Acclaimed scientist Enrico Fermi runs down a beach toward the camera, vying to beat his peers in a race on the heavy sand on the cover of The Last Man Who Knew Everything: The Life and Times of Enrico Fermi, Father of the Nuclear Age.That is a fitting metaphor for Fermi’s life and career, says David N. Schwartz PhD ’80, author of the new book. “It captures a lot of Fermi’s personality. He loved to run ahead of the pack—and he was a very competitive guy.”
Fermi’s competitive nature included a ferocious appetite for his studies, a persistent lab routine, and an ambitious and disciplined research schedule.
These traits gave Fermi an edge over his colleagues in Cambridge, Paris, and Berkeley; won him a Nobel Prize in Physics in his 30s; and earned him a leading role in the Manhattan Project, perhaps the most formidable physics experiment of the 20th century.
The book also includes a discussion of two other MIT alumni, Vannevar Bush PhD ’16 and Richard Feynman ’39. In fact, Fermi and Feynman began their lifelong friendship during the Manhattan Project.
Fermi was one of the last to know everything about physics at the time, argues Schwartz. And that is no longer possible given today’s advances in computing.
“The data these computers crunch is beyond anyone’s comprehension, so that’s one aspect of it,” Schwartz says. “But I also think experiments have gotten so big and so long–taking years and years to set up and run–it’s virtually impossible for any one of the three or four thousand people on an experiment at CERN to really understand the theory deeply enough to make a theoretical contribution.”
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