Then in 1938, while the world was being shaken by the rise of Fascism in Europe — most notably Adolf Hitler in Germany and Benito Mussolini in Italy — came the momentous discovery of nuclear fission and the rapid realization that the phenomenon could be used to build a bomb with previously unimaginable destructive power.
Stories of the science and technology of that period have produced a vast body of literature. But to a biographer’s delight, behind those discoveries is a rich cast of characters. One of the most important yet not fully appreciated of those is Enrico Fermi (1901-54), whose near infallibility in both the theoretical and experimental realms led his Italian colleagues to give him the nickname The Pope of Physics — the title of a new biography by University of Pennsylvania physics professor Gino Segrè and his wife, former Philadelphia health commissioner Bettina Hoerlin.
Few writers are better positioned than that duo to bring Fermi’s story to light. Segrè is the nephew of Nobel Laureate Emilio Segrè, Fermi’s first graduate student and long-term collaborator.