Sample Chapter: The Age of Radiance

 Rome: November 10, 1938.

I wish I could produce a substance or a machine
of such frightful efficacy for wholesale devastation
that wars should thereby become altogether impossible.

— Alfred Nobel

There is a still in the night — but not this night. The palatial apartment on Via L. Magalotti, in the vicinity of Il Duce’s own Villa Borghese, was enrobed in marble, from the entryway’s Carrara to the bathrooms’ obscure sea-green — a cool, aquatic trance for the lady of the house — and echoed with dozens of clinking, chiming, tocking mechanical clocks, nearly drowned out by the racket of the family’s cook making supper, which in turn was a collection of distant thuds compared to the excited voices of the 2 children, Nella, 8, and her 3-year-old brother, Giulio, who played and squabbled as voraciously as the wolf-bred children of Rome’s nascence. Nella’s father had at one point given her the nickname bestiolina — ‘little animal’ — and she would prove for many years more than deserving of that title.

The only quiet came from the parents in the living room, reading the paper while listening to an immense mahogany and bakelite radio the size of a coffin. The two were suffering silently, both tense and in conflict. Laura, 28, dark and elfin, was reminiscent of Audreys Hepburn and Tatou; her husband Enrico, 36, was black-haired, muscular, and easy to like, with slate-blue eyes as soulful as any basset hound’s, and a reputation as a genial workaholic. One of his colleagues called him “completely self-confident, but wholly without conceit,” and onetime pupil and lifetime friend, Emilio Segrè, said he was “a steamroller that moved slowly but knew no obstacles.”

Enrico was a titan of Roman society whose membership in the Royal Academy of Italy came with both a princely salary and the title of “Your Excellency,” and many decades later, astronomer Carl Sagan summed up his legacy: “There is a Fermi Sea, a Fermi Energy, a Fermi Paradox, Fermi Statistics … a Fermi class of elementary particles, a Fermi Constant, a Fermi Surface, a Fermi Mechanism (for the acceleration of cosmic rays), a Fermi Age (neutron diffusion), a Fermi unit of distance (which is roughly the size of a nucleon), two Fermi Golden Rules, a Fermi Prize, a Fermi Institute, a Fermi High School, a Fermi National Laboratory, and a chemical element named after Fermi … . It’s hard to think of another physicist of the twentieth century who’s had so many things named after him—and this surely is an indication of the respect and affection with which he is thought of in the community of physicists, and in a larger community as well.” Meanwhile, another lifelong friend, Franco Rasetti, called him “a very very common man, in fact, he was common as an old shoe.”

Like his older siblings, Maria and Giulio, Enrico Fermi had spent 2-½ years of his infancy with a rural wet nurse, the European practice even for the middle class of that era. When he became a father for the second time, he would name his only son in honor of his brother. As children, the elder Giulio had been Enrico’s idol and partner in crime, the two investigating mysteries of science and engineering, building motors and drafting detailed technical drawings, especially of the era’s cutting-edge technology: Aeroplanes. They eternally competed against and with each other, both mentally and physically, and had no other friends.

Then, at the age of 15, whilst being operated on for a throat sore, Giulio suffocated from the anesthesia. Mother Ida became inconsolable, abandoning her other children to withdraw into a sobbing, mantle of grief. Each day, the boy Enrico forced himself to pass by the hospital where his older brother and only friend had died, until the crippling pain somewhat abated. He then withdrew himself, into a life of books. The family’s apartment near the train station was in a district hurriedly built to accommodate Rome’s turn-of-the-century doubling in population and would, in time, become famous for its vile urbanity. The quarters were unheated, so in the winters, the young Enrico Fermi would sit on his hands to keep them warm, and turn the pages with the tip of his tongue. At school, he was forced to memorize long stretches of Dante, which he would quote for the rest of his life.

