He was yet to receive the Nobel Prize in Physics. Physicist Enrico Fermi (September 29, 1901 – November 28, 1954) was in Lugano, Switzerland in 1938. He was writing a letter to one of his American colleagues. The letter was very important, as he arrived in Lugano from Rome only to write that letter because the situation was different in Italy. Unlike Italy, there was no government censor in Switzerland at that time. It was risky for Fermi to send the letter from Italy due to the political scenario in his country.
Fermi – who discovered nuclear fission leading to the atomic bomb – urged his colleague in the US to accept him for a research position in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He clearly mentioned in his letter that the anti-Semitism in Benito Mussolini’s Italy created a threatening atmosphere for his Jewish wife Laura Capon (1907-1977) and their children. He further wrote that he was ready to wait a few more days in Italy.
The Nobel laureate was right…..the situation in Italy was changing rapidly in the 1930s. Fermi – the creator of the world’s first nuclear reactor – received the Nobel Prize on July 14, 1938 for his work on induced radioactivity by neutron bombardment and the discovery of transuranic elements. Within a few days, the Fascist ‘Manifesto of Race’ was published. Like the Nazis in Germany, the Italian fascists said in their manifesto that Italians had ‘authentic Aryan’ blood, but the Jewish people were not like them. Later, Rome passed an anti-Jewish law, targeting mainly the minority community.
Fermi realised that Italy was no more a safe place for his family. It was unfortunate that a scientist, like Fermi, had to leave his country. Fermi was appointed Professor of the Department of Theoretical Physics at Rome University in 1927-28. A couple of years later, then Prime Minister Mussolini made him a member of the Royal Academy of Italy. Fermi also received the ‘Excellence’ title, an excellent pay package and a uniform.
In the 1930s, Fermi concentrated on his research work and bagged the Nobel Prize. He married Laura, a science student at the Rome University, on July 19, 1928 and later became the father of two – Nella (b. 1931) and Giulio (b. 1936).
In her publication – ‘Atoms in the Family: My Life with Enrico Fermi’ (p. 1954), Laura revealed the actual character of her physicist husband. Laura wrote that she met Fermi for the first time on a Sunday in 1924. On that memorable Sunday, she was scheduled to meet her friends at a particular place in Rome. Upon her arrival there, the 16-year-old Laura discovered a 22-year-old man – wearing a black suit and a black cap – was waiting for her, along with her friends. Her friends introduced the man to her, saying that he was the genius who became a faculty of the Florence University at that age. Later, Laura came to know that Fermi lost his mother a couple of days ago.
Laura met Fermi again in 1926. She and her family had to cancel their trip to France because of Mussolini’s currency control policy. As Italy was facing a forex crisis, Laura decided to spend holidays in Santa Cristina. While in Santa Cristina, she came to know that Fermi was all set to join the Department of Theoretical Physics at Rome University as a professor after spending some time at Florence University. Laura, the student of Rome University at that time, told her friends that she was eagerly waiting for Fermi’s arrival in the Italian capital.
Quickly, Laura realised that her ‘friend’ was very passionate about physical activities. “‘We must get into shape fast. Tomorrow we shall take a short walk, and the day after a long 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,” wrote Laura. (pg 7, First Encounters, Atoms in the Family) “‘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!’ he said.’,” added Laura. Fermi was just like that. She explained: “It was always thus: Fermi would propose, and the others would follow, relinquishing their wills to him.”
Laura & Enrico Fermi
Fermi was an amazing person in the true sense. He had never wanted to mix science with politics. As a faculty of Columbia University, he became a member of the Manhattan Project – a research and development undertaking during the WWII that produced the first nuclear weapons. In New York, he recreated many of his experiments with noted Danish-born physicist Niels Bohr and suggested the possibility of a nuclear chain reaction. Fermi and others predicted the possibility of military applications of such an explosive power and sent a letter to then President Franklin D Roosevelt, warning him of the perils of a German atomic bomb. The ‘humanitarian’ physicist was also against the creation of hydrogen bombs. Although he joined the project of making the ‘super bomb’, it was due to his love for scientific research. He had never wanted to kill innocent people.
That’s why he did not bow down to the fascist power even after receiving a special treatment from the Mussolini government in Italy. He joined the Fascist Party in 1929 only to get some extra stipend that he could use in research works. Fermi strongly criticised the Italian government for introducing the anti-Jewish law. He opposed the law not because his wife was a Jewish, but it created trouble for many of his Jewish colleagues. Fermi rightly anticipated the ‘future’. He was a great scientist, but his identity was not enough to save his wife in Italy. The Nobel Committee created an opportunity for Fermi to leave his native country. After receiving the Nobel Prize in Stockholm, he left for America and became an American citizen.
Indeed, Fermi was a visionary person and the miserable condition of Laura’s parents in Italy was a proof of that. Fermi advised his father-in-law Augusto Capon to leave Italy. However, Augusto decided to stay in the country as he believed that being an Italian Navy officer, he could survive in his homeland.
Unfortunately, the concentration camp in Auschwitz did not respect his believe…
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