Unseating Feynman, and Fermi

Do physicists whitewash the legacy of Enrico Fermi the same way they do Richard Feynman?

Feynman disguised his sexism as pranks and jokes, and writers have spent thousands of pages offering his virtues as a great physicist and teacher as a counterweight against his misogyny. Even his autobiography doesn’t make any attempts to disguise his attitude, but to be fair, the attitude in question became visibly problematic only in the 21st century.

This doesn’t mean nobody exalts Feynman anymore but only that such exaltation is expected to be contextualised within his overall persona.

This in turn invites us to turn the spotlight on Fermi, who would at first glance appear to be Italy’s Feynman by reputation but on deeper study seems qualified to be called one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century.

Like Feynman, Fermi made important and fundamental contributions to physics and chemistry. Like Feynman, Fermi was part of the Manhattan Project to build the bombs that politicians would eventually drop on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But unlike Feynman, Fermi’s participation in the latter extended to consultations on decisions about where to drop the bomb and when.

For us to acknowledge that we were being grossly unfair to all women when we overlooked Feynman’s transgressions, women needed to become more vocal about their rights in social and political society.

So it’s only fair to assume that at some point in the future, society’s engagement with and demands of scientists and scientific institutes to engage more actively with a country’s people and their leaders will show us how we’ve been whitewashing the legacy of Enrico Fermi – by offering his virtues as a physicist and teacher as a counterweight against his political indifference.

Many people who fled fascist regimes in 20th century Europe and came to the US, together with people who had relatives on the frontlines, supported the use of powerful weapons against the Axis powers because these people had seen firsthand what their enemies were capable of. Fermi was one such émigré – but here’s where it gets interesting.

Fermi was known to be closed-off, to be the sort of man who wouldn’t say much and kept his feelings to himself. This meant that during meetings where military leaders and scientists together assessed a potential threat from the Germans, Fermi would maintain his dispassionate visage and steer clear of embellishments. If the threat was actually severe, Fermi wouldn’t be the person of choice to convey its seriousness, at least not beyond simply laying down the facts.

This also meant that Fermi didn’t have the sort of public, emotional response people commonly associate with J. Robert Oppenheimer, Karl Darrow or Leo Szilard after the bomb was first tested. In fact, according to one very-flattering biography – by Bettina Hoerlin and Gino Segrè published in 2016 – Fermi was only interested in his experiments and was “not eager to deal with the extra complications of political or military involvement”. Gen. Leslie Groves, the leader of the Manhattan Project, reportedly said Fermi “just went along his even way, thinking of science and science only.”

But at the same time, Fermi would also advocate – against the spirit of Szilard’s famous petition – for the bomb to be dropped without prior warning on a non-military target in Japan to force the latter to surrender. How does this square with his oft-expressed belief that scientists weren’t the best people to judge how and when the bomb would have to be used to bring a swift end to the war?

Fermi’s legacy currently basks in the shadow of the persistent conviction that the conducts of science and politics are separate and that they should be kept that way. The first part of the claim is false, an untruth fabricated to keep upper-class/caste science workers from instituting reforms that would make research a more equitable enterprise; the second part is becoming more untenable but it’s taking its time.

Ultimately, the fight for a scientific enterprise founded on a more enlightened view of its place within, not adjacent to, society should also provide us a clearer view of our heroes as well as help us discover others.