Think like a neutron
- The Last Man Who Knew Everything: The Life and Times of Enrico Fermi, Father of the Nuclear Age by David N. Schwartz
Basic, 448 pp, £26.99, December 2017, ISBN 978 0 465 07292 7
Enrico Fermi is just the latest in a long line of ‘last men who knew everything’. A handful of recent biographies claim the title for their subjects, which include the Renaissance naturalist Athanasius Kircher (two books); the German polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz; the early 19th-century English physicist Thomas Young; and the 19th-century American palaeontologist Joseph Leidy. Then there are ‘men who knew too much’ (Robert Hooke, Alan Turing, G.K. Chesterton and, predictably, Alfred Hitchcock) and those whose knowledge ‘changed everything’ (Shakespeare, Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell). Everything-knowers are admired, though with qualifications: the ‘know-it-all’ is an intellectual bully or a bore, and one thing it’s useful to know is when not to tell everyone that you know everything. It’s no great surprise that there doesn’t seem ever to have been a ‘woman who knew everything’ – while there are several books about women who ‘knew too much’. It’s often said that some quite ordinary people ‘know everything’, but that usually comes with qualifications too: you can ‘know everything’ if you win pub quizzes, or you can ‘know everything’ about birdwatching, or baking cakes, or The Archers. But the serious-minded books about those who ‘know everything’ tend to be about intellectuals, or certain kinds of intellectuals.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 40 No. 12 · 21 June 2018
Enrico Fermi ‘colossally misunderstood the results of his own neutron experiments’, according to David Schwartz, quoted in Steven Shapin’s review (LRB, 24 May). This must qualify as one of the most fortuitous scientific misunderstandings in history. Had Fermi realised in 1934 that he had split the uranium nucleus, fascist Italy and Germany might have been the first countries to produce a nuclear weapon. Fortunately, it wasn’t until late 1938 that Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann showed that the debris of Fermi’s experiments contained nuclei with around half the mass of a uranium nucleus. By that time most of the quantum physicists who could have exploited the discovery had emigrated from Germany. Fermi himself was one of the last to flee.
Why did it take so long to show that Fermi’s debris contained a known nucleus lighter than uranium, and not the new heavier nucleus that Fermi hoped he had produced? Misogyny is one possible reason, as I discuss in my book, The Burning Answer: A User’s Guide to the Solar Revolution, in the 1930s, science was even more male-dominated than it is today. The first person to suggest the correct answer, and two of the leading experts in the analysis of the nuclear debris, were women. Their work appears to have been discounted by many male researchers, including the Nobel Prize committee. As early as 1934, Ida Noddack proposed that ‘when heavy nuclei are bombarded with neutrons the nuclei in question might break into a number of larger pieces.’ Lise Meitner, who was Hahn’s assistant before Strassmann, at first disagreed with another expert, Irène Joliot-Curie, daughter of Marie Curie, who favoured Ida Noddack’s interpretation. Strassmann eventually persuaded Hahn to re-analyse his data on Fermi’s nuclear debris and they found evidence for a lighter nucleus. Meitner, by then safe in Sweden, realised that Noddack and Joliot-Curie were right, produced a model for how the nucleus split and coined the name ‘fission’. Yet Hahn was the sole recipient of the Nobel Prize in chemistry for the discovery of fission.
Imperial College London
Vol. 40 No. 13 · 5 July 2018
‘It was only as Mussolini came more and more under the influence of Hitler in the mid-1930s,’ Steven Shapin writes, ‘that the serious persecution of Italian Jews began’ (LRB, 24 May). As Michele Sarfatti demonstrates in his book La Shoah in Italia: la persecuzione degli ebrei sotto il fascismo (2005), the regime made an autonomous decision to persecute the Italian Jewish population, motivated by Italy’s domestic political situation. Jewish organisations had resisted fascistizzazione, and even those Jews who had been most supportive of the regime in the 1920s were unlikely to support Mussolini as his foreign policy turned to an alliance with Hitler’s Germany.
The persecution of Italy’s Jews was thus not undertaken as a means to other political ends: anti-Jewishness (antiebraismo) was an end in itself. The goal was, through legislation and propaganda, to eliminate Jews from Italian society and the Italian nation, and thereby to make that society and nation more thoroughly and proudly Aryan. Jews were to be progressively eliminated from every social sphere (schools and universities, government, civil service, medicine, media, commerce etc). Unlike in Germany, this would be done without street brawls and synagogue bombings. Yet it was achieved nevertheless, and Italians were by and large complicit.
On the final day of 1936, Mussolini’s unsigned article ‘Il troppo storpia’ appeared in the regime mouthpiece Il popolo d’Italia. Here he declared that Jews provoked antisemitism because they were too (demonstrably) Jewish, making a chilling play on the common proverb ‘il troppo stroppia’, which can be loosely translated as ‘too much of a good thing’. Mussolini instead uses a rare variant of the proverb; the verb storpiare, which means ‘to cripple, to maim’ and derives from the Latin turpis (‘ugly’), describes not a good thing gone bad, but an ugly, distorted excess – namely, the excess(ive) Jew.
Sarfatti presents the years between 1938 and 1943 as the period of persecution of Jewish rights, and the remainder of the war – when Germany occupied northern Italy – as the period of persecution of Jewish lives. But Mussolini was his own man, and his regime persecuted Italian Jews of its own volition.