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Working on level splitting in atoms with the Fermi atom


People in Rome and Enrico Fermi's problem solving methods
Hans Bethe Scientist
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There were very good people. There was Rasetti who was an old friend of Fermi's, about the same age, who had learned about nuclear physics in Germany from Bose. There was Segrè, who became my lifelong friend, who was working in spectroscopy and in particular was finding out about the statistics of nuclei, namely that nuclei with even atomic number had Bose's Statistics, and [those] with odd atomic number had Fermi's Statistics. And there was Amaldi, somewhat younger than I, who afterwards became the leading figure in postwar Italian physics. When all these... and there was also Racah who was working on group theory and later emigrated to Israel. Well, all these people brought their problems to Fermi, and so did I, and you would come to Fermi's office and say 'Well, I have this problem...' and explain in one sentence what you were interested in. And so Fermi would say 'Now let"s see. Let's sit down.' And for 15 minutes or so he would think about the problem in a general way, and at the end of the 15 minutes you had the rough outline of the answer and then you could go back either to your lab or to your paper and put in the mathematics and figure it out. And so Fermi gave me the wonderful method of doing things quickly and easily, any problem can be solved, any problem can be solved by sitting down for 20 minutes and thinking about it, starting from... from first principles. Sommerfeld never did that. Sommerfeld said 'Well here is the title of your problem, now you do it' and then you had to put in differential equations and if possible Bessel functions. For Fermi that didn't matter. You just did the mathematics the best way that came to your mind, and the physics was clear by the time you started.

So Fermi was a very important influence upon you?

Fermi was a most important influence, in fact I consider Sommerfeld and Fermi as equal in... as my teachers.

The late German-American physicist Hans Bethe once described himself as the H-bomb's midwife. He left Nazi Germany in 1933, after which he helped develop the first atomic bomb, won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1967 for his contribution to the theory of nuclear reactions, advocated tighter controls over nuclear weapons and campaigned vigorously for the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

Listeners: Sam Schweber

Silvan Sam Schweber is the Koret Professor of the History of Ideas and Professor of Physics at Brandeis University, and a Faculty Associate in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University. He is the author of a history of the development of quantum electro mechanics, "QED and the men who made it", and has recently completed a biography of Hans Bethe and the history of nuclear weapons development, "In the Shadow of the Bomb: Oppenheimer, Bethe, and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist" (Princeton University Press, 2000).

Tags: Rome, University of Rome, Israel, Enrico Fermi, Franco Rasetti, Emilio Segrè, Satyendra Nath Bose, Edoardo Amaldi, Giulio Racah, Arnold Sommerfeld

Duration: 3 minutes, 29 seconds

Date story recorded: December 1996

Date story went live: 24 January 2008