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The Last Man Who Knew Everything
The Life and Times of Enrico Fermi, Father of the Nuclear Age
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In 1942, a team at the University of Chicago achieved what no one had before: a nuclear chain reaction. At the forefront of this breakthrough stood Enrico Fermi. Straddling the ages of classical physics and quantum mechanics, equally at ease with theory and experiment, Fermi truly was the last man who knew everything — at least about physics. But he was also a complex figure who was a part of both the Italian Fascist Party and the Manhattan Project, and a less-than-ideal father and husband who nevertheless remained one of history’s greatest mentors. Based on new archival material and exclusive interviews, The Last Man Who Knew Everything lays bare the enigmatic life of a colossus of twentieth century physics.
MY FATHER WAS A PARTICLE PHYSICIST. IN 1962, HE AND TWO of his colleagues conducted an experiment that demonstrated the existence of two distinct types of “neutrinos,” ghostly subatomic particles that can pass through hundreds of millions of miles of lead without bumping into a single atom. Hypothesized in a leap of imagination by the acerbic Viennese physicist Wolfgang Pauli, the neutrino’s creation in radioactive processes was first explained by Enrico Fermi, who also gave the particle its Italianate name, meaning “little neutral one.” The 1962 experiment—a direct legacy of one of Fermi’s most famous scientific achievements—made the front page of the New York Times and won my father and his collaborators the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physics.
My connection to Fermi might well have been more direct if it were not for my father’s stubbornness as an undergraduate. When he was a senior at Columbia in 1953, my father approached his favorite teacher, Jack Steinberger, and said that he wanted to stay at Columbia for his doctorate. He asked Jack to be his thesis adviser. Quite sensibly, Jack explained that it would be a mistake for my father to stay at Columbia and suggested doing a doctorate at the University of Chicago with Fermi. Jack had been one of Fermi’s first postwar graduate students, and the experience had changed Jack’s life. With all the callowness youth can muster, my father objected that if he went to Chicago he would lose all the graduate credits he had accumulated as an undergraduate at Columbia. Jack relented and went on to become my father’s thesis adviser and then collaborator on the 1962 neutrino experiment.
So I always knew that Enrico Fermi was an important physicist, at least as far as my household was concerned.
My father passed away in 2006, at the relatively young age of seventy-three. Some seven years later, my mother called with the news that she had finally gone through a file cabinet my father kept in the family garage. She found hundreds of papers and documents stashed away and had no idea what to do with them. I suggested that she send them to me. When they arrived, I went through them and pulled out a series of entertaining letters and papers by a physicist named Valentine Telegdi. Telegdi was a young Fermi colleague in the early 1950s and a close friend of my father. One of the things he had sent my father was a paper he wrote about Fermi’s years at the University of Chicago after the war. Telegdi’s paper on Fermi, subsequently published in a collection of essays on great professors at Chicago edited by Edward Shils, was an eye-opener. I read with fascination about a physicist of astonishing breadth and depth, someone as adept in experiment as in theory, and a world-class teacher, to boot. Finishing the paper, I decided to get a good recent biography of the great man.
To my amazement, the most recent biography in English (as of summer 2013) was the one written by his first graduate student and later close colleague and friend, Emilio Segrè. It was published in 1970. In the forty-odd years since then, an enormous amount of Nobel Prize–caliber research has extended Fermi’s legacy in the physics world. In addition, much has been published in the way of memoirs and historical studies to enhance our understanding of Fermi and his place in the world of physics. It seemed unjust to me that Fermi—one of the most dominant and most interesting figures in twentieth-century physics—was not as well known to the general public as Einstein or Feynman or Oppenheimer, about whom the public seems to have an insatiable interest.
By the late fall of 2013, I decided to write a full-length, general reader biography of the man, encompassing his scientific achievements, his personal life, and his legacy in a way that would bring him to life for a new generation of readers. Basic Books was willing to give me the opportunity to do so. It has been quite a journey.
