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Top Physicists Gather at Columbia for Fermi Centennial Celebration

By Suzanne Trimel

Real (7:40)Video Audio

Celebrating the centennial of the birth of Enrico Fermi, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist whose World War II-era experiments led to the development of the atomic and hydrogen bombs, a distinguished gathering of Italian and American physicists, including three Nobelists and many who worked with Fermi at Columbia University, the University of Chicago or Los Alamos, will participate in a conference Thursday and Friday, Nov. 15-16 at Columbia to highlight Fermi's breakthrough nuclear experiments, and his impact on science and culture, including nuclear medicine, fission as an energy source and on government funding of science research.

The conference, "Enrico Fermi and the Beginnings of Nuclear Fission," will take place at the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America at Columbia, which sponsors advanced research relating to Italian history and society, and promotes political, cultural and academic exchange between the United States and Italy. The conference is open to the public and will include talks by Tsung-Dao Lee of Columbia and Willis Lamb of the University of Arizona, both Nobel Prize winners, and other eminent physicists, such as Alvin Weinberg of the Oak Ridge Associated Universities, Richard Garwin, an adjunct professor at Columbia and scientist at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center of IBM and Ugo Amaldi of the University of Milan Bicocca. The conference is a collaboration between the Italian Academy and Columbia's Physics Department.

Professor David Freedberg, Director of the Italian Academy, said Columbia is the appropriate setting for the signature American event of a year devoted to recalling the life and work of one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century, who directed the experiment that initiated the world's first controlled and self-sustaining nuclear reaction. Fermi arrived at the Columbia Physics Department at the beginning of 1939, having fled war in Europe a year after winning the Nobel Prize for the discovery of nuclear reactions brought about by slow neutrons. During his years at Columbia he carried out the basic experiments on nuclear fission.

"Had Fermi and another Columbian, the Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard not persevered in their collaboration here, the world's first controlled nuclear chain reaction would not have been developed by 1942, and the Manhattan Project would not have built the first atomic bombs by 1945," said Freedberg.

The conference opens at 2 P.M. on Nov. 15 with remarks by Ferdinando Salleo, Italian Ambassador to the United States, and key Columbia participants, including Freedberg, Steven M. Kahn, chairman of the Physics Department, and Provost Jonathan Cole, an expert on the sociology of science.

The conference will focus on the historical sequence of events that led to the generation of the first nuclear pile, the physical issues involved, and the scientific and cultural impact of Fermi's work.

On the first day of the conference, distinguished Italian scholars, such as Amaldi, Michelangelo De Maria and Carlo Bernardini, will recall Fermi's pre-Columbia days at the famous laboratory on the Via Panisperna in Rome, where Fermi conducted research in physics and developed experiments on the theory of Beta-decay. Mal Ruderman will moderate the opening session of the second day of the conference featuring an almost certainly never-to-be-repeated group of physicists, all of whom worked with Fermi during the war years, including Philip Abelson, Albert Wattenberg, Harold Agnew and Lamb, who as a member of the Columbia Physics Department in January 1939 brought the news to Fermi that nuclear fission had been created by neutron bombardment of uranium.

Highlights of the two-day event will include discussions of the physics of fission by Professor Gerald Holton of Harvard University at 3:15 P.M. on Nov. 15; and talks the following day on Fermi's first experiments in nuclear fission by Lamb at 9 A.M., on Fermi's impact on physics in the United States by Lee at 2:30 P.M, by Rubbia on the future of energy generation at 5 P.M. and by Professor Milla Baldo Ceolin of the University of Padua at 3:15 P.M. on physics and weak interactions. The complete conference schedule may be viewed at: http://www.italianacademy.columbia.edu/calendar/program100801a.html

Published: Nov 12, 2001
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002


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