The years went by with both mother and son hidden from the world, until Enrico finally found another friend, who turned out to be one of his brother’s classmates, Enrico Persico. The boys often took long walks through the city and browsed for math and science books in the flea market of the Campo dei Fiori, the Renaissance square where Michelangelo built a palace and scientist Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake. One of their finds was a 2-volume survey of mathematical physics, written in 1840, which taught the 2 Henrys the Newtonian equations of planets, waves, and tides (for the uninitiated, physics uses the language of numbers to describe everything from the flow of water across a bed of stones, and the gravity that binds planets to their homely star, to the evidence of things unseen). Enrico was so enthralled he hadn’t noticed until he finished both volumes that they were written in Latin.

Three years later, when Fermi was ready for university, a family friend insisted he learn German to read scientific publications without waiting for them to be translated into Italian or French, as well as attend the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa instead of the University of Rome, to get him away from his mother’s unabated and suffocating melancholia. For all her faults, though, Enrico inherited from Ida a remarkable trait; the idea that, if you needed something, you could just learn how to make it yourself. The schoolteacher mother made her own pressure cooker. Enrico made his own lab apparatus.

To win a spot at Pisa, which included free room and board, he needed to prepare an essay – Fermi’s was on the vibration of strings – and after the examiner, University of Rome geometry professor Giuseppe Pittarelli, read it, he made an appointment for Enrico to come in and see him. At their meeting Pittarelli told the boy why they had to meet; he had never seen anything in his professional life quite like Enrico’s entry, that he was an extraordinary person sure to become famous. The meeting, and the full scholarship to Pisa, changed Fermi’s life. For the first time since the loss of his brother, he felt that what he was doing was right, and that he was good at it.

The Scuola Normale Superiore’s director of physics was in turn so overwhelmed by Fermi that the boy taught him Einstein’s theories of relativity. Pisa’s days of greatness were the Middle Ages centered on its son, Galileo, who’d been inspired by the physics of the pendulum from watching the great cathedral’s swinging lamps. Like his Roman childhood home, Enrico’s room was unheated but, instead of sitting on their hands, the students tried to keep warm with charcoal-burning ceramic braziers, scaldini. Since Pisa did not yet teach quantum mechanics, Fermi had to learn it on his own.

A very fast friend at Pisa was Franco Rasetti, a self-taught polymath studying physics deliberately because it was difficult — the boy wanted to prove to himself that he could accomplish anything. Besides hiking in the Alps near the Carrara marble quarries, the 2 loved pranks, with a twist. At that time in Italy public urinals were built with pools of water. The 19-year-olds Fermi and Rasetti would sneak up behind a man using the facilities, loft a bit of metallic sodium into the water, and then listen to the victim’s cries of horror as the pool exploded into flames. Fermi wrote of Pisa’s three lucky physics students that, “they were allowed to use the research laboratories at all times, received keys to the library and instrument cabinets, and were given permission to try any experiment they wished with the apparatus contained therein. [Enzo] Cararra and Rasetti, who in the previous year had come to recognize Fermi’s immense superiority in the knowledge of mathematics and physics, henceforth regarded him as their natural leader, looking to him rather than to the professors for instruction and guidance.”

In another echo of his mother’s can-do attitude, he explained that “Fermi, after much reading of the pertinent literature, decided that X-rays were the field that offer the best chance for original research, and suggested that all three learn some of the technique. The tubes available were of the gas-filled type and were operated by a large induction coil, using a spark gap as rectifier. …  It soon appeared that the sealed tubes were not fit for research, and the experimenters decided to build their own tubes. The glass part was made to specifications by glassblower, while the physicist had to seal windows and electrodes. No diffusion pumps are available; hence the tubes were evacuated by means of rotary mercury pumps.” X-rays, vacuum tubes, and electrodes would be the very foundations of the Atomic Age.

Emilio Segrè explained his friend’s academic stance during this period: “I believe that Fermi’s inclination toward concrete questions verifiable by direct experiment was due, at least in part, to his desire to check the soundness of his work by nature, the infallible judge. He liked also to experiment and to do manual work and nothing pleased him more than combining his own theory with his own experiment. … Fermi was almost entirely self-taught; all that he knew he had learned from books or rediscovered by himself. He had found no mature scientist who could guide him, as he would have found at that time in Germany Holland or England and did not personally know any older scientists with whom he could compare himself. He knew that he was better than those around him but this he also new meant little because these men were not in the forefront of active science. And he was in a hurry to get to the top.”

