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'The Last Man Who Knew Everything' is a detailed and sympathetic biography of Enrico Fermi

'The Last Man Who Knew Everything' manages the neat double trick of making both Fermi and his abstruse work accessible

The Last Man Who Knew Everything By David N. Schwartz Basic Books 480 pp.
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  • Steve Donoghue

The title of David Schwartz's new biography of the great physicist Enrico Fermi, The Last Man Who Knew Everything, requires instantaneous clarification, and Schwartz provides it: about physics.

Fermi, one of the seminal 20th-century thinkers on atomics and quantum theory, was renowned even among his fellow hyper-specialists for being a hyper-specialist, a man who not only knew everything about physics – Schwartz's book isn't the first one to make clear that Fermi's colleagues were a little bit in awe of him – but seemed to care comparatively little about anything that wasn't physics.

“All physics, all the time,” one co-worker quipped, and although Schwartz's account is one of the most detailed and sympathetic lives of Fermi to appear in recent memory (2016's "The Pope of Physics," by Gino Segrè and Bettina Hoerlin is also excellent on the subject), it does little to change that view. 

From his earliest years, when the prodigious nature of his scientific genius was noticed and encouraged by his teachers, Fermi concentrated with nearly overwhelming intensity on his chosen field, on pushing the boundaries and broadening the professional conceptions of physics. He was born in Rome in 1901, and in 1918 he began a course of intensive study at the Scuola Normale Superiore University in Pisa, taking a degree in 1922.

He soon became professor of theoretical physics at the Sapienza University of Rome and married Laura Capon, whose status as a Jew in Mussolini's increasingly anti-Semitic Italy made life tense for the couple. When Fermi won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1938, he and his family used the occasion to make their move to the United States, where Fermi took up his work at Columbia University.

Fermi's work in Rome on discovering the rudimentary properties of nuclear fission had been groundbreaking – it had won him the Nobel – but his work in America would be world-changing. In December of 1942, in a converted squash court just outside of Chicago proper, Fermi and his colleagues brought about the world's first controlled nuclear chain reaction.

As Schwartz puts it, “It was the first time humans tricked nature into releasing, in a sustained, controlled way, the energy embedded in the nucleus of the atom.” Fermi's team celebrated with a bottle of Chianti, but the mood was hardly cheerful. “Everyone understood,” Schwartz writes, “that this was a major step toward the development of a fission weapon.”

That was the explicit goal of the next and most famous stage of Fermi's life: as a lead scientist for the Manhattan Project, working on creating an atomic bomb. This will always present sympathetic Fermi biographers with a major hurdle. Schwartz maintains that the Manhattan Project scientists tend to come in for more condemnation than they deserve. “If history is to judge Fermi and his colleagues for their wartime work,” he writes, “it should be with a more nuanced perspective that appreciates the situation they faced and their motivations for participating.”

In Fermi's case, as in Szilard's or Oppenheimer's, this kind of double-talk is entirely unconvincing; the men and women working on the Manhattan project knew that they were developing the most horrifying weapon of mass destruction ever created, and they knew that if they refused, they were irreplaceable. They didn't refuse, and hundreds of thousands of civilians at Hiroshima and Nagasaki died as a result. No amount of nuanced thinking can absolve Fermi of complicity in those deaths, any more than Harry Truman can be absolved. 

Fortunately, Schwartz doesn't hang his estimation of Fermi on any such kind of exoneration. Rather, he gives readers a rounded picture of the man. Fermi comes across in these pages as a mercurial figure, toweringly brilliant in his field and often curiously magnetic with friends and colleagues. Schwartz's description of Fermi's effectiveness as a team leader is convincing, and his personal assessment of Fermi, if occasionally less convincing, is always striving for balance: “He could be blunt, even dismissive if he believed someone was wrong, and his fondness for teasing those closest to him could be irritating, but he was never deliberately cruel.” 

Fermi died in late 1954, having made a long series of fundamental breakthroughs in two or three different branches of physics (and, incidentally, having lent his name to the Fermi Paradox, which looks at the vastness of the visible universe and asks “Where are all the aliens?”) and ushered in the nuclear era.

"The Last Man Who Knew Everything" manages the neat double trick of making both Fermi and his abstruse work accessible to readers living in the world he did so much to create, for good and ill.

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