Top of the Pile

My latest for the Literary Review

The Last Man Who Knew Everything: The Life and Times of Enrico Fermi, Father of the Nuclear Age

By David N Schwartz

(Basic Books 453pp £26.99)


In spite of its title, this is not another book about Thomas Young, the subject of Andrew Robinson’s The Last Man Who Knew Everything (2006). If anyone deserves that description, it is indeed Young, a linguist, classical scholar, translator of the Rosetta Stone, medical doctor and pioneering scientist at a time when scientists were very much generalists. The subject of David Schwartz’s book, Enrico Fermi (1901–54), might more accurately be described as the last man who knew nearly everything about physics, but that wouldn’t make such a catchy title.

Fermi’s name tends to crop up these days in connection with the Fermi paradox, his suggestion that if intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe we ought to have been visited by now. This argument is more forceful than ever nowadays, in the light of the recent discovery of more planets than you can shake a stick at, but it gets disappointingly little attention from Schwartz. To historians, Fermi is better known as a pioneering nuclear physicist, responsible for the construction of the first controllable nuclear reactor (called an ‘atomic pile’ at the time) and for his contribution to the Manhattan Project. All this gets disappointingly too much attention from Schwartz, who goes into tedious detail. His background is in political science, and it shows.

One reason for this is spelled out in the author’s preface. There are no personal diaries to draw on and few personal letters in the archives. ‘One searches in vain for anything intimate,’ Schwartz says. So the biographer has to fall back on discussing the physics. Unfortunately, although his father was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Schwartz is in his own words ‘not a physicist’.

The worst of several infelicities occurs when Schwartz is describing Fermi’s most important contribution to theoretical nuclear physics: the suggestion that there is a force of nature, now known as the weak interaction, that is involved in the process of radioactive decay. He tells us that it gets its name ‘because it takes effect only when particles come into extremely close range of each other’. This is nonsense. Its weakness has nothing to do with its range. Indeed, another short-range force, known as the strong interaction, is the strongest of all the forces of nature, and the weakest force, gravity, has the longest range.

Fermi was also one of the discoverers – or inventors – of Fermi-Dirac statistics, which describe the behaviour of such particles as electrons, protons and neutrons (collectively known as fermions). Unusually for his time, he was a first-class experimenter as well as a first-class theorist. This was probably a factor in his early death. In the 1930s, Fermi briefly headed a world-leading group of nuclear physicists in Rome, before political events led it to break up. In one series of experiments, target materials had to be bombarded with neutrons to make them radioactive, then carried down a corridor for their radioactivity to be measured by apparatus kept in an area separate from the neutron source. Running down this corridor clutching the samples to his body, Fermi was repeatedly exposed to radiation. In 1954, at the age of fifty-three, he died of a heart attack, his body ravaged by cancer.

By 1938, Fermi, whose wife was Jewish, knew that it was time to leave Italy and move to America. Before departing, however, he received a unique enquiry. He was asked whether he would be able to accept the Nobel Prize in Physics if it were offered to him. Schwartz is on much surer ground in explaining the intriguing background to this approach, the only example of a recipient being approached in advance by the Nobel Committee. The Swedish Academy was concerned that, were Fermi to be awarded the prize, Mussolini might follow the lead of Hitler, who had been angry when Carl von Ossietzky received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1936 for revealing German rearmament the previous year and forbade any German from accepting an award from the Nobel Committee. There was also the question of how Italian currency restrictions might affect the prize money. Nevertheless, Fermi accepted the accolade. Following the ceremony in Stockholm, the Fermis went on to America with their prize money, equivalent to more than $500,000 today, which certainly eased the transition. And there he was roped into developing nuclear weapons technology, in spite of being, after December 1941, an enemy alien.

It was in the context of his work on the first atomic pile that Fermi famously remarked to a colleague that he could ‘calculate almost anything to an accuracy of ten per cent in less than a day, but to improve the accuracy by a factor of three might take him six months’. He applied a similar approach in his private life, where he enjoyed doing odd jobs and was happy as long as the end products worked, however they appeared. ‘Never make something more accurate than absolutely necessary,’ he once told his daughter.

This tiny glimpse into his mind exacerbates the frustration caused by the lack of more insights of this kind. Schwartz has probably done as good a job as possible with the available material about one of the most important scientists of the 20th century. But it is a pity he did not have the draft read by a physicist, who might have picked up the howlers. A special place in hell should, though, be reserved for the publicist, who tells us that the book ‘lays bare the colourful life and personality’ of Fermi. The author is at pains to point out that this is not the case, so clearly the publicist has not read even the preface. The Last Man Who Knew Everything is well worth reading, but not if you are looking for colour and personality.