Enrico Fermi, phsyicist
Enrico Fermi, 1901 – 1954, is often described as a complete physicist because he understood and could expound upon of all of physics at the time. Richard Rhodes called him “the last of the double-threat physicists: genius at creating both esoteric theories and elegant experiments.”
For a lot of scientists, one of the appealing things about my grandfather was his wide-ranging interests. He looked for simplicity and elegance wherever it could be found. Scientists I’ve met along the Neutron Trail and physicists who knew him personally have explained to me he is known for contributions to relativity, statistical physics, quantum mechanics, computational physics, and — of course — particle physics (but not just neutrons, also weak interactions and other things). At Chicago, he would quiz doctoral candidates, asking them to estimate almost any kind of number, from the cross section of the neutron to the number of piano tuners in the New York City. He truly had catholic (small c) tastes!
In 1953, the year before his death of stomach cancer, Enrico asks us to ponder the dilemma which has come to symbolize his legacy in a socio-political context:
“Some of you may ask, what is the good of working so hard merely to collect a few facts which will bring no pleasure except to a few long-haired professors who love to collect such things and will be of no use to anybody because only few specialists at best will be able to understand them? In answer to such question[s] I may venture a fairly safe prediction.
“History of science and technology has consistently taught us that scientific advances in basic understanding have sooner or later led to technical and industrial applications that have revolutionized our way of life. It seems to me improbable that this effort to get at the structure of matter should be an exception to this rule. What is less certain, and what we all fervently hope, is that man will soon grow sufficiently adult to make good use of the powers that he acquires over nature.”
Enrico Fermi, The Future of Nuclear Physics, unpublished address, Rochester, NY, January 10, 1953, EFP, box 53.