I am not a physicist and this is not a physics book. This is a book about a man who happened to be an extraordinary physicist and who also led an eventful, dramatic life. The physics is important, of course, but you will not find equations, Feynman diagrams, or the like in this book. You will find what I hope to be straightforward descriptions of his science, accessible to the lay person. For anyone interested in a deeper level of understanding of his achievements, the best source by far is Fermi’s own writings, lovingly collected by his colleagues in two volumes published in the early 1960s by University of Chicago Press, Enrico Fermi: The Collected Papers. This two-volume set stands as his scientific biography and is accessible to anyone who majored in physics in college. The clarity and simplicity of Fermi’s style of science writing are hallmarks of his unique approach.
What you will find in this book, I hope, is a narrative that brings the whole person into focus. It is tempting to say, as did many of his colleagues, that he was “all physics, all the time,” and there is an element of truth to this. But he was also a husband, a father, a colleague, and a friend. He played a central role in some of the most important events of the twentieth century. The drama of his life can only be appreciated through an examination of all of these aspects.
Unfortunately, the story cannot be told as directly as a biographer would like. Fermi was prolific in his professional publications but revealed very little of himself or his inner life. Diaries simply do not exist, and personal letters are few and far between and provide little, if any, personal insight. His numerous pocket diaries are filled with physics doodles and brief accounts of his expenditures on various trips. One searches in vain for anything intimate. The biographer is left triangulating among the various source materials available: the memoir written by his wife of their life together, published in 1954, the year he died; the 1970 Segrè biography mentioned above; memoirs and reminiscences of those who studied with him and those who worked with him, both in his native Rome and in his adopted country, the United States. Fortunately, the results of such triangulation provide a fairly consistent portrait. Still, some mysteries about what he did, and why, will probably never be resolved. I have tried to illuminate where I can and note carefully where such illumination is impossible.
Strangely, although my father and I discussed the contribution of many physicists over the years, I cannot recall ever discussing Enrico Fermi with him. To my regret, he did not live to see me undertake this project. In retrospect, he might well have been inspired by Fermi. My father was also a fine experimentalist and an outstanding teacher, able to convey complex ideas in simple, compelling ways. Whenever I asked him to explain something to me, his first words were invariably “David, that’s trivial!” And he would make it seem so to me. I am sure he would be surprised that I chose to embark on this project and I hope he would be pleased.
HE WAS BORN IN ROME, ITALY, ON SEPTEMBER 29, 1901, AND died in Chicago, Illinois, on November 28, 1954. His life spanned two world wars, and though he was too young to participate in the first, his contribution to the outcome of the second was pivotal and made him world famous. His life also spanned the two major intellectual revolutions of the twentieth century—relativity and quantum theory—and though his contributions to the first were notable, his contributions to the second established him as one of the greatest scientists of his day, indeed, one of the greatest scientists of all time.
To no one’s surprise he won a Nobel Prize in 1938.
He made friends easily and inspired passionate loyalty. Those who knew him wept openly when they learned of his premature death at the age of fifty-three. Newspapers around the world carried his death on their front pages, befitting his status as one of the most famous scientists of his day.
His name was Enrico Fermi.
THE ARC OF HIS LIFE IS QUICKLY SUMMARIZED. BORN IN ROME AT the turn of the century, he was a child prodigy, and by the time he arrived at university he had mastered all of classical physics. Because no one in Italy was teaching relativity or quantum theory, Fermi spent his university education teaching himself these subjects; when he graduated he had already published in professional journals. After graduation he studied briefly in Germany and in Holland, returned to the University of Rome for a period as a lecturer, and then won a position at the University of Florence, where he made his first, and some say most important contribution—a method to bring quantum mechanical rules into the field of statistical mechanics. Two years later he won a competition for a professorship in theoretical physics at the University of Rome under his powerful mentor, Orso Mario Corbino. He built one of the major international schools of modern physics and made several extraordinary contributions: a theory that explains a puzzling type of radioactive process called “beta decay”; the discovery that certain elements, when bombarded with neutrons, become radioactive; and the discovery that the intensity of this induced radioactivity increases when the neutrons are slowed down prior to hitting these elements.
