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."
North Branford, Connecticut
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
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.
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.
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.