Enrico Fermi, father of the nuclear age


The Last Man Who Knew Everything: The Life and Times of Enrico Fermi, Father of the Nuclear Age. By David Schwartz. Basic Books; 451 pages; $35 and £27.99.

JUST before daybreak on July 16th 1945 Enrico Fermi lay down in the open desert of New Mexico. At 05:30, the world’s first nuclear explosion took place ten miles (16km) away. He counted off the seconds after the flash, anticipating the arrival of the blast-wave. With preternatural calm, Fermi stood up and let some strips of paper flutter away as the wave passed. They flew about eight feet. The Trinity nuclear test, he pronounced after making some quick calculations, had released the equivalent of about 10 kilotonnes of TNT.

Fermi was, by that stage, already a celebrity among physicists. An obvious mathematics prodigy as a child in Italy, he had devoured texts written for adults. Throughout his life he kept few books, preferring to derive conclusions from first principles whenever he felt the…Continue reading

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Redeeming Mary Magdalene

EVERY generation of artists has brought its own sensibilities and experiences to the depiction of canonical Christian stories. Giotto, an Italian painter, set Bible scenes in medieval Tuscany. Rembrandt gave his a hint of mercantile 17th-century Amsterdam. “Mary Magdalene” is similarly a retelling of some of the faith’s main events …

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FOR evidence that modern democracy has lost its pep, look back to the age of cheery campaign jingles. The art form dominated elections from America to the Philippines after the second world war. Australian political parties used them well into the 1980s. It is tempting to believe that melodious campaigns …

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