The Italian Ministry of Education had one fellowship for postdoctoral study in the natural sciences and Fermi won it in 1923, going to work under Max Born at one of the Edens of academic physics in that era, Göttingen. Though his colleagues were the stellar James Franck, Werner Heisenberg, and Wolfgang Pauli, it seems that Fermi did not become a signature member of that extraordinary clique, even though his German was good enough. It may have been too big a pond for someone used to being a great star of the provinces; or maybe his tendency to be shy, proud, solitary, and aloof kept him from being welcomed and involved as anyone who follows this history would have guessed. It was a profound opportunity, wasted … yet, Enrico’s life was soon to change dramatically … through the efforts of a flapper-era Medici.

Orso Mario Corbino grew up in a small town and the east coast of Sicily where his family owned a handmade macaroni factory with the product sold on the premises. Instead of pasta, though, Corbino worked in magneto-optics at the University of Rome; joined government committees to manage the nation’s water resources; was made a senator of the kingdom in 1920; and the Minister of National Economics in 1923, even though he was not then and never became a Fascist. As the University of Rome’s dean of physics, Corbino was determined to begin a world-class program, and he brought the 26-year-old Fermi aboard with lifetime tenure — an achievement that most academics needed 35 years to acquire. Franco Rasetti transferred from Florence in 1927, Emilio Segrè and Edoardo Amaldi enrolled as a students, and the group immediately made such an international splash in journal publishing that in the fall of that year, a physics conference in the lakeside resort of Como drew Rutherford, Planck, Bohr, Heisenberg, and Pauli.

After decades as an academic backwater, Italian science was suddenly, all through Corbino’s efforts, now one a global forefront. The Italians were honored with overseas invitations to learn state-of-the-art experimental technique, with Amaldi off to Leipzig, Segrè to Hamburg, and Rasetti voyaging first to Pasadena, California and then to Berlin-Dahlem to work with the acclaimed Lise Meitner. When the University of Michigan invited Fermi to teach at summer school in 1930, he loved Ann Arbor so much he returned every few years. Segrè: “Mechanical proficiency and practical gadgets in America counterbalanced to an extent the beauty of Italy. … we bought a car the Flying Tortoise, which we drove back to New York, not without some mechanical difficulties along the way. These did not scare Fermi, who is a good mechanic. Once a gas station he showed such expertise and repairing automobile that the owner instantly offered him a job. And these were depression days.”

Ragazzi corbino (‘Corbino’s boys’) — became so close that they developed their own accent. College friends Fermi and Rasetti, imitating each other, developed a deep speaking voice and a slow, modulated cadence that in turn was adopted by all of their professional colleagues. One of them was riding the train and started chatting with a man sitting adjacent, who quickly asked if he was a Roman physicist; the stranger said he recognized “your way of speaking.”

Teaching quantum theory as Rome’s first atomic physicist, Enrico was nicknamed ‘the Pope,’ since it took such profound faith to believe that matter was energy, energy, matter, and that both were sometimes particles, and other times, waves. Rasetti was the cardinal, and Segrè, known for his temper (and for breaking furniture as a result of that temper) was the basilisk, a mythical creature whose eyes were alight with fire. The department was housed in an 1880 monastery on Via Panisperna 89a, with ochre walls, tile roofs, and a cupola. Gabriel Maria Giannini: “Everything around us was moldy with its 800 years, and we were young — bound together by youth and by Fermi’s ageless thinking, which managed to find expression in spite of the sound of the church bells pouring in torrents form a Romanic tower next door.” Emilio Segrè: “The location of the building in a small park on a hill near the central part of Rome was convenient and beautiful at the same time. The garden, landscaped with palm trees and bamboo thickets, with its prevailing silence … made the Institute a most peaceful and attractive center of study. I believe that everybody who ever worked there kept an affectionate regard for the old place, and had poetic feelings about it.” One neighbor was G.C. Tarabacchi, chief physicist of the Health Department, who shared his excellent collection of instruments and materials with untoward generosity, earning him the Fermi-engineered nickname: “Divine Providence.” Tarabacchi was especially providential when he loaned Fermi the effluence of a gram of radium, which was at the time was worth around $34,000.

