(September 29, 1901 – November 28, 1954)
Enrico Fermi seemed indecisive earlier in his career. He set out to study mathematics before changing to physics. Tutored by Luigi Puccianti, Max Born and Paul Ehrenfest, Fermi ranks amongst the most brilliant physicists of the 20th century. He excelled in both theories and practicals: cutting his teeth with research in spectroscopy, electrodynamics and statistical mechanics. After Wolfgang Pauli suggested the existence of an electrically neutral subatomic particle with negligible mass, Fermi expanded the idea, termed the particle “neutrino” and theorized about it in what is known as Fermi’s Theory of Beta Decay. By furthering his experiments with atomic nuclei, he was able to prove that most elements undergo nuclear transformations when bombarded with neutrons. This resulted in the discovery of slow neutrons, which in turn, inspired Otto Hahn’s research that culminated in the discovery of nuclear fission. It also helped chemists to accurately identify some of the then missing elements in the periodic table. These early successes ensured that he was later called upon to oversee a series of atomic research codenamed the “Manhattan Project”. Enrico Fermi’s research and discoveries saw him receiving numerous prizes and other accolades both in his lifetime and posthumously. Apart from Fermi’s Theory of Beta Decay, he is the eponym of: Fermions, Fermium, Fermi Paradox, Fermi-Dirac Statistics, and the Fermi Award (which is the USA Atomic Energy Commission’s highest honor). Among his notable students are these two Chinese physicists: Yang Chen-Ning and Tsung-Dao Lee, who won (and shared) the Nobel Prize in 1957.