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Physics greats of the 20th century mixed science and public service

New biographies chronicle the lives of Enrico Fermi and Richard Garwin

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6:00am, February 23, 2017
Enrico Fermi and Richard Garwin

GREAT MINDS  Physicists Enrico Fermi (left, shown in the 1940s) and Richard Garwin (right, in the 1960s) are the subjects of two new books.

The 20th century will go down in history — it pretty much already has — as the century of the physicist. Physicists’ revolutionizing of the scientific world view with relativity and quantum mechanics might have been enough to warrant that conclusion. Future historians may emphasize even more, though, the role of physicists in war and government. Two such physicists, one born at the century’s beginning and one still living today, typify that role through their work in developing weapons, advising politicians and shaping policy while still performing outstanding science.

Best known of the two is Enrico Fermi, the Italian intellectual giant who escaped from fascist Italy to America after winning a Nobel Prize for his research in nuclear physics.

When he arrived in the United States in 1939, Fermi almost immediately went to work studying nuclear fission, discovered only weeks earlier in Hitler’s Germany. Eventually Fermi took a major role in the

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