Enrico Fermi's granddaughter talks nuclear history, "Fermi Paradox"

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldOctober 10, 2012 

The granddaughter of Manhattan Project physicist Enrico Fermi toured the reactor Tuesday that Fermi helped engineer and troubleshoot, Hanford's historic B Reactor.

Fermi, the Italian physicist instrumental in the development of nuclear technology, loaded the first uranium slug into the reactor's core. He was in the control room when it went critical for the first time as the world's first full-scale nuclear reactor in 1944.

His granddaughter, Olivia Fermi, has been "On the Neutron Trail," visiting the places central to her grandfather's pioneering work for the Nuclear Age, she said at a talk Tuesday evening in Richland. About 200 people attended.

Enrico Fermi won the Nobel Prize in 1938 for his idea and work to bombard elements with slow neutrons, providing a higher probability they would hit and create a reaction, Olivia Fermi said.

Months later Albert Einstein would write his now well-known letter to President Franklin Roosevelt, citing recent work by Fermi and others showing the possibilities of the atom, and saying he feared Germany was developing an atomic weapon.

Olivia Fermi showed a picture of one of the pages in her grandfather's notebooks, showing that he and other scientists in the U.S. understood what the Germans did not. While Germans mixed graphite and uranium together, Enrico Fermi sketched how to arrange uranium fuel and graphite needed to slow neutrons down into a lattice.

Even during the 1940s, nuclear scientists were starting to question the wisdom of unleashing a nuclear bomb on the world, and her grandfather was among those who advised President Harry Truman not to develop the hydrogen bomb in 1949, she said.

After the war Enrico Fermi would continue to make important contributions to quantum physics, but for those not familiar with nuclear physics, he may be better known for the Fermi Paradox, the result of a cafeteria conversation.

In a discussion about extraterrestrial life, he asked, "If they are there, why have we not heard from them?" his granddaughter said.

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