34¢ Enrico Fermi
Issue Date: September 29, 2001
City: Chicago, IL
Printed by: Sterling Sommer for Ashton-Potter (USA) Ltd
Printing Method: Lithographed
Born in Rome, Italy, on September 29, 1901, Enrico Fermi had a strong understanding and joy for mathematics and physics from an early age. By 1918, he earned a fellowship of the Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa. He graduated in 1922 with a doctor’s degree in physics.
The following year, Fermi received a scholarship from the Italian government and studied with Professor Max Born in Göttingen. After that, he earned a Rockefeller Fellowship and went to Leyden. From 1924 to 26, Fermi worked as a Lecturer in Mathematical Physics and Mechanics at the University of Florence.
In 1926, Fermi discovered a statistical law relating to the distribution of particles over energy states in systems made up of several identical particles (now known as fermions). These became known as the Fermi-Dirac statistics (Paul Dirac discovered the method around the same time on his own).
Fermi went on to become a Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Rome from 1927 to 1938. During that time, he focused on electrodynamics and spectroscopic phenomena. Over time, he began to turn his attention away from outer electrons to the atomic nucleus. Fermi advanced the ß-decay theory and discovered that nuclear transformation can happen to nearly every element that undergoes neutron bombardment. They led to the discovery of slow neutrons, nuclear fission, and the creation of elements outside of the existing Periodic Table. Fermi’s work in this field earned him the 1938 Nobel Prize in Physics.
However, around this same time, Fermi grew concerned over Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, so he moved to America and was hired as a Professor of Physics at Columbia University in New York. Then in December 1942, Fermi staged the first controlled nuclear chain reaction in Chicago. He was also one of the leading physicists on the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb that brought an end to World War II.
Fermi became an American citizen in 1944 and two years later, was made a professor at the Institute for Nuclear Studies of the University of Chicago. While there, he studied high-energy physics and pion-nucleon interactions. He spent his final years studying cosmic rays.
Suffering from stomach cancer, Fermi had an exploratory operation in October 1954, but died at the age of 53 weeks later on November 28, 1954, in Chicago, Illinois.
During his life, Fermi received a number of awards including the Matteucci Medal, Hughes Medal, Franklin Medal, Rumford Prize, and Medal for Merit. Many things have also been named in his honor, including the Fermilab particle accelerator and physics lab in Batavia, Illinois, the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, three nuclear reactors, and a nuclear power plant. He’s also one of 16 scientists with an element named after him – fermium. And since 1956, the US Atomic Energy Commission’s highest honor has been known as the Fermi Award.