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A revealing biography falls short when it comes to Enrico Fermi’s problematic treatment of women

The Last Man Who Knew Everything: The Life and Times of Enrico Fermi, Father of the Nuclear Age

David Schwartz
Basic Books
2017
477 pp.
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With the title The Last Man Who Knew Everything and a first chapter entitled “Prodigy,” a reader could be forgiven for expecting David Schwartz’s new biography of Enrico Fermi to be a straightforward hagiography. Luckily, Schwartz’s ambitions are not as simple as providing yet another account of a great man of 20th-century physics. He has other, thornier questions in mind, some of which he credibly addresses and others that he handles less convincingly.

Moving from Fermi’s birth in Rome in 1901 to his death in Chicago in 1954, The Last Man grapples with Fermi’s legacy as a teacher and mentor, his contributions as a scientist in Mussolini’s Italy and later to the Manhattan Project in the United States, and his change of heart about the hydrogen bomb after World War I. (Fermi initially opposed the project but later worked on it.)

We learn how Fermi’s science was shaped by his family, by the many educational and scientific institutional contexts through which he moved, and by major political moments in both Italy and the United States.

The Last Man Who Knew Everything is at its best in the chapters devoted to the Manhattan Project. Following Fermi gives us a vantage point that is, at least initially, more focused on Columbia University and the University of Chicago than Los Alamos.

Shifting the focus to these locations allows us to see in great detail the institutional cultures and social worlds that the Fermis helped maintain. Here, Schwartz’s science communication skills also shine with patient, easy to follow, nontechnical descriptions of the construction of fission piles.

One of Schwartz’s sustained insights is that “[c]alculations of probabilities run like a bright thread throughout [Fermi’s] work.” It is particularly helpful to see his approach to the Manhattan Project through this statistical lens.

Fermi, we learn, was initially disinclined to keep the Manhattan Project a secret because he thought the development of such a weapon was statistically unlikely. His understanding of the probability of a fission weapon shifted during a conversation with the German physicist Werner Heisenberg in Michigan in 1939.

Schwartz’s account of this exchange is one of the most illuminating in the book because it reveals a turning point for Fermi and therefore for the Manhattan Project.

Fermi and Heisenberg disagreed on what kind of agency and dissent is possible for scientists working under fascist governments. When Heisenberg returned to Germany, Fermi was convinced that he would work on a fission weapon for Hitler, a belief that instilled a sense of greater urgency in Fermi with regard to his own work.

ENERGY.GOV/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Enrico Fermi sits with his wife, Laura, an author and historian, in 1954.

The book is less compelling in early chapters when, in order to persuade the reader that Fermi’s genius was recognized in its own time, Schwartz strays more frequently into cliché and hyperbole. It is hard to square the description of Fermi as “already a legend” or “the Voltaire of physics” during his time at Scuola Normale and university in Pisa alongside nearly simultaneous mentions that he was almost expelled for a prank and had difficulty on his exams.

More troubling is Schwartz’s handling of Fermi’s treatment of women. Describing a letter Fermi wrote to a male friend about a skit in which Fermi “ridiculed [women]—‘barring one or two exceptions ugly enough to scare anybody’—by portraying them as incapable of reducing a simple fraction,” Schwartz acknowledges Fermi showed “a distinctly unattractive attitude toward his fellow female students.”

However, he quickly sets the skit aside, writing: “Perhaps it reflected merely the widely shared prejudices of his time and culture. More than likely, it was also a bravado with which he could mask his awkwardness around women, an ineptness he would eventually outgrow.”

Fermi’s lifelong teasing of his wife is similarly acknowledged throughout the book but then minimized as an “idiosyncrasy” that did not interfere with their marriage. By raising some of Fermi’s misogynistic behaviors only to repeatedly brush them aside, Schwartz props up the tired, problematic trope of the eccentric male genius who is not held responsible for his destructive social behavior.

At its best, The Last Man Who Knew Everything resists drawing too clean a line between the personal and the scientific in order to explore how Fermi’s contributions as a scientist were contingent on “the specific circumstances” of his life. But by not letting Fermi’s mistreatment of women more thoroughly inform the biography, Schwartz falls short of his ambition to provide a complex portrait of the famous physicist.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Program in Writing and Rhetoric, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, USA.