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Fermi biography takes readers to ground zero

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The names of Leslie Groves and J. Robert Oppenheimer are synonymous with the Manhattan Project.

Groves was the U.S. Army general who oversaw America’s secret nuclear weapons project. Oppenheimer was the physicist who directed Los Alamos Laboratory, one of the project’s three legs; he is often ominously called “the father of the atom bomb.”

A valuable new biography recognizes the lifelong contributions of a physicist who had roles in the work of all three legs of the project that developed the bomb – at Hanford, Wash., at Oak Ridge, Tenn., and at Los Alamos.

His name is Enrico Fermi.

The biography is “The Pope of Physics – Enrico Fermi and the Birth of the Atomic Age” by Gino Segrè and Bettina Hoerlin.

The Oak Ridge’s nuclear reactor design “resulted directly from Fermi’s successful (experimental chain-reaction) nuclear pile,” according to the biography.

At Hanford, Fermi was key in figuring out that “an adequate amount of plutonium could be produced to make a bomb,” the book says.

At Los Alamos, it notes, Fermi was a valuable member of the team that fit “all the pieces together. He was the person to consult about almost any physics question.”

Fermi, a native of Italy, received the 1938 Nobel Prize for Physics just before fleeing Fascist Italy to the United States with his family.

Fermi’s wife, Laura, was Jewish.

Fermi’s got his nickname the Pope of Physics early in his career. It was another way of saying he was a genius. At Los Alamos, he was one of a handful of genius-physicists, some of them Jews who had fled the Nazi threat.

Welcomed by the U.S., Fermi first taught at Columbia, moved to Chicago to work at the Argonne Laboratory and then to the closed community of Los Alamos, where his family occupied a three-bedroom apartment in a two-story, wooden building that housed four apartments.

The biography said the unattractive, hastily erected apartments and dormitories contrasted with the magnificent scenery. The outdoors and the work at the lab both appealed to Fermi.

Fermi, the biography says, zeroed in on pure physics, preferring others to deal with the political implications of nuclear research. But he was resolute in his belief that Mussolini and Hitler should be defeated.

Segrè believes Fermi was probably the only person to reach the peak of his profession in both experimental and theoretical physics. Fermi died in 1954 at age 53.

(Segrè’s uncle, Emilio Segrè, was a student of Fermi’s in Italy and later a friend.)

Hoerlin, in a phone interview, said the legacy of the Manhattan Project remains with us as political and moral issues. “It has shaped our lives, shaped the way nations interacted and the way people have raised questions to this day that we struggled with in terms of the threat of nuclear annihilation,” she said.

She pointed to other legacies – the role of secrecy in scientific investigation and the role of immigrants; immigrant physicists patriotic to the U.S. were deeply involved in the Manhattan Project.

Hoerlin graduated from Los Alamos High School. Her father was a physicist who went to work at the lab in 1953.