Italian nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi in 1946 at the University of Chicago. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The Pope of Physics

By Gino Segrè and Bettina Hoerlin

In 1927, the University of Rome’s physics department was housed in a spacious villa on Via Panisperna, a road that wound up one of the Italian capital’s famous seven hills. There, a close-knit cadre of young physicists worked together, played together and called themselves the Boys of Via Panisperna. Everyone had a nickname — one was Fanciulletto, meaning “young boy,” because of his cherubic good looks; another, who was a particularly tough critic of scientific research, was Il Gran Inquisitore, or the Grand Inquisitor. And 26-year-old Enrico Fermi, a professor of theoretical physics, was Il Papa — the Pope — because he seemed to be infallible.

And that’s where Gino Segrè and Bettina Hoerlin got the title for their impressive new biography, “The Pope of Physics: Enrico Fermi and the Birth of the Atomic Age.” Segrè, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Pennsylvania, and his wife, Hoerlin, a former health commissioner of Philadelphia who grew up in the “Atomic City” of Los Alamos, N.M., have combined sophisticated understanding of Fermi’s scientific achievements with intimate, often charming stories of the famed physicist’s personal life, to create a book that’s both intelligent and extremely engaging.

It’s a story filled with drama, creativity, adventure: When Enrico was a baby, his Roman parents sent him to live with a farm family until he was 2½ . He taught himself physics as a teenager, largely through a ­19th-century book written in Latin. He picked up the 1938 Nobel Prize on his way out of Italy as he and his Jewish wife, Laura, fled Mussolini’s increasingly anti-Semitic regime. And most famously, of course, he was recognized as the architect of the atomic age, playing a key role in the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb, and leading theoretical and experimental physics for a decade afterward.

After the war, Fermi, admired by physicists around the world and generously provided with research funds, re-created the warmly collegial spirit of Via Panisperna among the physicists and students who surrounded him at the University of Chicago. He and Laura even introduced the acolytes to square dancing, which they had learned at Los Alamos. “They were my first introduction to occidental culture,” Chinese-born physicist Tsung Dao Lee recalled. “Enrico’s dancing, Laura’s punch and [PhD candidate Harold] Agnew’s energetic calling of ‘do-si-do.’ ”

Fermi died in 1954 of a heart attack following stomach cancer not diagnosed until it had metastasized. To the end, Segrè and Hoerlin write, he retained his personality — “friendly but not effusive, rational in his judgments, often slightly ironic” — and his clearheaded love for quantification and rationality. After his diagnosis, he even calculated almost exactly how long he would live: He told his wife to rent him a hospital bed until Nov. 30, and he died on Nov. 28. “Yet again,” the authors note, “the Pope had been right.”