He chose the opportunity of his Nobel Prize in 1938 to leave fascist Italy via Stockholm for a faculty position at Columbia University. Shortly thereafter he learned, to his astonishment and embarrassment, that German scientists replicating his 1934 experiments bombarding uranium with neutrons concluded Fermi had been splitting uranium atoms without knowing it. With this knowledge, he and Hungarian émigré Leo Szilard began to explore the possibility of creating a sustained nuclear chain reaction with uranium. After moving the project to the University of Chicago at the request of the US government, Fermi and a large team of fellow physicists and others succeeded in doing so on December 2, 1942, officially ushering in the nuclear age. He was a central figure in the design of plutonium production reactors for the Manhattan Project and in the summer of 1944 moved to Los Alamos, where the first atomic bombs were designed and built. He played a key role in solving the many theoretical and practical problems involved in this final phase of the Manhattan Project. He witnessed the first detonation of an atomic bomb, known as the Trinity test, at Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945.
After the war, Fermi returned to the University of Chicago, where he continued research in nuclear physics and pioneered high-energy physics experiments on Chicago’s new particle accelerator. He spent summers at Los Alamos working on the hydrogen bomb, known as “the Super,” and pioneering the use of computers for simulating complex physics problems. He also studied cosmic rays and astrophysics and took on a full teaching load at the University of Chicago, eventually advising a string of future Nobel laureates and many others who went on to brilliant, high-profile careers. During this period, he advised the US government on all aspects of nuclear technology policy and came to the defense of his Manhattan Project colleague J. Robert Oppenheimer during 1954 hearings on the latter’s security clearance. Fermi died of stomach cancer in November 1954 at the age of fifty-three, leaving behind an indelible mark on virtually every aspect of physics.
THESE ARE THE FACTS ON WHICH ALL AGREE. SEARCHING FOR A richer portrait, one comes across the inevitable outliers. One author portrays him as a “puerile” prankster consumed by jealousy of his more brilliant student Ettore Majorana. Another paints the picture of the greatest scientist in Western history. The consensus not surprisingly lies somewhere in between.
In his youth he was fond of the occasional juvenile prank, but he matured out of this well before he left Rome for the United States. Far from impeding Majorana’s career, Fermi strongly promoted the brilliant introvert’s groundbreaking work.
Fermi was certainly an extraordinary physicist, one of his generation’s greatest, but to argue that he was history’s greatest reflects more the passion he could inspire in those who worked with him than it does his actual place in history.
He had a formidable power of physical intuition and a disciplined, methodical technique that allowed him to crush physics problems in ways that amazed and awed his colleagues. He had a charisma that defies easy analysis—modest, yet fully aware of his superiority over most of the physicists with whom he worked, personally reticent and yet highly gregarious, able to discern the objective and lead others relentlessly toward it, blunt but never nasty, and capable of a self-deprecating wit that immediately put people at ease. No other physicist has ever received such affectionate postdeath tributes. One looks in vain for tributes to other physicists that compare to To Fermi with Love, a two-record set of reminiscences by those who worked with him at Argonne Labs outside Chicago, or The World of Enrico Fermi, the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s lovingly produced documentary of his life and times. Those who worked with him often jostled with each other to secure the mantle of Fermi’s legacy.
He could be collegial but was also highly competitive. Reminiscences from his students paint an inconsistent picture. Those from the early days in Rome speak of a man insensitive to the career difficulties of those around him and completely disinterested in their personal travails. Those who studied with him in Chicago universally comment on his generosity of spirit and ability to connect with those around him and attribute their future successes to his fortuitous interventions.
In other words, the picture is a complex one, hardly surprising given that he was a complex individual in a highly complex world.
