Atoms in the Family: My Life with Enrico Fermi / Edition 2

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In this absorbing account of life with the great atomic scientist Enrico Fermi, Laura Fermi tells the story of their emigration to the United States in the 1930s—part of the widespread movement of scientists from Europe to the New World that was so important to the development of the first atomic bomb. Combining intellectual biography and social history, Laura Fermi traces her husband's career from his childhood, when he taught himself physics, through his rise in the Italian university system concurrent with the rise of fascism, to his receipt of the Nobel Prize, which offered a perfect opportunity to flee the country without arousing official suspicion, and his odyssey to the United States.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Times - Ralph E. Lapp
“If Laura Fermi is short on domestic candor, she makes up for it in excellent science-chronicling. Her accounts of Fermi’s critical experiments in Italy will delight the lay reader without horrifying the pure scientist.”
New York Times
“Damn original, these Fermis.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226243672
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 6/15/1995
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 277
  • Sales rank: 635,307
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Laura Fermi (1907-77) also wrote Atoms for the World, Mussolini, and Illustrious Immigrants: The Intellectual Migration from Europe, 1930-1941.

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Read an Excerpt

Atoms in the Family

My Life with Enrico Fermi

By Laura Fermi

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1954 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-24367-2



On a spring Sunday in 1924 a group of friends asked me to join them for a walk, and we met at a certain streetcar stop on a certain street of Rome. Along with my friends came a short-legged young man in a black suit and a black felt hat, with rounded shoulders and neck craned forward. In Italy a black suit means mourning for a close relative, and I learned later that his mother had recently died. His hair was also black and thick, his complexion dark. In introducing him, my friends tried to impress me:

"He is a promising physicist, already teaching at the university, although he is only twenty-two."

To me this explained the young man's posture and queer appearance; but twenty-two seemed pretty old and time enough for achievement: I was sixteen.

He shook hands and gave me a friendly grin. You could call it nothing but a grin, for his lips were exceedingly thin and fleshless, and among his upper teeth a baby tooth lingered on, conspicuous in its incongruity. But his eyes were cheerful and amused; very close together, they left room only for a narrow nose, and they were gray-blue, despite his dark complexion.

"We want to be in the open, not among houses," my friends said.

The countryside around Rome is beautiful and easy to reach. One may go west on the electric train to the deep-blue Tyrrhenian sea and its burning sands; or south on the outmoded Vicinali railroad to the numerous towns perched on the hills around Rome. One may simply ride a streetcar or a bus to the end of its route and soon find one's self in a little vale where a brook murmurs in the shade of oaks and beeches; or on an ancient Roman road flanked by sun-baked ruins and umbrella pines; or on the top of a rocky hill, in the cool peace of an old monastery, half-hidden among dark cypresses.

We rode a streetcar on that Sunday afternoon, and a short walk from its terminal took us to a large green meadow near the confluence of the Aniene River with the Tiber, a zone that is now entirely built up with crowded apartment houses. Naturally, as if it were his role, the young physicist took the lead, marching ahead of the group, his neck craned forward, his head apparently more anxious to reach places than his feet.

"We'll play soccer," he stated.

I had never played soccer in my life and I was no tomboy, but he had spoken. There was no opening left for argument, and no opportunity for complaint.

The game must have been planned before, for my friends produced a deflated soccer ball, which was soon filled, with everybody's mouth helping in turn to blow it up. We divided into two teams, and I was in that led by the young man with the black suit.

"What am I to do?" I asked discouragedly.

"You shall be goalkeeper; it is the easiest task. Just try to catch the ball when it goes through the goal. If you miss it, don't worry; we shall win the game for you." The young man's attitude toward me was protective.

There was an easy self-reliance in him, spontaneous and without conceit. Luck, however, was against him: at the height of the game the sole of one of his shoes came loose and dangled from the heel. It hampered his running, made him stumble and fall on the grass. The ball zoomed above his fallen body and sped toward the goal. It was up to me to save the day: while I was observing our leader's predicament with more amusement than pity, the ball hit me in the chest. Stunned I wavered, almost fell, recovered my balance. The ball bounced back into the field and victory was ours.

