Atoms in the Family: My Life with Enrico Fermi

atoms-in-the-familyI obtained this book by Laura Fermi published in 1954 by my usual method of interlibrary loan. It is an excellent book that gives personal insights into Enrico and many other of the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project. This is an excellent companion to the book by Leona Woods reviewed last week, and readers shouldn’t become accustomed to having a review posted each week. I’m doing more writing than reading lately. Also, I once again am posting a summary of the book complete with page numbers for reference, which is how I usually save information to be used in my book about the history of the development of nuclear weapons and the Rocky Flats Plant.

The first sections of the book introduce Laura Capon and Enrico Fermi in Italy when they first became acquainted in Italy. It progresses to their wedding and the beginning of the troubles for Jews imposed by Mussolini (Il Duce). Laura was a non-practicing Jew, so she and the children were all at risk. She tells of how their lives became increasingly dangerous until the family left Italy by travelling to Sweden to accept Enrico’s Noble Prize and made it to the United States. The “becoming Americanized” is fascinating reading. Laura’s father, an Italian naval officer, was at first not concerned about the actions that Mussolini took in the early days. “Il Duce knows what he is doing. It is not for us to judge his actions.” 5-6

The book describes the childhoods and families of the Capons and the Fermis. As an example, a traumatic loss struck the Fermis when Giulio, the oldest son, died of complications from an abscess in the throat. (Laura and Enrico would name their son Giulio.) The family moved into a melancholy existence and Enrico filled his life with studying and outdoor activities. It wasn’t long before his teachers declared that he was “exceptional.” His academic achievements and early career are described. 15-32 Much of one chapter is devoted to his yellow Peugeot, which is described as having a top speed of 20 mph. The next chapter describes the Fermi’s early married years 33-68

Fermi began to achieve wide recognition for his brilliance and was named to the Royal Academy of Italy in 1929. Enrico and Laura spent two months of 1930 at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. They also spent some time in New York City, where Laura was astonished to note “…with a shock the existence of tattoos…on the bare arms of summer riders, in the most civilized city in the world.” (What would she think today?) They were often asked what they thought of Mussolini, which was “…indicative of the great interest fascism had aroused in the United States. Those were good times for fascism, which was looked upon with tolerance, often with sympathy, both inside Italy and abroad.” 73-81

Chapter 9, titled “Work” describes how Joliot and his wife Irene Curie announced in 1934 they had discovered artificial radioactivity, which inspired Enrico to research producing artificial radioactivity with neutrons. He began with the lightest elements but wasn’t rewarded with positive results until he bombarded fluorine. He and his small team began obtaining every element they could find available for research. Eventually he reached the conclusion that bombardment of uranium might have resulted in the production of the first transuranic element, element 93. 83-93

Enrico was invited to lecture in Argentina and Brazil, where he and Laura “…lived the life of the elite for over three weeks.” The lecture halls were overflowing to the very end of his lectures despite the fact they were delivered in Italian. 94-95

Bruno Pontecorvo (who later defected to behind the Iron Curtain), Edoardo Amaldi, and Fermi found by experimentation that hydrogen-rich materials, such a paraffin and water, slowed neutrons and greatly increased their efficiency in reacting with other elements (including silver, which was the element involved in the early experiments). Professor Orso Mario Corbino, the head of the physics department in Rome, suggested that the results be patented, which years later would result in significant financial rewards for Fermi and his five co-inventors. 97-101

Chapter 12, “How Not to Raise Children” describes the birth and early days of daughter Nella and about five years later son Giulio. Enrico was hesitant to hold little Nella, calling her bestiolina, or “little animal.” Politics in Italy became more complicated and threatening. An unpopular war in Ethiopia resulted in sanctions against Italy and financial problems for the country. Mussolini declared that Italian women should donate their gold wedding bands to the country, to be replaced by a steel band. Laura complied along with most others, and “It may well have saved fascism.” Enrico, “…aware of the ever increasing threats to European peace…” procured gas masks for the four members of his family. Enrico had visited America again with Felix Bloch, and the two of them (surprisingly to Laura) began to make light of fascist slogans that were posted around the country. Their versions added the Burma Shave ad at the end of the slogans. “Mussolini is always right; Burma Shave! To fight is necessary, to win is more necessary; Burma Shave!” Enrico’s favorite was “At crossing roads don’t trust to luck; the other car may be a truck; Burma Shave!” 105-114

