Sept. 20, 2001
Vol. 21 No. 1

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    Post office will issue Enrico Fermi postage stamp during day of celebration Sept. 29

    By Steve Koppes
    News Office

    Enrico Fermi

    The U.S. Postal Service will honor Chicago physicist Enrico Fermi by issuing a new 34-cent stamp in his honor on Saturday, Sept. 29, the centennial of his birth. The Postal Service and the University will commemorate the new stamp during a dedication ceremony from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 29, at Ida Noyes Hall, 1212 E. 59th St.

    Following the ceremony, from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., the University’s Enrico Fermi Institute will sponsor a special symposium titled “Fermi Remembered.” Speaking at the symposium will be scientists who were students and colleagues of Fermi when he was a professor at the University from 1946 until his death in 1954. Speakers will include Nobel laureates Jack Steinberger (S.B., ’42, Ph.D., ’48) and Murray Gell-Mann, a physics faculty member at the University from 1951 to 1954.

    Both events are free and open to the public.

    Fermi covered a lot of scientific ground in his 53 years on this Earth, applying his fertile mind to such wide-ranging scientific queries as those that questioned the fundamental characteristics of the atom and the potential for extraterrestrial intelligence. But he also produced the first controlled, nuclear chain reaction and conducted pioneering research on the most powerful subatomic particle accelerator of its day.

    “What’s significant about Fermi is if you look through his career, he never just did the same thing. He kept moving on to new scientific challenges,” said Nobel laureate James Cronin, University Professor Emeritus in Physics.

    “I’m hoping that we will have a discussion where we will see not just routine praise of Fermi, but incisive evaluation of what he did and didn’t do and what his foibles were,” said Cronin (S.M., ’53, Ph.D., ’55), who organized the symposium.

    Roger Hildebrand, the Samuel K. Allison Distinguished Service Professor in Physics, who joined the University faculty as an Assistant Professor in 1952, will be among the symposium speakers.

    Hildebrand said an examination of Fermi’s notebooks, which are archived in the Special Collections Department of the University’s Joseph Regenstein Library, reveal both Fermi’s remarkable insights and characteristic modesty.

    “He always used to have a little bound notebook that would just fit in his coat pocket,” Hildebrand recalled. “When you look at them, it’s just marvelous. They are just full of ideas. When other physicists, usually younger ones, would discover something, if you look at Fermi’s notes you can often find that he thought of it long before, and he would never say anything about it.”

    Fermi was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1938 for his discovery of new radioactive elements produced by the addition of neutrons to the cores of other atoms, and for the discovery of nuclear reactions brought about by slowly moving neutrons. Nevertheless, he is probably best known outside of scientific circles for his role in producing the first controlled, nuclear chain reaction at the University during World War II.

    “Fermi was just extraordinary in just getting right to it and getting it built, not fooling around and also not cutting corners,” Cronin said.

    Following the war, Fermi became the Charles H. Swift Distinguished Service Professor and a member of the newly formed Institute for Nuclear Studies. In 1951, the Institute began operating a 450 million electron volt synchrocyclotron, the most powerful particle accelerator of its day. In 1953, Fermi and his Chicago colleague Herbert Anderson used the synchrocyclotron to observe the first “excited state” of nuclear particles. Fermi and Anderson’s discovery was a major step toward the realization that nuclear particles had structure, now described in terms of the more fundamental particles known as “quarks,” Cronin said.

    Fermi also conducted theoretical studies in astrophysics at Chicago. His mastery of both experimental and theoretical physics was one of his hallmarks as a scientist. His colleagues used to say there were three kinds of physicists. “There were experimentalists, there were theorists and there was Fermi,” Hildebrand said.

    One theory that Fermi developed at Chicago with colleague Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar concerned the acceleration of cosmic rays, high-energy particles of unknown origin that periodically bombard the Earth. Fermi and Chandrasekhar, who would receive the 1983 Nobel Prize in physics, devised a theory for the acceleration of cosmic rays that involved colliding magnetic fields in interstellar space. Their theory remains one of the leading explanations for the phenomenon today, Hildebrand said.

    Fermi’s wide-ranging scientific musings also led him to formulate Fermi’s Paradox. If the universe contains a multitude of high-tech extraterrestrial civilizations, Fermi wondered, then why haven’t the citizens of Earth already encountered them?

    For more information about “Fermi Remembered” or to register for the event, see http://fermi-remembered.uchicago.edu/. For information about a related event at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, see http://www.fnal.gov/pub/events/special.html.