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Born in Rome, Italy on September 29, 1901, Enrico Fermi was born into a well-sized family. Enrico was the third child of his father Albert, and mother Ida de Gattis Fermi. Enrico was pushed to learning at an early age due to his mother’s influence towards education. Fermi’s passion towards physics was most likely a result of a very traumatic family tragedy. When Enrico’s was 14, his older brother, Giulio, died very suddenly. Enrico was distraught and devastated. To console Enrico, his parents encouraged him to focus on learning and education. “He came across a couple of physics books written a half-century earlier and was totally enthralled” (biography.com, Enrico Fermi). Growing up and through his teens, Enrico Fermi performed science and physics experiment with his friends. One interesting experiment that they performed was testing the density of Rome’s water supply. In 1918 Enrico won a scholarship to the Scuola Normale Superiore University in Pisa, Italy. His entrance essay was so impressive that he was quickly bumped up to the doctoral program. Later he graduated with honors in 1922.
In 1928 Enrico Fermi married the daughter of a respected Jewish family in Rome. This woman’s name was Laura Capon. They had one son, Giulio, named after Enrico’s brother and a daughter named Nella. As for his profession, Fermi was elected professor of theoretical physics at the University of Rome. “In 1934, Fermi began his most important work with the atom, discovering that nuclear transformation could occur in nearly every element. One of the elements’ atoms he split was uranium. This work led to the discovery of slowing down neutrons, which led to nuclear fission and the production of new elements beyond the traditional Periodic Table” (biography.com, Enrico Fermi). Enrico’s first major award was being awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1938. This award was a huge lifesaver for Fermi’s family. Recently in Italy, the government passed anti-Jewish laws, endangering his family. This award would later be a road that would safely harbor them in America.
Safely living in the United States, Enrico Fermi was appointed a professor of physics at New York’s Columbia University. While studying at the university, Enrico discovered that if uranium neutrons were emitted into fissioning uranium, they could split other uranium atoms, setting off a large chain reaction that would emit huge amounts of energy. These experiment directed to the very first controlled nuclear chain reaction on December 2, 1942, in Chicago. During World War Two, Fermi was recruited as a high leader in the Manhattan Project. The Manhattan Project was a large group of highly educated scientists and physicists that worked to create an atomic bomb. In 1944 Enrico Fermi and his wife became legal American citizens.
For the Manhattan Project, the total bill was around 2 billion dollar of research and development. The Manhattan Project also employed over 120,000 American citizens. In this task of creating an atomic bomb, secrecy was one of the most important things to have. If the Nazi Germans or the Japanese knew about this weapon, there would have been a great turn in the war. President Teddy Roosevelt and Winston Churchill both agreed to keep the United State’s current ally, Josef Stalin of the Soviet Union, in the dark. To keep the secrecy of the project in America, only a small circle of lead scientists out of the 120,000 workers knew the intentions and uses of the bomb and its construction. Even though the Axis powers did not know of this plan, a Soviet spy named Klaus Fuchs infiltrated the circle of scientists. On July 16, 1945, the first atomic bomb was tested at the Trinity bomb site in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The nuclear bomb was affixed in a thin 100-foot tower and dropped at dawn. No one was prepared for the result.
When the bomb dropped, no one expected what happened next. “A blinding flash visible for 200 miles lit up the morning sky. A mushroom cloud reached 40,000 feet, blowing out windows of civilian homes up to 100 miles away” (ushistory.org, The Manhattan Project). When the mushroom cloud floated back down to earth, it created a half-mile wide crater metamorphosing sand into glass. A completely false cover-up story was created to continue to hide the knowledge of the creation of the atomic bomb. This cover-up was that an ammunition dump exploded in the desert.
After World War II, Enrico was highly nominated for the General Advisory Committee for the Atomic Energy Commission. In October 1949 the committee gathered to discuss the idea of a hydrogen bomb. Fermi was impressed and amazed at this idea, but later co-authored an addendum to the committee’s report criticizing the idea of development. When President Truman directed the order of the development of the bomb, ignoring his serious warnings, Enrico traveled to Los Alamos, New Mexico to perform research of why the construction of such a bomb was impossible.
In 1954, Enrico Fermi was diagnosed with incurable stomach cancer and spent the last few months of his life in Chicago. On November 28, 1954, he passed away in his sleep at his home in Chicago, Illinois.
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