Our leader pulled out of his pocket a large handkerchief, wiped off the perspiration that streamed down profusely from the roots of his hair over his face, then sat down and tied his loose sole with a piece of string.

That was the first afternoon I spent with Enrico Fermi and the only instance in which I did better than he.

After that first afternoon I did not see Fermi for over two years, until we met again in the summer of 1926. Our second encounter was due to Mussolini.

My family had planned to spend the summer in Chamonix, a resort in the French Alps, on the slopes of Mont Blanc. Consideration of the advantageous rate of exchange had induced my parents to take the momentous decision of going to a foreign country. Our passports had been secured without much difficulty, because my father, an officer in the Italian navy, had been able to pull a few strings. Hotel reservations were made, and we were ready to pack. Then my father came home with the news that no foreign currency was available on the Italian market and that very recent restrictions would prevent us from taking lire to France. Il Duce was quietly preparing his financial policy, the "battle for the lira," which he officially announced a month later, in August, 1926, when he gave his well-known speech at Pesaro. This sudden closing of the frontiers to the nonessential flow of money was the first step toward the strict monetary controls that kept the lira at an artificially high value throughout Fascist times, creating an economy which required more and more regulations and increasingly tighter controls.

When my father brought home word of these first restrictions, he was unable to explain them, and we could not understand Mussolini's reasons for not letting us spend a summer in Chamonix. But my father allowed no criticism: in the navy he had been trained to consider authority necessary for the smooth functioning of human society and to respond to authority with discipline and obedience. The period of unrest after the first World War had caused great concern to him: public demonstrations against the government, strikes, seizure of factories, threats of communism, were against the principles under which he had been raised and by which he lived. Mussolini was to him the strong leader whom Italy needed if order and moral rectitude were to be restored. My father never doubted that, once the Duce had achieved this aim, he would gradually revert to a more democratic form of government.

When we children started to grumble over our upset plans, my father put a stop to our recriminations:

"Il Duce knows what he is doing. It is not for us to judge his actions. There are numberless resorts in Italy as good as Chamonix or even better. We'll go somewhere else, that's all."

In Italian families of that time decisions were made by parents alone. A girl who had just become nineteen had little chance to voice her opinions; so it was in a shy and subdued tone that I advanced a suggestion:

"Why don't we go to Val Gardena? The Castelnuovos will be there...."

Professor Guido Castelnuovo was a mathematician with many children, some of them my friends, the same who had been in the group playing soccer two years before. Wherever the Castle-nuovos went, a number of other families were sure to follow.

My parents looked at each other and smiled. They must have seen in a flash that most picturesque valley of the Dolomites, which climbs up to the massive rocks of the Sella group and widens here and there into a sunny basin cradling a little village with its red roofs and aerial church steeple.

"Do you still remember the delightful summer we spent in Selva?" my father asked my mother in that faintly nostalgic mood that accompanies pleasant recollections. I knew at once I had sold my idea.

"We could go there again," my mother said, "or, even better, we could go to Santa Cristina. It's in a prettier spot and offers a better choice of hotels."

By the middle of July we arrived in Santa Cristina. The Castelnuovos were staying in the village right below, and I went to see them. Gina, the closest to me in age, was full of expectations for the summer.

"We are going to have lots of fun. So many people will come here. Even Fermi has written my mother asking her to find a room for him."

"Fermi?" I queried, "Fermi? ... The name sounds familiar...."

"You must know him, I am sure. He is a brilliant young physicist; the hope of Italian physics, as my father says."

"Oh yes! I remember him now: he is the queer guy who made me play soccer. I had entirely forgotten his existence. Where has he been hiding himself all this time?"

"He was in Florence, teaching at the university there. But in the fall he will come to Rome."

"To Rome? What's he going to teach?" I was then a student in general science at the University of Rome and was required to take, among others, courses in physics and mathematics.

"The faculty of science has established a new chair ad hoc for Fermi: theoretical physics. I think that Corbino, the director of the physics laboratory, had a great deal to do with calling him to Rome. Corbino holds him in very high esteem and says that of men like Fermi only one or two are born each century."

