit. Emilio Segrè crystalizes a lifetime of having known “the Pope.”

Emilio Segrè: Well, foremost of all, he was a physicist. See, that was really his main interest and the main driving force in his life. He was a very nice person, very helpful if you had some physics problem. He was very ready to help and so on in physics. Outside of physics, he was very just, but not a particularly warm personality.

Narrator: Upon his return to academic life in Chicago, Fermi again spent his summers lecturing. In 1949, he visited the University of Basel, eventually returning to his native homeland for the first time in eleven years. He attended a conference on cosmic rays in Como, Italy, delivered six lectures in Rome, three in Milan. Science was a way of life with its own rules, practices, and techniques to be learned and transmitted from generation to generation. He once expounded upon the scientific method himself.

Enrico Fermi: What is the future path? Well, one can go back to the books on method, which I doubt that many physicists actually do in practice. But anyway, if you go back to the book on methods, you will learn that you have to take experimental data, collect experimental data, organize experimental data, begin to make working hypothesis trying to correlate—maybe not the whole field, but part of the field—until eventually, a pattern springs to light, and you have just to pick up the results.

Narrator: Fermi was truly a child of Francis Bacon, who once remarked, “Science was not a belief to be held but a work to be done.” Fermi lifted the lantern of his intellect upon the scientific community. His performance took its breath away, altering the outlook of generations. The lightning flashes, the rare leaps of enlightenment—this was all Fermi, a man unique against the vast canvas of science. Leslie Groves put it rather succinctly.

General Leslie Groves: As to the scientific end of it, Fermi of course was outstanding. He just went along his even way, thinking of science and science only. 

Narrator: Science was a constant experimental investigation for Fermi, a learned response consciously practiced and stripped out of the sea of emotions and prejudices. His wide-ranging mind was a clear lens upon nature. Leona Woods Libby remembers.

Leona Woods Libby: We were working very closely with him. He was a marvelously wise director of scientific effort in the sense that he knew exactly where to be careful, and he could very frequently guess when it was unnecessary to make more accurate measurements. He had a very good sense of the degree of effort that would give the required result without wasting it.

Narrator: In the post war years at Chicago, Fermi turned his energies more and more to high-energy physics. When the Chicago synchrocyclotron produced its first beam in 1951, he began investigating pion-nucleon interaction. During this time, he wrote many important papers, including one on the conservation of isotopic spin.

In early 1954, Fermi’s professional ire was aroused by the security risk investigations of his long-time colleague Robert Oppenheimer. Fermi compassionately testified on Oppenheimer’s behalf before the Personnel Security Board on April 20, 1954. Despite his objective testimony, the Atomic Energy Commissioners declared Oppenheimer to be a security risk by a vote of four to one. Fermi was beside himself, so much so that he called the only press conference of his life to publicly denounce the decision.

Tired, depressed by the witch-hunting tactics of government, Fermi spent the summer of 1954 in Southern France and Italy. He was lecturing as a guest of the Italian Physical Society. It proved to be the last summer of his life. Shortly after his return to America, he entered Billings Hospital complaining of severe stomach pains. An examination turned up a malignant tumor. Last-minute surgery merely confirmed that the end was near. It would be a sad loss to those who had come to admire him.

Wheeler: Many friendships were formed during that transition period and afterwards. I remember particularly my own with Enrico Fermi, and I think when we finally parted company, we parted as really good friends, with a considerable amount of mutual respect and perhaps even affection. I might add, somewhat parenthetically, that Enrico Fermi paid me what I consider to be the highest compliment I think I have ever had, when he asked me to stay on at Chicago and work with him on nuclear problems.

Narrator: Despite knowledge of the impending end, Fermi’s spirits remained buoyant. He resolutely received friends and visitors in the hospital. When his old colleague Emilio Segrè heard the news, he quickly went to Chicago. As he entered the hospital room, there, in typical fashion, was Fermi with a stopwatch in his hand, timing and counting the drops of IV nutrient to determine its flux.

He was released from the hospital shortly thereafter, and died on Sunday morning, November 29, 1954, two months following his fifty-third birthday. It was a sad, untimely departure for so great a man. Fermi had hurried through life, a man without inertia. The elegance of his thought and perception opened the minds of many others. He had apprehended the future with a revived humanism characterized by what Thoreau had once written. “If you would learn the secret of nature, you must practice more humanity than others.”

This essay cannot possibly capture the essence of the Fermi legacy. It is steeped in the same scientific tradition that took hold of Hahn and Strassmann in their Berlin laboratory, that same innate clairvoyance that touched Meitner and Frisch on that snowy December day in Sweden, and the same knowing insight that Bohr carried across the Atlantic to the perceptive minds of Wheeler and Fermi. It is perhaps fitting that we return to the starting point of this treatise: the tenth anniversary celebration between the west stands of Stagg Field. Before a small knot of interested colleagues stands the solitary figure of the Italian navigator Enrico Fermi.

Enrico Fermi: It has been in science a tradition that has led to the unprecedented flourishing of this human activity to communicate freely among scientists all over the world. Scientific thinking and invention flourish best where people are allowed to communicate as much as possible unhampered. From this point of view, complete secrecy would probably mean complete lack of progress because no fact can be kept a secret better than one that is never discovered. I would like to end these remarks by expressing the great pleasure that I feel in seeing, here united, several of the people with whom I had the pleasure to work ten years ago, at the task of making a success of the experiment that is being commemorated today.

Argonne National Laboratory