By the 1930s, the Romans had developed such a global reputation that George Placzek, Felix Bloch, Rudolf Peierls, and Edward Teller came to study with them. Hans Bethe (pronounced Beta), who won a Nobel for his fusion theory on the origin of starlight and who would become the chief of Los Alamos theory group (inadvertently thrusting Edward Teller into a career combining Dr. Strangelove with Ronald Reagan), spent 1931 with the Fermi team:

Fermi worked in the Institute of Physics, which was on a small hill in the middle of Rome, surrounded by a sea of traffic but very quiet on that little hill. There were trees, ponds, a nice garden, a fountain—really quite an oasis in the hectic traffic of Rome. Fermi was 29 years old when I got there. He was a full professor since he published Fermi’s Statistics at the age of 25.

I had studied with [Arnold Sommerfeld, one of the co-founders of quantum mechanics], and Sommerfeld’s style was to solve problems exactly. You would sit down and write down the differential equation. And then you would solve it, and that would take quite a long time; and then you got an exact solution. And that was very appropriate for electrodynamics, which Sommerfeld was very good at, but it was not appropriate at all for nuclear physics, which very soon entered all of our lives.

Fermi did it very differently … he would sit down and say, “Now, well, let us think about that question.” And then he would take the problem apart, and then he would use first principles of physics, and very soon by having analyzed the problems and understood the main features, very soon he would get the answer. It changed my scientific life. It would not have been the same without having been with Fermi; in fact I don’t know whether I would have learned this easy approach to physics which Fermi practiced if I hadn’t been there. …

Fermi seemed to me at the time like the bright Italian sunshine. Clarity appeared wherever his mind took hold. … Depending on how we count, Fermi training led to 10, 11, or 12 Nobel Prizes. I estimate the probability that an existing Nobel Prize winner in physics “give birth” to another winner is less than 1/10. So if this is purely random, the probability of one winner giving birth to 10 other winners would be one-tenth to the 10th power or one in 10 billion, which is essentially impossible.

Physics seemed to infuse Fermi’s every waking moment, as Phil Morrison remembered from his time with Enrico in the 1940s: “I want to mention the “Fermi Questions.” Fermi was the first physicist to my knowledge who enjoyed doing physics out loud walking through the hall. … We were walking though the wooden barracks-like structure of the Theoretical Physics Building at Los Alamos, and as we walked, the sounds of our footsteps reflected off the high surface – wood, no acoustic treatment – and seemed to bounce throughout. And he said, “How far do you think our footsteps can be heard in this building.” And then he began to tell me what the yield of sound would be from the impulse, how far that would go, how you have to worry about the wood conduction and the air passage. And pretty soon, by the end of the hall, he had [an answer]. It was a fast calculation. Sounded very reasonable. And when I tried to recalculate it, I got something like the same result – slowly and looking at the numbers over and over again. This was my idea of a Fermi Question: Turn every experience into a question. Can you analyze it? If not, you’ll learn something. If you can, you’ll also learn something.”


The phone call Enrico and Laura were waiting for that night of November 10, 1938 would affirm his decision to abandon their relatives, their friends, their heritage, the Eternal City that Laura loved with such a passion, their extremely comfortable life, and the whole of their worldly possessions (including a lemon-yellow Bébé Peugeot convertible with celluloid windows and a hand crank for emergency start-ups, which were frequent) to flee, as resident aliens, to the United States. Laura’s most significant previous American experience had been in joining her husband when he taught summer school in Michigan, and regardless the many charms of Ann Arbor, it was not Rome. She was additionally appalled by America’s Prohibition, with came with such bizarre side-effects as the university’s chemistry department having to bury the alcohol it used for experiments to keep it from being stolen, and drunk. Enrico, however, regularly discussed emigrating to America; coming back from one semester accompanied by the Swiss physicist Felix Bloch, the two noted how superior the Burma Shave billboards in Michigan were to Mussolini’s Fascist exhortations along the Roman highways.