"This is certainly an exaggeration," I interrupted. The young physicist had made no impression on me. Among my school friends there were boys who seemed more brilliant and promising to me. "Anyway, theoretical physics is not a subject that I am going to take, so Fermi will not be my teacher. What's he like as a friend?"

"Grand! My father and the other mathematicians would like to talk shop with him, but he runs away as soon as he can and comes to us. He enjoys games and hikes and is very good at planning excursions. Besides, my mother trusts him and lets me go anywhere if he is along."

Soon I was to learn by personal experience that Fermi was fond of physical exercise.

"We must get into shape fast. Tomorrow we shall take a short walk, and the day after a longer one. Then we shall start climbing mountains," he stated as he made his appearance in Val Gardena. In knickerbockers and short Tyrolean jacket, he looked more natural and less queer than the first time I had seen him.

"Where shall we go?" Cornelia asked. She was a sturdy woman, the sister-in-law of a mathematician friend of the Castelnuovos, Professor Levi-Civita. She was bubbling with energy and anxious to be on the go.

Fermi was already bending over a map.

"We can hike in Valle Lunga ["Long Valley"] up to its top."

"How long a hike is it?" Gina asked.

Fermi put his thick thumb on the map and moved it up several times to cover the distance between the bottom and top of the valley. Fermi's thumb was his always ready yardstick. By placing it near his left eye and closing the right, he would measure the distance of a range of mountains, the height of a tree, even the speed at which a bird was flying. Now he mumbled some figures to himself, then answered Gina's question.

"Not very long. About six miles each way."

"six miles! Isn't it too much for the young children who want to come along?" Cornelia asked. Our group, the Castelnuovos with their cousins and various friends, included youngsters of all ages: the predominance of family friendships over those made in school helped to avoid the separation into age groups prevalent in the United States.

Fermi turned to Cornelia with mock sternness:

"Our new generations must grow strong and enduring, not sissy. Children can walk this much and more. Let's not encourage them to be lazy!"

No more objections were raised. It was always thus: Fermi would propose, and the others would follow, relinquishing their wills to him.

He was not twenty-five years old, but he had already the earnest look of the scholar and the assurance of the man used to exerting an ascendancy through teaching and advising young people. At first sight he gained my mother's confidence, and I, too, like Gina, was allowed to go on excursions planned by him. My parents never questioned his judgment, the length of the hike, or the difficulty of the climb. They only insisted that my young brother or one of my two sisters go along, because decorum was the foremost of their concerns.

We would leave at dawn, carrying our knapsacks on our shoulders. Fermi's was always the bulkiest and heaviest of all: he stuffed it with the lunch and sweaters of any child who went with us and, during a steep climb, also with the pack of any girl who seemed to be tired. He took pride in the size of his sack, which bent his broad shoulders at the slant of the hill; but, forgetful of the large bulge on his back, he would wag it right and left, hitting whomever he was trying to pass at the moment. Fermi was passing people frequently: whenever the trail became steep, he deemed it his duty to run to the head of the line of hikers and assume the role of mountain guide:

"Copy my steps if you want to save yourselves some trouble."

Many would lag behind.

Every half-hour, or so, Fermi would stop, sit on a rock, and announce:

"Three minutes' rest."

By the time all the others had reached him, Fermi would be on his feet again.

"We are all rested. Let's go."

Nobody dared protest. But once Cornelia, who, being a little older than the rest of us, was less restrained, turned to him and asked:

"Are you never out of breath? Does your heart never jump in your throat?"

"No," Fermi answered with his most modest grin, "my heart must have been custom-made; it is so much more resistant than anybody else's."

When approaching the end of our climb, Fermi would pass any of us who happened to be ahead of him, for he could not possibly allow anybody to beat him and reach the top before he did. On his short legs he jumped from rock to rock, wagging his knapsack against us, until he had everybody behind.

Filled with the joy of the conquered height, relaxed now that the climb was over, we always spent some time on the top. From that high the view of the Dolomites always appeared fantastic, with improbable shapes of towers and pinnacles, the distant glaciers, the close-by perennial snows. The elation experienced on top of a mountain is unique and always new. There is a moment of reverent silence, a subconscious identification of the individual with nature and divinity, an instant of pantheistic worship. Then comes the merriment, the excited chatter, the exchange of impressions, the singing of mountain songs. And the regret at having to climb down.

