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Chicagophile
  > > e-Bulletin: 02/08/02


LETTERS
Fermi remembered


The University's celebration of the life and work of Enrico Fermi ("Beyond the Bomb," December/01) reminded me of his habit, often cited gratefully by his students, of seeing physical problems in daily experience. I remember two examples. Once, when he and I had netted several tennis balls in a game at Aspen, he turned from his post at the net, said kindly, "We must-elevate," and adjusted an imaginary screw between his thumb and finger. On another occasion, in the course of an October picnic near Chicago, Enrico picked up a child's football, threw it until it spiraled, and then dropped it in the autumn leaves, muttering as he did so, "It is all a matter of angular momentum."

F. Champion Ward
North Branford, Connecticut


A couple of my teenage whiz kid friends and I were sitting in the Reynolds Club, probably playing hearts or gin rummy, sometime between 1948 and 1949 when a distinguished gentleman wearing a long black European overcoat and surrounded by much younger graduate students or postdoctorals entered. They announced they were looking for some strong young men to carry an important instrument. "It's Fermi," whispered someone. Awed, we put down our cards and volunteered.

We were quick marched to a lab (I think it was in the Field House), introduced to a large glass-enclosed box sitting on two long two-by-fours, chattering quietly and irregularly to itself, and instructed to pick it up and carry it onto the field. Once there a number (maybe 20) weather balloons were attached to a two-inch strip of tape, the tape attached to the instrument, and the whole laid out upon the ground. Each of us had charge of a balloon, tugging to be free in the freshening wind.

"This is a cosmic ray recorder," one of the young physicists told us. "You will let the balloons go all at once, to send it towards the stratosphere," doing our bit for astrophysics.

Gathering courage, I went up to Fermi, who was carefully observing the proceedings, and asked him how such a slender tape could do the job without breaking. "Not to worry," I was assured, "the tape is a new material-nylon." Mollified, I returned to my balloon.

"Let go!" We stepped back to watch the weather balloons rise, led by those farthest from the instrument. The balloons whipped into the gray windy Chicago sky, and the nylon tape cleanly snapped at the connection to the instrument, leaving it sitting on the ground clucking to itself while we watched the balloons rise into the sky until lost from sight.

Then without a word, Fermi imperturbably motioned us to pick up the machine and carry it back to the lab. But before he did, he turned to me and solemnly winked…endearing him to me in my memories. That was many years ago, and, probably much to my gin rummy partners' amazement, I have become a professor at a great university. Yet nothing quite equals that day when Fermi winked. Did I know Fermi? You bet I did.

Barry Wilson, AB'50
Davis, California


 


  FEBRUARY 2002

  > > Volume 94, Number 3


  FEATURES
  > >
Liberal talk, realist thinking
  > >
The winning punch line
  > >
Physics for breakfast
  > > The young and studious


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