Fermium, fermions and the Fermi Paradox

The Pope of Physics; Enrico Fermi and the Birth of the Atomic Age, by Gino Segre and Bettina Hoerlin

The title of this book pretty much sums it up. It is the story of the life of famed Italian physicist Enrico Fermi by two people who obviously admired him greatly, and also about the discovery of fission and subsequent development of the Atomic Bomb. It even throws in a bit about the Hydrogen fusion “Super” bomb for good measure (it’s worth mentioning that, while Fermi was instrumental in the creation of the A-bomb, it was actually Edward Teller who was the force behind the H-bomb. Teller was, IMO, a semi-maniacal physicist with little regard for the potential human consequences of his actions. He was also alleged to be the inspiration for the Dr. Strangelove character in the movie of the same name. Frankly, for me it adds up.)

If you want to know all about Fermi the man, this is definitely the book for you. In that respect, I had a few criticisms, beyond wishing there was more detail about the physics and less about his family vacations in the Dolomites. Most significantly, the group of young physics students that studied together in Rome were called The Boys of Via Panisperna, or just The Boys. There was nothing really wrong with mentioning this in the book, since it was true, but by the time the author had referred to this group as The Boys for the 25th or 30th time, it started to get a little irritating. FYI, if any girls are out there reading this book, remember you, too, can be a physicist! Just this year, Donna Strickland won the Nobel Prize in physics and she is not “A Boy”. I’m sorry, but this is important.

As I said, I would have preferred a book that focused more on the science of what Fermi did during his career. He built something called Critical Pile 1 (CP-1) in the squash courts at the University of Chicago in order to prove he could cause a nuclear chain reaction, which he controlled using neutron-absorbing rods – basically, in basic English, he built a nuclear reactor in the center of Chicago.

Also worth writing about in more detail was conducting some fascinating early work on radioactivity that won him the Nobel Prize, theorizing the existence of the neutrino, and describing what became known as the weak interaction (one of the 4 fundamental forces of nature). After Fermi wrote a paper explaining their behaviour, particles that obey the “Pauli exclusion principle” came to be called Fermions. (If you’re interested, the exclusion principle states that two or more particles with half-integer spin cannot occupy the same quantum state. Clear as mud, right?) His name is also given to Fermium (Fm), element 100 on the periodic table of elements.

Perhaps my favourite namesake of his is the Fermi Paradox, which attempts to understand a surprising lack of evidence of alien life. After estimating the number of stars in the universe, the number of planets around them with liquid water, and the number of those planets that would have evolved life similar to our own, Fermi asked his fellow physicists “Where is everybody”? Given the massive number of stars in the universe, even if the probabilities of planets and life are small, you would still be left with an extremely large number of civilizations, which does raise the question of why we haven’t detected any.

<Nerdy math digression> There are 70 sextillion (7×1022) stars in the universe (yes, “sextillion”. That’s a thing. So is a planet named Uranus. Now just shush up about it.) If you very conservatively assume that 1 in a million star systems contains an earth-like planet and another 1 in a million have evolved intelligent life, you are still left with an impressive 70 billion civilizations across the universe. It’s a fair question to wonder where the heck everybody is!

For a fantastically entertaining and informative explanation of the Fermi Paradox, check out this blog post: https://waitbutwhy.com/2014/05/fermi-paradox.html.

Rating: If you have a collection of books that touch on the lives of famous physicists, as I do, then buy it. If you are a proud Italian who wants to know about your country’s contributions to quantum physics, then borrow it. If you’re someone who thinks astrology is the study of planets, maybe give this one a pass.



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