Enrico Fermi and the Birth of the Atomic Age


Enrico Fermi is unquestionably the most famous scientist to come from Italy since Galileo, so revered by his peers that he was known as “the Pope,” because his scientific instincts and skills were to be “infallible.” A physics Nobel Prize winner in 1938, he was one of the most productive and creative scientists of the twentieth century. His work changed our world. The largest particle accelerator in the United States, the nation’s most significant presidential award in science and technology, and the element fermium all bear his name.

This major biography of a towering figure in the history of science portrays Fermi as an architect of the atomic age with all its complexities. In THE POPE OF PHYSICS: Enrico Fermi and the Birth of the Atomic Age [Henry Holt and Company; on-sale: October 18, 2016; 978-1-6277-9005-5; 368 pages; $30.00; Hardcover] Gino Segrè and Bettina Hoerlin bring this scientific visionary to life. From his modest beginnings in Rome amidst the tumultuous environment of fascist Italy, to his immigration to America escaping anti-Semitism, he became a key figure in the Manhattan Project. His work under the football field of the University of Chicago on the world’s first nuclear chain reaction was critical in subsequently building the atomic bomb. THE POPE OF PHYSICS delves into the personal and scientific life of Fermi and how political and social forces shaped the man, and how he, in turn, shaped them. A thrilling history of scientific innovation in the twentieth century—including the controversial issue of nuclear weapons—this is the comprehensive biography that Fermi deserves.

Gino Segrè is a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Pennsylvania. He has been a visiting professor at MIT and Oxford University, chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Pennsylvania, and director of the theoretical physics at the National Science Foundation. He is the author of three books of scientific history: Ordinary Geniuses, Faust in Copenhagen, and A Matter of Degrees. Fermi inspired Segrè to become a physicist, so the desire to commemorate him in a biography was deeply felt. In addition, Segrè’s uncle, Emilio, was Fermi’s first student in Italy, later a long-time collaborator, and won a Nobel Prize of his own.

Bettina Hoerlin served as health commissioner of Philadelphia and taught at the University of Pennsylvania. She has been a visiting lecturer at Haverford College and Oxford University. She is the author of Steps of Courage: My Parents’ Journey from Nazi Germany to America. Though not a physicist herself, Hoerlin was the daughter of one, and grew up in the Atomic City of Los Alamos. Like her husband and co-author, Gino Segrè, Hoerlin’s parents fled anti-Semitism in Europe at the same time that Fermi did. Hoerlin and Segrè’s exhaustive research took them to Rome, Pisa, the University of Chicago and Los Alamos, as well as to Trinity, the New Mexico site of the first nuclear explosion.

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The Pope of Physics by Bettina Hoerlin

Hardcover: 368 pages
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co. (October 18, 2016)
ISBN-10: 1627790055
ISBN-13: 978-1627790055

Read an Excerpt

Superbly written. This will set the gold standard for books on Enrico Fermi.

MICHIO KAKUTheoretical physicist and author of Physics of the Future and The Future of the Mind

In the hands of Segrè and Hoerlin, enriched with fresh material from his inner circle, Fermi’s life becomes a brilliant―and true―historical novel.

FRANK WILCZEKNobel Prize-winning physicist, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

In The Pope of Physics, the first in-depth biography of Enrico Fermi, Segrè and Hoerlin bring the man and his work to life with exhaustive research and authoritative prose.

SYLVIA NASARAuthor of A Beautiful Mind

A delightful and compelling history of Enrico Fermi – a hero to anyone who knows about physics…With its detailed scholarship combined with insightful analysis, this book was clearly a labor of love for Segrè and Hoerlin, whose personal and scientific connections to Fermi make them the ideal biographers of this great man.

LAWRENCE M. KRAUSSAuthor of The Physics of Star Trek and A Universe from Nothing

This beautifully written biography of Enrico Fermi brings us the whole man—the circumstances that molded him, his genius, his central contributions to the coming of the atomic age, and his very human qualities.

JEROME FRIEDMANNobel Prize-winner and former graduate student of Enrico Fermi

Segrè and Hoerlin have artfully incorporated a personal backdrop shedding light on the behaviors that drove the decisions and motivations of Enrico Fermi, a 20th century one-of-a-kind genius – a compelling story.

NIGEL LOCKYERexperimental particle physicist and director of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory

In the hands of Segrè and Hoerlin, enriched with fresh material from his inner circle, Fermi’s life becomes a brilliant - and true – historical novel.

FRANK WILCZEKNobel Prize-winning physicist, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and author of A Beautiful Question