But that was one of the few jovial moments outside the lab. In 1936, a month after Giulio was born and Hitler occupied the Rhineland, Enrico thought it prudent to supply his family with gas masks. He wasn’t being fearful, just pragmatic. Nella Fermi: “For the most part, my father had very little to do with us when we were children, and I think it’s too simple to say that he was too busy with his work and that he had no time for my brother and me. I think he was certainly absorbed in his work, but beyond that, he was a man of reason, and he was a physicist through and through. And he could not relate to us on an emotional level, so it wasn’t until we were old enough (and I quote from him) “to talk to” that he could approach us, and that he could approach us on his own level. With adult hindsight I am convinced that it wasn’t that he lacked emotions but that he lacked the ability to express them.”

Now, depending on the phone call, Laura and her children would be immediately deserting the culture and refinement of Europe, the magnificence of Rome, and a life of wealth and status, for some backwoods of hillbillies on the other side of the globe. A third-generation Italian cosmopolite, Sra. Fermi felt she could never fit in, over there. Her English was rudimentary schoolgirl; her husband’s came from reading Jack London novels. He loved everything about America. She thought otherwise.

Signore Fermi and Signorina Capon met when he was 22, and already prominent enough in the field to hold a professorship. She was a mere 16. It was a Sunday in the spring of 1924, and a group of friends were taking the air in the countryside of suburban Rome, in a meadow where the Aniene river meets the Tiber. He was dressed in a black suit and black bowler, still in mourning the death of his mother. And, he decided that they should all play soccer.

Two years later, the Capon family was planning to spend the summer in Chamonix, the French resort shaded by Mont Blanc. But Mussolini’s new monetary policy artificially raising the value of the lira kept them from getting any francs on the foreign exchange and even Laura’s father, an officer in the Italian navy, could not overcome this hitch. Friends recommended the Dolomites instead, and they arrived to find many of Laura’s school chums there for the season, including that acquaintance, Enrico Fermi (Enrico was now living with his father Alberto and his sister Marja in Citta Giardino, a new suburb reserved for civil servants – Alberto had worked for the railroads (and sang Verdi arias during his morning shave) – not far from that meadow where Enrico and Laura first met).

On his arrival, Fermi immediately arranged for the group to make a series of hikes and climbs, always using his thumb to measure distances, both on maps and in real life. For Enrico’s other great passion was mountain hiking, and this seemingly-odd mix of scholar and athlete would be common with his peers. Niels Bohr was both a famed soccer player in his youth and a ping-pong champion as an adult, while Werner Heisenberg spent his lifetime downhill racing, at one point being clocked at an alarming fifty miles an hour. Physicist Valentine Telegdi: “Fermi was completely devoted to physics, and his whole existence centered around it. He appeared to have very few outside interests such as literature or the fine arts. He engaged in sports, e.g., in mountaineering and tennis, but one often got the impression that it was all for “mens sana in corpore sano”—i.e., to be in the best physical condition for doing physics; it must be added that in sports as well as in parlor games (which he occasionally organized in his home) he liked to win, being fiercely competitive [though he] was totally secure in his own physics talent and almost never displayed jealousy of another. The only exception, as one of his students recalls, was Einstein. More than once Fermi expressed annoyance at the attention Einstein received from the press.” Laura Fermi:

My life as a physicist’s wife began at least one year before I got married, the day Fermi and Rasetti took me to see the crocodiles in the old Istituto di Fisica in Via Panisperna, in Rome. It was sometimes in 1927. Enrico Fermi had been called the previous fall to an especially created chair of theoretical physics, and soon afterwards Franco Rasetti had been appointed “aiuto.” They were both 25 years old. As a second-year student of general science, I attended courses in the physics building, but had not been in the laboratories.

The two young men had talked so much about their crocodiles, about having to feed them and take care of them, that to this day I am not sure what I expected: I was certainly disappointed when I saw two shabby wooden spectrographs and was told that they were the crocodiles. Spectroscopy was very fashionable in those days.

One day that summer I asked Fermi to quiz me and see if I was well prepared for the approaching exam on the two-year physics course. We were at Ostia, and Fermi was sitting cross-legged on the sand, in his bathing-suit, which came up almost to his neck. As he quizzed me, his usual grin faded and his lips tightened. In the end he said: ‘I am sorry, Miss Capon, but you don’t understand a thing.’ What an encouragement!

