Enrico Fermi may not be a name as familiar as Einstein, Feynman or Hawking, but he was one of the greatest figures of 20th-century physics, with a reputation for infallibility. In Rome, pioneering atomic science under Mussolini, he was nicknamed ‘the Pope’. Escaping to America where he created the world’s first nuclear reactor, he was dubbed ‘the last man who knew everything’. Yet he was no Renaissance man: he knew everything about physics, and didn’t care much about anything else. It is testimony to David N. Schwartz’s excellence as a biographer that he can reveal the workaholic Fermi to have been such a fascinatingly complex figure.
He was, we are told, a gifted teacher and natural leader. Fermi generously let younger colleagues publish joint work without his name, so that he would not overshadow them.