Columbians Ahead of Their Time
Enrico Fermi
Enrico Fermi

"It is no good to try to stop knowledge from going forward. Ignorance is never better than knowledge."

Enrico Fermi (1901-1954)
Faculty, 1939-42

In the words of Richard Rhodes, Enrico Fermi was "the last of the double-threat physicists: A genius at creating both esoteric theories and elegant experiments." In 1938, Fermi won the Nobel Prize for his work in the field of neutron physics by determining that slowed neutrons were effective in creating radioactive transformations. Fermi later built on this work with the Manhattan Project, in which Fermi and his colleague Szilard co-invented the nuclear reactor. In 1942, Fermi and his fellow scientists assembled the first full-scale nuclear reactor and tested it in the University of Chicago's doubles squash courts. The achievement was earth-shattering. As fellow scientist Eugene Wigner noted: "For some time we had known that we were about to unlock a giant. Still, we could not escape an eerie feeling when we had actually done it." Fermi continued to perfect nuclear reactors at Los Alamos, and was present at the first test of the atomic bomb in 1945. Thereafter, Fermi served on the Science Advisory Panel that counseled the government on the use of nuclear weapons. Though Fermi argued against the use of the bomb, he was ultimately convinced that the U.S. had to use it militarily; he and his fellow scientists wrote: "We can propose no technical demonstration likely to bring an end to the war; we can see no acceptable alternative to military use."

Fermi came to Columbia as a professor of physics in 1939, just after receiving his Nobel in Stockholm. At that time, fascism had begun to take hold in Italy, and Fermi and his Jewish wife, Laura, faced persecution. Fermi contacted George Peagram, then working with Nobel laureate Harold Urey at Columbia's Pupin Laboratory, to inquire about the possibility of working at the University. Peagram encouraged Fermi to defect, and arranged to have a professorship waiting for him. Thus, Fermi began the Manhattan Project in Morningside Heights with the help of Szilard—and Columbia's 1939 football squad, members of which carried cans of uranium and graphite. "It really was a pleasure to direct work of these husky boys, canning uranium—just shoving it in—handling packs of 50 or 100 pounds with the same ease as another person would have handled three or four pounds," Fermi recalled. Three years later, Fermi decamped for the University of Chicago, where the Manhattan Project was completed. Luckily, he left the football players behind.

Read more about Enrico Fermi in the Columbia Encyclopedia

Video of 2001 Conference.

Harold Urey: ahead of his time, too. 

Fermi discusses his time at Columbia. 

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