Fermi told his friends of the woman of his dreams – tall, athletic, blonde, with ancestors from the countryside and no thoughts of religion – practically the opposite of Laura, who was descended from urban Romans for many generations, unathletic, and relentlessly brunette. Laura: “Fermi had always said he wanted to do something really exciting and outstanding. Either buy a car or get a wife. So when he bought a car I was a little disappointed, although I didn’t have any real idea of getting married. But then he was more extravagant and got both a car and a wife. … I remember a sense of not even knowing whether he had asked me to marry him or whether he was posing a theoretical question of what would happen if I got married to somebody and he at the same time would get married to somebody else.” On July 19, 1928, they were wed, honeymooning in the Alps, hiking across the shadows of the Matterhorn, which Enrico thought was a perfect opportunity to turn Laura into a physicist … but when she refused to accept the mathematical proof that light was electromagnetic radiation of waves and particles, he gave up. Together, though, they wrote a physics textbook for Italian secondary schools which brought the family income during their lean salad years. Laura: “The next winter was the coldest on record in Rome and we began talking of storm windows. Fermi pulled out his slide rule, calculated the effects of drafts on the inside temperatures, misplaced the decimal point, and we froze all winter.”

Fermi had wanted to leave Italy ever since the government had passed the Manifesto della Razza on July 14, 1938 — the Italian version of the Nazi’s Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service (as German higher education was civil service, it meant the Universities of Berlin and Frankfurt had, overnight, lost a third of their professors). Though he and the children were Catholic, Laura was Jewish. As a result of the new decrees, Laura’s father, practically of Roman nobility from his decades in the Navy, was dismissed from active duty and placed on reserve. Even so, she was certain that the Razza was a minor legal kerfuffle, a temporary annoyance. Italy’s 1870 nationalist movement had freed Jews from the ghettos and given them full equality; they were now so few in number and so thoroughly assimilated that they were practically invisible. A third of them were Fascist party members; Mussolini’s own mistress was Jewish. Just after the law was announced, in fact, Laura overheard one man on the street ask another, “Now they are sending away the Jews. But, who are the Jews?” and Mussolini received a telegram from a Sicilian mayor: “Re: Anti-Semitic Campaign. Send specimen so we can start campaign.”

But Fermi clearly knew the history behind these laws. When astronomers confirmed Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity on November 7, 1919, Berlin’s Illustrirte Zeitung transformed its entire front page into his photograph, calling his ideas “on a par with insights of Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton.” But by February of 1920, students interrupted his lectures, with one screaming: “I’m going to cut the throat of that dirty Jew.” On August 24, Nazi scientists Philipp Lenard and Johannes Stark held the first meeting of the Working Group of German Scientists for the Preservation of Pure Science at Berlin’s Philharmonic Hall, attacking relativity as “Jewish physics” and Einstein as a plagiarist and charlatan. Einstein attended, watching from a private box, saying nothing. After the 1933 Nuremberg decrees, gangs regularly gathered outside his Berlin home to scream insults about “Jewish physics,” and a magazine included him on a list of enemies of the state — with the notation “not yet hanged” — and a $5,000 bounty promised to his successful assassin. Einstein was compelled to renounce his German citizenship for a second time and leave for England, and then Princeton. When he arrived in New York harbor on October 17, 1933, he was smuggled ashore in a tugboat to ensure his safety. Three months later, he was spending a night at the White House with the Roosevelts.

Knowing all this, while the Fermi family was on vacation in the Dolomites that summer of 38, Enrico had written to 4 American universities which had previously offered him posts, vaguely explaining that his earlier reasons for not accepting were no longer in effect. He then mailed these letters from 4 different towns to avoid suspicion, and received 5 offers, accepting Columbia’s. In his follow-up letter of September 4, 1938, he explained the precautions needed to leave Axis Rome, and tried to help other ragazzi Corbino reach safe harbor:

For reasons that you can easily understand however, I should like to leave Italy, without giving the feeling that this is due to political reasons. I could manage this much more easily if you could write me officially to teach at Columbia through the Italian Embassy in the U.S. Of course you need no mention, or stress, in this request, that it would be a permanent appointment.

