Enrico Fermi

Enrico Fermi, an Italian physicist and one of the most brilliant contributors to the United States Manhattan Project and considered one of the “fathers of the atomic bomb.” It seems that scientists are perhaps always somewhat transnational, in that scientific discoveries and the scientific community as a whole straddle national boundaries, and new discoveries are almost always shared with the rest of the world. In the case of the development of the atomic bomb, however, Fermi’s status as a transnational scientist is perhaps even more relevant, while at the same time complicated by his contributions specifically to the American development of the atomic bomb.

Fermi was born in Italy and lived there until 1938, when he was forced to leave because of new laws that targeted Jews and endangered his wife. Upon receiving the Nobel Prize in Physics that year, he and his family moved to the US, and applied for citizenship. Soon after his establishment as a physics professor at Columbia University, Fermi became involved in the discovery (mostly by other foreign-born physicists working at US universities) of atomic fission and ultimately work on developing the atomic bomb. Fermi was also one of the first of these scientists to inform the US military and the National Defense Research Committee of the potential uses and impacts of nuclear energy. Fermi’s contributions to the Manhattan Project and his creation of a nuclear reactor in a squash court under the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field made him an influential figure in the US development of the atomic bomb. While he was integral in the development of the atomic bomb in Los Alamos, and later on, the hydrogen bomb, however, Fermi was ultimately against the development and use of a hydrogen bomb on moral terms.

Fermi’s immigration to the US and his involvement in the Manhattan Project suggest he was an integral part of America’s presence in the world, at a crucial time in American transnationalism. From his origins alone, Fermi was transnational; he grew up in Italy and moved to the US because of the German Nazi Party’s influence on Italian Fascism. In the US, he worked with many other immigrant scientists to create the atomic bomb which would play an integral part in World War II. Especially given Fermi’s moral reluctance toward the development of the hydrogen bomb, and the fact of his forced migration to the US when he was almost forty, it is interesting to consider his role as one of the most influential figures in US history, given his nationality. While the development of the atomic bomb was certainly a transnational theme in the world at large, his relationship to the US is interesting as well. Often, nations like to claim a figure as their own, regardless of that person’s origins or nationality, simply because of their contributions to a certain discipline–this occurs with writers, scientists, politicians, nearly all influential figures are claimed by multiple nations as their own. Fermi is clearly a transnational figure, and the US claiming him as their own is a futile attempt at negating his transnationality. If influential figures are influential precisely because their discoveries affect the world at large, one must wonder if any influential figure, regardless of nationality, could really be considered anything other than transnational.

-Yevanit

One thought on “Enrico Fermi”

  1. Hi Yevi! I’m glad you presented Enrico Fermi as a transnational figure. Since this is largely a lit class, I hadn’t thought about how science is more or less always a transnational field of study. Thanks for this!

    – Xanthe

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