Fermi received the call that he was to receive the Nobel Prize in Stockholm. Fascism had slowly eroded liberties, and Italians, who were mostly politically inactive “…let themselves be dragged downstream by the strong current and did not struggle against it.” Sanctions because of the war in Ethiopia had forced Italy into an alliance with Germany, a traditional foe of Italy. The Nazi version of racial inequality began to be enforced in Italy, as Hitler’s views began to take over. One edict read, “Jews do not belong to the Italian race…” New laws and directives began to come out daily. Anti-Semitic laws were passed, and the Fermis decided they had to leave Italy as soon as possible. They used the announcement that Enrico was to receive the Nobel Prize to plan their escape. 115-124

The Fermis made their escape by train with a few tense moments as passports were examined and eventually accepted. Laura understood her good fortune, because she wrote that the German and Nazi dominance of Italy “…was to result in tragedy for most Italians and in a more urgent, immediate tragedy for Italian Jews. Some fled to hide in the Italian mountains, and some crossed the Alps on foot, into the relative security of Swiss concentration camps…a large number, mostly the old who had felt protected by their age, were rounded up by the Germans and deported to labor camps and gas chambers.” The Fermis were about to begin a new life in the United States, but first Enrico sat on the stage to receive his Nobel Prize with Pearl Buck. 115-132

Chapter 15 is titled “The Process of Americanization,” and it begins, for me, the best part of the book. Enrico announced with pride as their ship approached the coast of America in January of 1939, “We have founded the American branch of the Fermi family.” I was fascinated with the descriptions of how the Fermis adjusted to life in a new country and culture. The children were excited when the family was getting on the ship’s elevator and were greeted by Santa Claus. Their parents told them that Santa Claus brings toys and candies much as the Epiphany does on the sixth of January in Italy. The family lived in New York City for six months, and Giulio found his first sweetheart at the age of three. He was refusing to speak anything by Italian, so she called him “the little boy who cannot talk.” Nella failed a question on an exam about a little boy who had played with a small animal and had to wash and change clothes. There are no skunks in Italy. Laura began learning how to cook with the housekeeper. She was fascinated with the refrigerator as she tried to understand why it stayed cold. 139-144

The Fermis bought a home and Enrico always found something else that needed attention when it was time to mow the yard. Harold Urey told them they had to combat crab grass to keep it from taking over the yard, but declared on a visit the yard was nothing but crab grass. Enrico did take up some household tasks, such as polishing his own shoes. He only polished the toes, because that was the only part of the shoes he could see. He worked at learning English and was tutored by Herbert Anderson his graduate student. Anderson suggested hiring neighborhood children and paying them a penny each time they corrected one of the Fermis. One day Nella told on Giulio that the boy had called a friend “stinky,” and Laura couldn’t respond because she didn’t know the word. Anderson explained that word along with “lousy,” “jerk,” and “squirt.” The chapter ends with Laura wondering whether she had really become Americanized “…if I fail to understand the humor in Charles Addams’ cartoons…” (I.e. the Addams Family). 144-153

The book begins to mention the research going on in physics. It describes how Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman announced fission with the help of Lise Meitner. Enrico began to explain fission to Laura and she correctly deduces that Enrico had created fission in his work with uranium without recognizing it. Laura soon noticed that she was excluded from conversations about the work. The voluntary system of censorship had been established. 154-161

Fermi had to begin dealing with the fact that he became an enemy alien after war broke out. George Pegram wrote him a letter attesting to the fact that he intended to become a citizen as soon as he had met the residency requirements. He wasn’t excluded from research, and the famous letter to FDR signed by Einstein included the statement, “Some recent work by E. Fermi and L. Szilard, which has been communicated to me in manuscript, leads me to suspect that the element uranium may be turned into a new and important source of energy in the immediate future…” 162-165