SOME WOULD ARGUE, AS DID HIS OLD FRIEND AND COLLEAGUE ISIDOR Isaac (I. I.) Rabi during an interview for the CBC documentary, that the only thing interesting about Fermi was his science, that beyond the science the details of his life are trivial and not worth exploring. Although this is a common view among scientists, who tend to view scientific achievement as distinct from the individual who achieved it, it misses the point. The circumstances of Fermi’s life determined much of what he achieved, and had the chips fallen some other way, his career—and our world—would be different. If Laura had agreed to move to the United States when Fermi first wanted to in 1930, how different would have been the trajectory of his science? We can imagine his coming to the same conclusions regarding beta decay, but would his work on slow neutrons have proceeded the same way with a different, American team? Would that team have discovered fission in 1934, with the benefit of better (or luckier) radiochemists? One can imagine the arc of Fermi’s research altering considerably with an earlier immigration to the States, with unpredictable results. Perhaps he would have delved into high-energy particle physics earlier, although the accelerators available in the 1930s did not have the energy to explore the subatomic world that became the focus of Fermi’s postwar research in Chicago. Even as late as 1939, much of his research agenda seems accidental, particularly the odd set of circumstances that threw Fermi and Szilard together in an historic partnership beginning in early 1939. If in January 1939 Fermi had shown up in Ann Arbor instead of Manhattan, would Szilard have sought him out? Would Fermi have been a central player in the experiments leading to the first chain reaction?
All these questions are essentially imponderables. Still, the very fact that they are imponderable leads to the conclusion that, in common with all scientists of great stature, the specific circumstances of Fermi’s life had an enormous impact on his scientific career. So though one doesn’t need to know much about Fermi’s personal life to study his specific scientific achievements—it is possible, for example, to read the beta decay paper without having any insight whatsoever into the circumstances of its creation—it is incorrect to conclude that an understanding of Fermi’s life is irrelevant to our understanding of his life as a scientist. It is, indeed, essential to grasp the relationship of circumstance to scientific creativity and achievement, to comprehend how history, personality, and circumstance combine to shape the development of any particular scientific achievement. In another context, the British historian of science Charles Percy (C. P.) Snow put it succinctly when he wrote, “If Fermi had been born a few years earlier, one could well imagine him discovering Rutherford’s atomic nucleus, and then developing Bohr’s theory of the hydrogen atom. If this sounds like hyperbole, anything about Fermi is likely to sound like hyperbole.” Snow was alluding to Fermi’s brilliance, but this assessment underscores the importance of circumstance in the development of a scientific career. Yes, Fermi may have discovered the atomic nucleus, he may have thought of the Bohr model of the atom, but he never had the opportunity to do so because he was born two decades too late. We are all are prisoners of the era into which we are born, scientists being no exception.
THE RECEIVED NARRATIVE OF HIS LIFE RINGS TRUE, BUT IT OBSCURES as well as illuminates. Why is there such a difference between the memories of his Italian students and those of his American students, particularly in regard to Fermi’s willingness to encourage them and to promote their careers? Why did he remain so long in Italy, working under a thuggish, essentially evil regime? Was there a part of him that grudgingly supported the fascist dictatorship? Did he really decide to come to the United States only when Mussolini promulgated the anti-Semitic laws that would have targeted his wife? Was he an enthusiastic participant in the Manhattan Project, as so many of the histories of the period suggest? Or was he perhaps somewhat reluctantly pulled along by events out of his control? In October 1949, he was an outspoken opponent of the development of the hydrogen bomb, but by the summer of 1950 he was working intensively on the project. Why? Any biographer must grapple with these questions, even if there are, in the end, no clear-cut answers.
HIS FAME DIMINISHES, EVEN AS HIS LEGACY GROWS.
Perhaps the most enduring of his discoveries as far as the general public is concerned are those relating to his work on the atomic bomb, for which he earned the sobriquet “father of the nuclear age.” Even this, though, raises some important questions. The history of the Manhattan Project is the history of many thousands of scientists, engineers, soldiers, and others who had a hand in bringing about the development of nuclear weapons. Where the epithet most clearly fits is in his role in the development of the first nuclear reactors, devices that demonstrated the possibility of nuclear fission chain reactions that form the basis for nuclear explosions and that served as the production engines for plutonium, the element that formed the core of one of the two atomic bombs that ended World War II. These reactors were built in great haste, under enormous pressure, largely without well-formed engineering plans. Indeed, the first one, at the University of Chicago, emerged more or less fully formed directly from Fermi’s brain. In retrospect, the amazing fact is that they worked as anticipated and that the effort was scalable to a degree that astonishes engineers even today.
