What Would Enrico Fermi Think Of Science Today?

Dec 5, 2017

David N. Schwartz is the author of The Last Man Who Knew Everything: The Life and Times of Enrico Fermi, Father of the Nuclear Age. You can find him on Twitter at: @dschwa8059.


I have been living with Enrico Fermi for the past four years.

Well, I have been living with him metaphorically — as I have just completed a full-scale biography of Fermi. So, I've been spending a lot of time thinking about how he would view today's scientific landscape.

Fermi's contributions to physics were so broad ranging, his interests so wide, that he made a mark in virtually every area of the field. I find it irresistible to speculate what he would make of physics today or how he would view some of our broader debates on the role of science and society.

Certain areas of physics have entered a true golden age — and Fermi would be absolutely delighted. Particle physicists have spent the past four decades piecing together the "Standard Model," and it seems to work, at least as far as it goes. The quark theory of matter, the unification of the electromagnetic and weak interactions, and the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2015 would fascinate and please him immensely. He was, after all, one of the first physicists to explore the atomic nucleus with high-energy accelerators.

Not all questions have been answered, and a lively debate continues between supporters of supersymmetry and those of string theory. Where this debate will eventually lead is anyone's guess, but mysteries of this sort were right up Fermi's alley. As a physicist, he had a strong preference for basing theory on empirical data. What he would make of string theory we will never know, but he was always more comfortable with theories backed by experimental agendas. He would have been amazed at the size of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, but in fact, he anticipated the creation of giant accelerators — and once even joked that he could envision an accelerator in outer space, girdling the earth. He was one of the first physicists to use computers to study particle interactions and certainly would be fascinated with the sophisticated data analysis backing up the discovery of the Higgs boson and the other experiments at CERN.

Another golden age has recently opened up in astrophysics with the results of the LIGO experiments over the past two years. When these incredible gravity wave detectors were first turned on last year, they detected two massive black holes merging and creating a faint but detectable ripple in space-time. This was followed two months ago by the observation of two neutron stars merging with each other, an observation which involved not only LIGO but the Fermi Gamma Ray telescope. Physicists detected gravity waves once again, but even more intriguing, they detected the creation of massive amounts of heavier elements in the process, including some 10,000 Earth masses of gold. Astrophysicists are ecstatic, as well they should be, and anticipate great new discoveries over the next decade.

Fermi loved astrophysics. He worked with the great Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar during his Chicago years, trying to explain the high energies of cosmic rays. Even more important, Fermi's first love as a youth was general relativity, so the news that gravity waves have been detected would please him beyond words.

Fermi would especially love the radically simple condensed matter experiments that resulted in the discovery of graphene at the beginning of this century. Take a block of graphite — Fermi knew graphite well, of course, having used it to build the first nuclear reactor pile in Chicago — put a strip of tape on it, and rip the tape off. Voilà: an extremely thin layer of carbon with fascinating quantum properties. This would have appealed to Fermi's rough-and-ready experimental style.

At the intersection of science and public policy, on issues like climate change and genetic engineering, Fermi would almost certainly be more reticent. He never enjoyed debating the complex issues of his own day involving science and public policy. He served reluctantly as a government adviser on science policy, but he was always happier in the lab or in the classroom where the physics issues were simpler and answers were either right or wrong.

It's hard to say whether Fermi would be persuaded by the science behind climate change. The models used to simulate climate change are extremely complex and have embedded within them uncertainties that have made some very bright physicists, like Princeton's Freeman Dyson, skeptical of the models themselves. Others, of course, pronounce them compelling. In his own work, Fermi was a radical simplifier, so it is difficult to know what he would have made of these enormously complex computer simulations.

Genetic engineering? Fermi would certainly see the potential dangers, but he had a somewhat resigned attitude towards the march of science. If a certain technology was possible, he believed man would eventually find a way to exploit it. Fermi once said to his Manhattan Project colleague J. Robert Oppenheimer when asked to extend his time on the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission, that he had come to distrust his own judgment on policy issues. He would be quite happy to leave the issue of how to control this awesome new technology, exemplified by the CRISPR-Cas9 method, to others.

Finally, Fermi would no doubt chafe at the growth of enterprise science. He was happiest leading small, tightly knit groups of researchers and found the large group leadership role into which he was thrust during the Manhattan Project frustrating. The demands of the Manhattan Project often meant that he was overseeing experiments in three or more far flung locations. He sometimes complained to his friends that he felt like he was "doing physics by phone." Today most of science is "Big Science" and many research teams number in the hundreds, if not thousands, of individual scientists. Fermi certainly would not like this, but he probably would accept it as the inevitable result of scientific progress.

He firmly believed that scientific progress could not be forever stifled.

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