At lunch time we used to look for a soft meadow, the shade of a tree, and a brook from which to draw the crystal-clear water. After eating, we would lie on the grass and perhaps doze. Fermi would suddenly call to us:

"See that bird there?"


"On the top branch of that big tree high on the hill. Perhaps you mistake it for a leaf at this distance."

Nobody could see the bird.

"My eyes must have been custom-made; they see so much farther than anyone else's." Fermi was apologetic, as if begging forgiveness of his friends who had to be satisfied with mass-produced eyes.

All parts of his body were custom-made and better than other persons': his legs were less easily tired, his muscles more resilient, his lungs more capacious, his nervous system steadier, and his reactions more accurate and prompt.

"What about your brains?" Gina asked him once in a teasing mood. "Were they also custom-made?"

On this point, however, Fermi had nothing to say. He had no interest in his intellectual powers. They were a gift from nature over which he had less control and in which he took less pride than in his physical abilities. But to intelligence in general he gave much thought. Although he often claimed that intelligence is an indefinable entity, made up of many factors that are not easy to evaluate, still one of his favorite pastimes during that summer was to classify people according to their intelligence. Fermi's love for classification was inborn, and I have heard him "arrange people" according to their height, looks, wealth, or even sex appeal. But that summer he limited his classifications to the intellectual powers.

"People can be grouped into four classes," Fermi said: "Class one is made of persons with lower-than-average intelligence; in class two are all average persons, who, of course, appear stupid to us because we are a selected group and used to high standards. In class three there are the intelligent persons and in class four only those with exceptional intellectual faculties."

This was too good a chance of teasing Fermi to let it go.

"You mean to say," I commented, assuming the most serious expression I could manage, "that in class four there is one person only, Enrico Fermi."

"You are being mean to me, Miss Capon. You know very well that I place many people in class four," Fermi retorted with apparent resentment; then he added on second thought: "I couldn't place myself in class three. It wouldn't be fair."

I did not give up but went on nagging at him. By way of protest he ended by saying:

"Class four is not so exclusive as you make it. You also belong in it."

He might have been sincere at the time, but later he must have demoted me to class three. Be that as it may, I have always liked to have the last word in any argument, and so I said with finality:

"If I am in class four, then there must be a class five in which you and you alone belong." To everyone except to Fermi, my definition became a dogma.



Next fall Fermi settled in Rome for good. He went to live with his father Alberto and his sister Maria in a small house in Città Giardino.

Città Giardino, or "Garden City," would be termed here a government-subsidized housing project for medium-income government employees. It was built between 1920 and 1925 on an area a few miles northeast of Rome. At that time it consisted exclusively of small, one-family homes surrounded by gardens. Tenants paid a moderate rent and became owners in twenty-five years.

The northern edge of Città Giardino was reserved for railroad employees. Fermi's father, who was one of them, obtained a house in that section and moved into it with his daughter in the fall of 1925. Both Fermi's parents had looked forward to their new home, but Mrs. Fermi never saw it finished, for she had died in the spring of 1924, and Mr. Fermi enjoyed it but a short time, until 1927, when he, too, passed away.


Excerpted from Atoms in the Family by Laura Fermi. Copyright © 1954 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Part I: Italy
1. First Encounters
2. The Times before We Met
3. The Times before We Met—Continued
4. Birth of a School
5. Bébé Peugeot
6. Early Married Years
7. Mr. North and the Academies
8. A Summer in Ann Arbor
9. Work
10. South American Interlude
11. An Accidental Discovery
12. How Not To Raise Children
13. November 10, 1938
14. Departure
Part II: America
15. The Process of Americanization
16. Some Shapes of Things To Come
17. An Enemy Alien Works for Uncle Sam
18. Of Secrecy and the Pile
19. Success
20. Site Y
21. A Bodyguard and a Few Friends
22. Life on the Mesa
23. The War Ends
24. Exit Pontcorvo
25. A New Toy: The Giant Cyclotron

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