His role in the development of the atomic bomb itself is more difficult to assess, being that of a highly valued adviser rather than an architect or designer. In the traditional narratives he is overshadowed by the scientific director of the project, J. Robert Oppenheimer, a physicist as different from Fermi as it is possible to be. But when in the summer of 1944 the work at Los Alamos came to a grinding halt owing to unforeseen technical problems, it was to Fermi that Oppenheimer appealed, asking him to come to the secret city on a New Mexican mesa to help inspire and lead. Fermi did so effectively and without complaint.
For physicists, several of his other achievements rank far higher than those of the Manhattan Project, if not existentially then certainly scientifically. His success in integrating quantum rules into statistical mechanics, in what we now call Fermi-Dirac statistics, is the basis for virtually all condensed matter physics and much else besides. Fermi-Dirac statistics are, if anything, even more useful today than they were when they were proposed in 1926. His 1933 theory of beta radiation, though not considered precisely accurate today, gave rise to an enormous amount of fascinating research in particle physics, resulting in more than a dozen Nobel Prizes to date. After World War II his experimental work in high-energy particle physics helped to lay the groundwork for the quark theory of matter and the Standard Model of particle physics, producing another string of Nobel Prizes. Alone among his true peers, his expertise extended across both theory and experiment, a significant anomaly among world-class physicists. And though he may have had a handful of peers in either theory (Paul Dirac, Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli) or experiment (Arthur Compton, James Franck, I. I. Rabi), in the art of teaching, he had none. Some five of his graduate students went on to win Nobel Prizes and several other future Nobel Prize winners thought of him as their primary graduate or postgraduate mentor. In terms of influence as a teacher and mentor, he was truly unique.
IT IS THIS COMBINATION OF LASTING SCIENTIFIC ACHIEVEMENT AND profound influence on several generations of physicists, in the United States and in Italy, that make his story directly relevant to us today. Underlying these achievements was a foundation built on enormous talent, but equally important, on a disciplined, almost terrifyingly comprehensive effort as a young man to teach himself all of known physics. During the period in which he laid down this awe-inspiring foundation, he also developed a unique way of thinking about problems that allowed him to achieve what he did and to inspire those around him. He learned at an early age how to strip a problem to its essentials and structure the solution in a straightforward manner, invariably starting at the right place and avoiding complications that might bedevil others. He used this technique in a wide variety of settings, notably in solving problems that now bear his name. “Fermi problems” can be simplified into a finite set of variables whose values can be estimated to within an order of magnitude. Linking those variables together not only provides a quick, rough-and-ready solution but also forces one to think about the elements of the problem that are essential and those that can be safely discarded. Fermi problems often have at their core estimates of the probability of one event or another occurring. This was the type of problem that Fermi excelled in solving, in part because during that formative period of his intellectual development he mastered probability and statistics as a central part of his scientific repertoire. Calculations of probabilities run like a bright thread throughout his work and at several crucial points in his career provided a focus for his most important breakthroughs—the Fermi-Dirac statistics, for example, or his later fascination with Monte Carlo simulations. This way of thinking, which he passed along to colleagues and students, is one of his greatest legacies. Recruiters at firms like McKinsey and Goldman Sachs pepper potential hires with Fermi problems to see how they think and probably never realize the debt they owe to this giant of modern physics.