In order to get a non-quota visa for myself and my family, I should need besides an official letter from Columbia stating that I am appointed as professor and mentioning the salary. In case that you cannot write me through the Embassy, please send me only this second letter. And in any case please do not give unnecessary publicity to this matter until the situation in Italy is finally settled.

I shall take the opportunity that I am writing to you from Belgium, in order to give to you some information about the situation of the Italian physicists, that have lost their positions on account of racial reasons.

They are Emilio Segrè, whom you already know. He is now at Berkeley and has, so far as I know, a small research fellowship for one year from the University of California. I don’t think that I need to inform you about his scientific work.

Bruno Rossi, formerly professor at the University of Padova (married with no children; age about 32). He is one of our best young physicists, his work on the cosmic radiation is probably known to you. He has lately acquired some experience on high tension work, since he had built in Padova a one million volt Cockroft Walton outfit, that was just now being tested.

Giulio Racah, formerly professor at Pisa (not married; age about 30). He has a very extensive knowledge of theoretical physics. Has published many papers on atomic physics and quantum theory; in particular he has obtained independently and published only a few days after Heitler and Bethe equivalent results on the theory of the emission of high energy gamma rays from cosmic ray electrons colliding against nuclei.

Ugo Fano (age about 26; not married) was my assistant for theoretical physics. Good knowledge of theory; very great enthusiasm for research. Has been lately very much interested for theoretical problems in connection with biology. Had several discussions on these topics with Timofeeff- Ressowshi of Berlin and with P. Jordan of Rostock.

Leo Pincherle, formerly lecturer of theoretical Physics at Padova (age about 30; married with 1 or 2 children). Has published rather interesting papers on intensity problems of x-ray lines. I might finally mention that Rassetti too, though not for racial reasons, is trying to find a situation abroad. He would also like to be invited for some course next summer.

Enrico then notified the Italian government that he was planning a six-month visit to New York, and he would be accompanied by his family. He had to use all of his influence to keep his wife and children’s Italian passports secure. The Americans, meanwhile, were so impressed by his stature that even the family maid was approved for a visa.

There was, however, an unresolved practical matter. At an industry conference in Copenhagen that fall, Niels Bohr had taken Fermi aside to reveal he was on the Nobel shortlist. Before the rise of Hitler, laureates were never told in advance, but the Swedish Academy had then seen scientists living under dictatorships get harassed and attacked for the prize, and wanted to make sure that Fermi wouldn’t be embarrassed by it. He would in fact be embarrassed, and if the Fermis returned to Italy with his Nobel winnings and then left the country, the family would only be allowed take $50 with them. Enrico decided that, if he won, Laura and the children would accompany him to Stockholm for the ceremony, and then leave directly for a Southampton sailing to New York. Even considering the generous terms of the award, they would still be abandoning an extremely comfortable life in Rome. In May of 38, baby Giulio and the housekeeper, out to get some fresh air in the park, had come across Il Duce taking the sun with Hitler — a visit which inspired an epigram from the poet Trilussa:

Rome of travertine splendor 

patched with card and plaster [the cosmetic fixes made to the parade route’s slums]

welcomes the little house painter 

as her next lord and master.

The phone call from Sweden, then, would determine if Enrico Fermi was a laureate, and if he and his family were now to be refugees. Additionally, if he had to split the prize with one or more other physicists, the family would be starting their life over again under seriously reduced financial circumstance.