Laura speculated on why the men warning FDR were all foreigners, and decided that the Hungarian, German, and Italian scientists had seen the risks of a dictatorial military state “…while American-born and –raised physicists had not yet found the door out of their ivory tower…” Enrico began frequent train trips to Chicago to direct research on the CP-1 pile (which Laura wouldn’t know about until years later). He had to travel by train, because FDR had issued a ruling that “no enemy alien shall undertake any air flight or ascend into the air.” Enrico had to apply for a permit seven days prior to departure to travel by train and obtain approval from the United States Attorney. A glitch almost prevented his departure, and he declared they must find a way for him to travel freely. The mysterious they secured a permanent permit for Enrico to travel between New York and Chicago. 166-169

Laura marveled that there was no better place than the United States to be nationals of an enemy country. She knew from first-hand experience that would not have been the case in Italy. They had an American with a German wife as neighbors, and those people were worried about the Nazis winning the war. They and the Fermis planned to escape by sea and go to a Pacific island should that happen. The Fermis buried a wad of money in a lead pipe in their basement. They retrieved the money when they moved. Giulio, who had seen Hitler and Mussolini together in Italy, made trouble by saying at school he hoped they won the war. Enrico asked him why he said that, and of course he didn’t know. The Attorney General announced that Italians would no longer be considered enemy aliens, and on July 11, 1944 Enrico and Laura became U.S. citizens after meeting the residency requirement. 170-175

The Fermis held a party, and Laura had no idea it was to celebrate the sustained chain reaction of the CP-1 pile. Everyone was congratulating Enrico, and everyone avoided telling Laura why. She asked Leona Woods to explain, and Leona, flustered because she couldn’t reveal the secret, said, “He has sunk a Japanese admiral.” Laura thought Laura was making fun of her, and Herbert Anderson interjected, “Do you think anything is impossible for Enrico?” 179 The next several pages and chapter describe the successful operation of the pile, but the take-away for me was that after the fact Herbert Anderson was diagnosed with berylliosis, a truly nasty disease. 188 There is a description of Leona Woods asking Fermi after the successful operation of the pile, “When do we become scared?” That question, according to Leona’s autobiography, was misinterpreted to mean she was worried about the health effects of working on the pile. She explained that she referred to the fact that everyone believed the Germans were ahead of them in research, and she was asking when they were going to work faster to catch up. 197

The Fermis moved to Los Alamos, which was called Site Y, and John Baudino, Fermi’s bodyguard, enters the story. Baudino was an interesting person. There was a discussion among the scientists that they wanted to take a car to go skiing, but were only supposed to drive for official purposes. Bauldino suggested “…should you decide to go, it would be my business to accompany you. Hence I can take the car.” The story ends with the unlikely observation that at the end of the day of skiing Baudino was so completely exhausted that Enrico had to carry his gun! 212-214

There are numerous scientists of the Manhattan Project introduced in the book, to include Edward Teller. (Teller is described in a better light than in many books.) Groves made his famous observation that “At great expense we have gathered on this mesa the largest collection of crackpots ever seen. Enrico responded, “But I am an exception, I am perfectly normal.” 226

I don’t feel I need to summarize much of what is in the final chapters, which are interesting, but have been described in numerous other books. One specific reference is that wives had to work to be eligible for maid service, and Laura worked with the Los Alamos doctor. He described how “…many of the boys are exposed to radiation,” and mentioned tube alloy and 49. When Laura asked what those were, he replied, “Ask your husband.” Of course “tube alloy” (or tubealloy) was the code name for uranium 235 and “49” was code for plutonium. One subject I don’t recall from other books is that “Los Alamos spread out wealth for miles and miles around, like a volcano which suddenly ejects a lava of gold. A poor population…learned the feel of money.”

Trinity and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are mentioned and the conflict felt and expressed by many of the scientists working on the Manhattan Project on the moral aspect of using atomic bombs in war is discussed. Not surprisingly, the issue isn’t resolved by this book.

I wished the book had extended far enough into the life of the Fermis to discuss whether Enrico believed exposure to radiation had an effect on his development of stomach cancer. He died in late November 1954, which was the year the book was published. Laura mentions in her acknowledgements that the members of her family “…who have endured life with a writing housekeeper and have not complained.” 267 The book is very well written by a self-described “writing housekeeper” who couldn’t speak English when she first arrived in the country.

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