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The Pope of Physics: Enrico Fermi and the…

The Pope of Physics: Enrico Fermi and the Birth of the Atomic Age (2016)

by Gino Segré, Bettina Hoerlin

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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
While not the most riveting biography I've ever read, this book was absolutely educational and informative. Enrico Fermi may be one of the most underrated physicists in modern history. It always strikes me as odd that Einstein is a household name and Fermi is mostly unknown, but I'd venture that he has had a more direct impact on our lives.

Regardless, I found the most interesting parts of the book to be about Fermi's desire to lead an entirely apolitical life, separating science from its possible societal impacts. I am not somebody who believes that science exists in a vacuum, so I always find it a bit shocking to think that scientists wanted to build the most destructive weapons in human history because they could, with no regard for future impacts on a societal and political level.

Needless to say, Fermi's impacts go beyond his contributions to fission and leading the first controlled nuclear reaction. And reading about these discoveries in the context of the great political upheavals going on in Italy and even in the US at the time was quite educational. ( )
1 vote lemontwist | Feb 15, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This is an excellent biography of the Italian physicist, Enrico Fermi. I received a copy of this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program in exchange for an honest review.

This book is an enjoyable read (at times downright suspenseful), and appeals to us at many levels. It tells of an exciting time in physics, and the science is explained in a way that the general reader can understand and feel the excitement of discovery. It’s also the story of the development of the atomic bomb, the war that was its context, and the moral questions that arose at the time, and afterwards. It’s also a story of Fermi the man. The co-authors have personal connections that let them create a story rich in anecdote and detail. I wanted to read every word.

The story line I enjoyed the most was a kind of educational miracle. Over a hundred years ago, universal education did not exist in Italy; Fermi’s family had to advocate for him even being taught reading and mathematics. It was a bit of a miracle that he learned physics at all, by picking up an old book in the Campo dei’ Fiori. Then, Italian science had fallen to a low ebb, and the University of Rome had to educate a class of students that knew more than their professor. I smiled a lot as I pictured the group of four energetic and irreverent young men who successfully carried out research at the university, mostly on their own. Fermi took a role in his class there, and in his subsequent work teams at the University of Chicago and at Los Alamos, where he made sure knowledge was shared. His greatest gifts may have been as a teacher at the end of his life. He not only made great discoveries, but built up the scientific community.

Finally this book, dedicated “To immigrants, then and now,” is an immigration story. Enrico Fermi was technically an enemy alien, but he successfully immigrated to the United States, and as it turned out, we needed him very much. We’re being encouraged just now to worry about who we let in to the country. This book invites us to think more clearly about who we might be shutting out.
  aquariumministry | Feb 7, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I won an Arc of this book from Librarything's Early Readers group.

This biography describes a man who helped shape the modern age, and along with that it describes the turbulent times that shaped the man. I throughly enjoyed reading this and would recommend it to anyone interested in science or nuclear-related things (history, facts, etc). This is the best biography I have read in a long time. It starts from the beginning of Fermi's life and walks us right through to the end. Using memoirs and interviews, the authors have painted a picture of a remarkable man. ( )
  Karen.Helfrick | Jan 28, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This biography of Enrico Fermi is extremely detailed and comprehensive. It takes us through the entire life of this amazingly talented scientist. Even though I have a strong scientific background, I did not know how important Fermi was. Indubitably of genius status, he ranked with the greatest scientists of the 20th century. Because he lived through times of such turmoil (the Depression, World War II, the Cold War), the story of Fermi's life is told against this background of conflict which makes his achievements even more important. The authors are connected to Fermi directly through their family and friends (Segre's father was a colleague), so there are many very personal anecdotes which shed more light on Fermi the man. In addition, the science in the book is explained very extensively -- it's almost like a "basic primer" on nuclear physics. Thus you get a grounding in the science as well as the scientist. ( )
1 vote RickLA | Dec 31, 2016 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This is a brisk and exciting biography of a man who was central to many of the advances in mid-20th century physics. Given the scope of Fermi's scientific achievements, I am surprised that this is also the FIRST biography of him.

Segre and Hoerlin have done an outstanding job of compressing their subject's life and work into a manageable and compelling narrative of the man and his times --and what times these were: the relativity and quantum revolutions beginning in the early 20th century, the Fascist takeover of Italy, the breathless work creating the first-ever nuclear reactor ("CP-1" -- for 'critical pile 1')!

The only reservation I have is also one of the things I like about the book: its brevity. One gets a strong sense of Fermi as a person, especially through his effect on other people; however, his center remains somewhat enigmatic. At the same time, the portrait the authors create is of a man who (according to many people) was exactly what he appeared to be! Therefore, a biography of the by-now-familiar length of, say, 800 pages or so would have left the reader with the same portrait -- and tired eyes.

But one would like, for example, to know more about Fermi's famous indifference to politics. This alters a bit once the enormity of the destructive potential of thermonuclear weapons becomes apparent, but ... what was the reason Fermi compartmentalized his life so much? WAS there a reason? For years, his strongest feelings about Mussolini could be summed up as "embarrassment." As long as he was free to pursue science, all was well. It was only when the threat of anti-Jewish laws loomed (Fermi was not a Jew, but his wife Laura was) that he began to have substantive difficulty working for a Fascist regime.

I'm confident the majority of readers will find this book as exciting as I did. It's first-rate. ( )
  tungsten_peerts | Aug 24, 2016 |
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"The first full-scale biography of the Nobel Prize-winning physicist and one of the fathers of the atomic age, Enrico Fermi. Enrico Fermi is unquestionably the most famous scientist to come from Italy since Galileo, so revered that he's known as The Pope of Physics. A modest, unassuming man, Fermi was nevertheless one of the most productive and creative scientists of the twentieth century, one of the fathers of the Atomic Bomb and a Nobel Prize winner whose contributions to physics and nuclear technology live on today, with the largest particle accelerator in the United States and the nation's most significant science and technology award both bearing his name. In this, the first major biography of Fermi in English, Gino Segre, professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Pennsylvania, brings this scientific visionary to life. An examination of the human dramas that touched Fermi's life as well as a thrilling history of scientific innovation in the twentieth century--including the birth of one of its most controversial disciplines, nuclear physics--this is the comprehensive biography that Fermi deserves"--… (more)

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