New biographies chronicle the lives of Enrico Fermi and Richard Garwin
From left: Dept. of Public Affairs/Dept. of Energy, National Archives; IBM
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