Fermi’s ability to grind out solutions to difficult problems using a well-developed toolkit of techniques was paired with an extraordinary sense of what problems were important and an affinity for the quick-and-dirty solution when appropriate to his needs. The former set him apart from most of his contemporaries and ensured that he would be at the forefront of his field throughout his career. The latter was sometimes misinterpreted as laziness or, worse yet, a fear of complex mathematics. He was neither lazy nor afraid—he had enormous reserves of energy that drove him to work longer and harder than many younger colleagues, and he was a fine mathematician, able to hold his own with geniuses like John von Neumann—but he valued his time and chose to work only hard enough to get a practical solution. He once quipped to his daughter, Nella, “Never make something more accurate than necessary.” Offered in the context of some unattractive but functional carpentry for the living room of the family home, it was a philosophy that also guided him in physics.
HE MAY HAVE BEEN A WORLD-CLASS PHYSICIST, BUT HE WAS NOT A world-class family man.
As a husband he could be a frustrating and sometimes infuriating person to live with, as his wife Laura makes clear in her largely affectionate but sometimes arch account of their marriage, Atoms in the Family, published in 1954, just prior to his death. The incessant teasing, the long periods—sometimes months—spent away from her, his unwillingness to take her into his confidence during his work on the Manhattan Project all took their toll. Physics was the most important thing in his life and everything else took second place. Laura knew this when she married him, of course, and if she had any illusions to the contrary, they were shattered the afternoon during their honeymoon when he insisted on teaching her Maxwell’s equations. There is no doubt, however, that they loved each other and eventually accommodated themselves to each other’s idiosyncrasies, as most successful couples do.
He was also not the best of fathers. He helped Laura little in domestic matters relating to raising their children, and Laura seems not to have expected anything different. His daughter, Nella, had great affection for him, although even she admits he could be distant. His son, Giulio, chafed at living in his father’s shadow and ultimately put as much distance as possible between himself and his family legacy. Whether Fermi was any worse a father than other successful, driven men of the time is an open question. Parenting in the 1940s and 1950s was not the art it is today, and the profile we have of Fermi as a father is not substantially different from the profile of many others at that time. In his final years he took his parenting role a bit more seriously, but by then much of the damage had already been done. It was, to say the least, difficult being a child of Enrico Fermi.
THAT HE IS NOT BETTER KNOWN, THAT PHYSICISTS LIKE RICHARD Feynman and Stephen Hawking are more well known to the general public, may simply reflect the circumstances of his death in 1954 at an early age and before the widespread advent of television. Few films of his lectures survive, and his television appearances were rare. In later years he may have resented the adulation of Einstein, but in response he did little in the way of self-promotion. Not that he had any sense of false modesty. One of Fermi’s University of Chicago colleagues reported being told of the following conversation between Fermi and his brilliant but troubled graduate student Majorana:
- "Mr. Schwartz deftly conveys the aesthetic beauty of Fermi's insights without getting mired in their minutiae."—Economist
- "There have been other accounts of his life, yet David N. Schwartz's new portrait, The Last Man Who Knew Everything, is the first thorough biography to be published since Fermi's death 64 years ago in 1954. Schwartz, working with limited sources, tells the story well...[His] biography adds importantly to the literature of the utterly remarkable men and women who opened up nuclear physics to the world."—New York Times Book Review
- "[Schwartz] does an admirable job of explaining the science and provides careful assessments of Fermi's influence... [and illuminates] the human effects of a project that was so urgent yet so terrible in its long-term implications."—Foreign Affairs
- "Schwartz's The Last Man Who Knew Everything offers the most comprehensive description of Fermi's work so far, as well as fresh insights into his personality."—Nature
- "The Last Man Who Knew Everything manages the neat double trick of making both Fermi and his abstruse work accessible to readers living in the world he did so much to create, for good and ill."—Christian Science Monitor
- "An informative and fun read, rich in those anecdotes and tales that...help to elucidate what was driving the work of the giant that Fermi was.... The more mundane aspects of Fermi's life--his fears, vanities and human errors, emerge...from these pages."—Physics World