While they waited that evening, Italian radio described Germany’s Kristallnacht of the night before, and explained details of the new laws: Jewish children and teachers were barred from public schools; Jewish professionals such as doctors and lawyers could only have Jewish clients; “Aryans” could not work for Jews as servants; and all Jewish passports were withdrawn. Laura’s nonchalance about this state of affairs, meanwhile, would prove to be misplaced. For while Mussolini consistently refused to hand over Italians to the Germans, after his overthrow in July 1943, the Nazis occupied Italy and began murdering her Jews, with over 1,000 Romans sent to Auschwitz, including Laura’s father. Decades later, daughter Nella Fermi tried to find out what happened: “I think that my mother was having a lot of guilt about leaving her father behind [and going to America]. My grandmother had died of natural causes some years before we left, and there were 2 sisters and a brother who were still in Italy, so it wasn’t as if she was abandoning him altogether to himself. I’m not sure when they learned about it. I know that at some point, my mother told me that they had heard . . . that he had been taken by the Nazis, but . . . I think that it might have been a way of protecting me, rather than the strict truth . . . she said that he had died on the train. My aunt, my father’s sister, was practically running an underground railroad in her basement, and she had gone over to persuade him to come and stay with her, and he had other friends and connections who were not Jewish who he could have stayed with . . . it was really easy to hide in Rome. . . largely because the population was simply not behind it. [But] he thought that being a high-ranking naval officer . . . he was an admiral … that he had given his life to the service of his country, and he was a gentleman of the old school and was convinced that they would not bother him. … About three or four years ago, I talked to a man who had done some research into the subject, and he seems to have come up with some very conclusive evidence that my grandfather made it as far as Auschwitz. He was one of the first to go in the gas chambers.”

The telephone finally rang. For his work with slow neutrons and his discovery of element 93, it was confirmed that Enrico Fermi, at the age of 37, had won the Nobel Prize in physics.

Even with such an immense honor at such a young age, no one would have thought at that moment, least of all Fermi himself, that in a mere 3 years, he would join an elite group who would revolutionize the academic and scientific fabrics of the United States. Before the rise of Fascism, while European scientists, backed by their countries’ military research budgets, were able to pursue fundamental scientific research, American science was wholly a backwater (though its engineers created the telephone, the telegraph, and the lightbulb). What changed science in the United States for all time was the immigration of nuclear physicists displaced from Europe. By creating a safe haven for rejected genius, America transformed herself from an R&D Appalachia to the center of everything nuclear, and then of everything in science (until, of course, our present times). In the years to come, joined by a phalanx of genius, Enrico Fermi would invent and perfect the engine that would create nuclear power, nuclear weapons, and the Atomic Age, a historic moment that arose wholly from the coincidence of his wife’s ancestry.


On December 6, the family took the 48-hour train to Stockholm, and at the ceremony on the 10th, they learned that Enrico would not have to share the reward monies, as only one other prize was given that year, in literature, to America’s Pearl Buck. In October of 1933, they had dined with King Albert of Belgium and Marie Curie (Laura: “she would not take notice of insignificant wives like me”). Now, at the Nobel ceremonies, Laura danced with Crown Prince Gustavus Adolphus. But it quickly was apparent that the Academy and Bohr were right to notify Fermi in advance that he was a candidate. In the wake of the award, instead of pride at a hometown boy who made good, the Italian press was filled with criticisms for Enrico not wearing a Fascist uniform, not giving the Fascist salute, and for shaking the King’s hand, which was thought unmanly. In fact, he was attacked in the more extreme of the press for “having transformed the Physics Institute into a synagogue.”

The Fermis went directly from Sweden to Southampton, sailing for Manhattan aboard Cunard’s RMS Franconia II, a ship so luxurious she would ferry Winston Churchill to Yalta, and whose first-class smoking lounge was a detailed recreation of a classic English hotel lobby, down to the aged oak paneling and the brick inglenook fireplace.

One evening, while crossing the Atlantic, Laura and the children were waiting for an elevator. Its doors opened to reveal a strange man in a red and white suit, who immediately invited them to a party he was having that night, where every child aboard would get presents! Giulio and Nella looked at their mother with a mix of shock, and awe. Enrico liked to say, grandly, that they were off to establish the American branch of the Fermi family … but to Laura’s mind, here was one more example of how far they had to go. Recently, Mrs. Fermi had been mortified to learn that one of her lifelong beliefs was wrong — she’d always assumed Abraham Lincoln was Jewish since, in Italy, only Jews were named Abraham. And, while her husband enjoyed the professional embrace that came with being a laureate, she would now have to explain to her new American children who, or what, Santa Claus was.