Enrico Fermi, father of the nuclear age

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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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