- "David Schwartz's elegant narrative is a formidable achievement, shining a bright light on Enrico Fermi, the most enigmatic physicist of the early atomic era. Schwartz has exhausted the archives and crafted what will certainly stand as the most deeply biographical account of this brilliant scientist's tragically short life." —Kai Bird, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer and co-author with Martin J. Sherwin of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer
- "It is testimony to David N. Schwartz's excellence as a biographer that he can reveal the workaholic Fermi to have been such a fascinatingly complex figure... [Schwartz] excels in a portrayal that is balanced and nuanced, sympathetic but unflinching."—The Spectator (UK)
- "A lucid writer who has done his homework, Schwartz...delivers a thoroughly enjoyable, impressively researched account...Never a media darling like Einstein or Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi (1901-1954) is now barely known to the public, but few scientists would deny that he was among the most brilliant physicists of his century...A rewarding, expert biography of a giant of the golden age of physics."—Kirkus
- "Told in a sure, steady voice, Schwartz's book delivers a scrupulously researched and lovingly crafted portrait of the 'greatest Italian scientist since Galileo.'"—Publishers Weekly
- "In this compelling new biography, Schwartz makes clear how little lay beyond the reach of this scientific polymath.... A sophisticated portrayal of a complex man."—Booklist
- "No physicist has more concepts and places named after him than Enrico Fermi, and for good reason. A central figure in so much of twentieth-century physics, Fermi was renowned for his imagination, his brilliance, and his style. This comprehensive biography is a treasure trove of detail and revealing insight into a unique scientific figure." —Sean Carroll, author of The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself
- "A tremendous book, fascinating and clear. I now know Enrico Fermi as well as anyone could today. Schwartz writes with a joy and passion for the subject and genuine interest in the man that shines through. There are great scientists working today on AI and gene-editing, exploring 'multi-verse' theories, searching for 'Goldilocks' planets, and developing new means of powering space travel. I hope they will someday have a biographer and chronicler as talented as Schwartz to tell their story."—Richard A. Clarke, author of Against All Enemies, Cyber War, and Warnings
- "One of the finest biographies of the year, The Last Man Who Knew Everything combines the historic, the scientific and the personal in a deft and effortless way. Enrico Fermi was easily one of the most fascinating human beings of the 20th century, a man whose intellectual brilliance was trapped inside an all-too-human shell. The result, in David Schwartz's able interpretation, is nothing short of spellbinding."—Gary Shteyngart, author of Little Failure and Super Sad True Love Story
- "In this compelling and well-researched biography, David Schwartz reveals both triumph and tragedy in the life and work of Enrico Fermi, one of the greatest and hitherto most enigmatic scientists of the 20th century."—Frank Close, professor of physics at Oxford and author of Neutrino and Half-Life
- "David Schwartz has written a highly-readable account of an undervalued figure in the making of the atomic age---one that puts Enrico Fermi in the proper historical context."—Gregg Herken, author of Brotherhood of the Bomb
- "Enrico Fermi was part of a great brain drain pre-WWII from Axis nations, when ideology overwhelmed the search for truth and even self-interest. We don't want to happen in America. Despite what you might think from the title, The Last Man Who Knew Everything, this amazing book by David Schwartz is brimming with anecdotes in which Enrico Fermi is not the smartest guy in the room. He is focused on family, colleagues and meaning. David really puts us intimately at the table for the historic atomic revolution. This humanization of geniuses and forging public engagement in complex science is crucial today as we become ever more dependent on technological leadership. As fresh and riveting a biography as any you will find." —George Church, author of Regenesis
- "Enrico Fermi was a singular figure of modern science, and David Schwartz has written a singular biography. His book is unusually adept and nuanced in its appreciation and explanation of both the scientific and humanistic aspects of its subject. It is also a joy to read, as Schwartz has a beautiful authorial voice that is perfectly appropriate for his subject matter: appreciative and sympathetic, without falling into the hyperbolic or uncritical. It is a rare book that will please both the experts and the novices, but I think this is such a rare book." —Alex Wellerstein, assistant professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology and author of Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog
- On Sale
- Dec 5, 2017
- Page Count
- 480 pages
- Basic Books