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TRIUMF | Vancouver, BC | Canada

View Blog | Read Bio

Olivia Fermi Talks…On the Neutron Trail

–by Nigel S. Lockyer, Director

What a treat on Thursday night!  It was raining in Vancouver  (a rare event, I assure you) and I was invited to attend a lecture about Enrico Fermi….by his granddaughter no less. It ended up that Fermi’s wife, Laura, was what I found more interesting. Like most physicists, I already knew a lot about (Dr. E.) Fermi.

I would guess about 80-90 people attended the inaugural meeting of the Society of Italian Researchers & Professionals in Western Canada. Yes, the Canadian-Italians in western Canada want a science café and tonight was the start. Consider this: roughly 4% of Canadians are of Italian descent, the same fraction as Canadians in the LHC experiment ATLAS. Most Canadian-Italians live in Toronto or Montreal and the rest work at TRIUMF(!). Called ARPICO, the new society promises to be a place to meet, discuss, eat, drink, and learn…hard to argue with the premise.

Olivia Fermi was invited as a guest of honour and keynote speaker.  She is compiling an interesting history story of her grandparents, two very remarkable people. She talked about stuff we never hear. Enrico would come home covered in graphite from the atomic pile. In those days, there was little sense of the dangers of radioactivity. Enrico died of stomach cancer, perhaps from his overexposure to radiation (although see Argonne’s effort to document how and why the Chicago-Pile 1 Pioneers died). Laura Fermi, Olivia’s grandmother and Enrico’s wife, was to become a successful author and environmental activist—long before too many people cared about the environment, lobbying against the impact of coal and one of the players in the Clean(er) Air Movement in Chicago.  She also helped start an anti-gun lobby. How brave was that back then?

Olivia Fermi and I chat after her presentation

I have my own arm’s length connection to Fermi. I had briefly worked with Herb Anderson, Fermi’s post-doctoral fellow, when I was a graduate student. I remember he had lost one lung from berylliosis, a disease that comes from breathing beryllium dust, which he acquired from machining beryllium for the pile. When I worked with him, our experiment was using a beryllium target and so I naturally thought he would be unhappy as he walked in the door and I stood there holding it in my hand like a coffee mug.  But he wasn’t—only the powder is a problem he told me. *whew* I had escaped admonishment from the senior professor…with luck, I could still graduate! Olivia said Herb’s children were her babysitters. I liked that.

The question period was interesting and Olivia had very thoughtful and sometimes surprising answers. One was, “What is your feeling about Fukishima?” I hadn’t connected Enrico Fermi, the “inventor” of the nuclear power plant, with Fukishima but someone in the audience did. Nuclear anything is touchy with people and tonight was no exception. Her answer was twofold: (1) She felt really bad for the people and their suffering, but (2) She made a practical statement that today we need nuclear power and the challenge is to
make it safe. Her view was that coal is much worse for the environment than nuclear, yet the world has a magnified fear of nuclear power and people should be more rational.  She’s following in her grandmother’s shoes on this one!  Someone asked if she had tracked down any of the other grandchildren of physicists of that time; the answer was no. Then someone shouted out Facebook.…everyone laughed….the questions were finished.

On to the food and wine. Nice evening. Grazie.


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  • Franco Mammarella

    Ciao Nigel:

    How nice of you to write so beautifully about our inaugural evening. Thank you so much for being with us and share in our joy and our dream. Having Olivia Fermi as key note speaker was a special treat. One could see that having a grand mother like Laura Fermi left a strong mark on her. Her message was strong despite the frail voice. My association with the Gruppo di Via Panisperma is simply one of proximity. My Nuclear engineering department was a few hundred meters away from Via Panisperma and with my fellow students we used to walk over there and wonder.

    …Eventually we moved on.

    Grazie mille


  • Luca

    It has been a great pleasure to participate to the inaugural event of the
    new society of West Canada researchers and professionals in Vancouver.
    The presence of a descendant of one of the most distinguished Italian scientists
    , Olivia Fermi, added even more interest to the event.

    The presentation about the life of Fermi from the perspective of a member of his
    own family is something remarkable, although Olivia never met her grandfather. She
    met Laura, Enrico’s wife, though. Surprisingly, the figure of Laura Fermi was in my opinion the
    most interesting part of her talk, since she is not as known as Enrico, at least
    from the point of view of we physicists. Laura was indeed a special person: I was
    really surprised about the large number of books she wrote. I read “Atoms in the Family”
    and I liked it, but I thought it was the only one Laura wrote, since she declared
    that she was almost “forced” by colleagues and friends of Enrico in writing it.
    For sure, I will read other books from her.

    Talking about Fermi, one cannot avoid mentioning his “ragazzi”. Apparently there was some
    confusion about the name of the street where they did their memorable experiments.
    The name is “Panisperna”. The origin of the name is nowadays unknown, but there are some
    founded speculations. It could come form the latin “panis et perna” (bread and ham) which
    were distributed by the monks to poor people in that street in the day of S. Lorenzo
    (the saint to whom the church there is entitled).
    The most probable origin is from a papal document mentioning that church
    as “S. Lorenzo parasperna”, which means something like “St. Lorenzo by the border”.

    It is worth mentioning that the RAI (the italian public television) produced many
    years ago a movie about the Ragazzi di via Panisperna and it is really worth watching it:
    it is well done and the actors resemble the original characters.
    The story is not only about the ragazzi and Fermi, but also about the misterious
    disappearence of Ettore Majorana. Recently, a court in Rome re-opened the file about
    him, since a new witness appeared, stating he had met Ettore in South America.
    It looks like the story of the ragazzi is still not over…!

    At the end of Olivia’s talk there were questions from the audience. Her answer about what she feels
    about the Fukushima nuclear accident was not really satisfactory for me.
    She answered, she feels sorry about the dead people but we have also do be rational about nuclear energy.
    I think this is not enough: it is obvious that everybody feels sorry and that we cannot go
    and shut down all the nuclear power plants on the planet right now.
    From a person that declares feeling strongly the legacy of Fermi,
    I would have expected a more deep answer about such an important topic.
    The accident rises huge questions about our view of the future,
    questions that go to the very heart of our economic models which are bound since
    one century to the ways we employ for generating energy.

    Overall a great and interesting evening:
    buona fortuna to the new association!


  • Anadi

    Dear Nigel, Luca

    thank you very much for having participated in the launch event of ARPICO! It has been a great evening for us as well. The idea of creating the ‘italian’ cafe` scientifique was imported to Vancouver in the past, and constitutes a stepping stone towards the Society. The Society was formally registered in January, but the members have been very active for several months before that. With great enthusiasm, we gave birth to a Society having a broader scope than a ‘cafe’, extending from networking to the organization of formal events with keynote speakers. Such was the launch event, with Olivia Fermi being the main speaker of the evening!

    She well represents the italian heritage in science. Enrico Fermi is one of the most important physicist in the history, honored by the Nobel Prize in 1938 (at the age of 37) for his “demonstrations of the existence of new radioactive elements produced by neutron irradiation, and for his related discovery of nuclear reactions brought about by slow neutrons”. Olivia contrasted the figure of her grandmother, engaged in handgun control and environment protection, to the role of her grandfather, reckoned as the inventor of the bomb. She admitted that such heritage is painful to bear, especially at this time when Japan has been wounded by a tragic nuclear accident. Nevertheless, her approach was similar to that of her grandmother, who supported Enrico and viewed his contributions to science disjointed from the war related purposes. This (by contrast) reminder me of a colloquium attended at Purdue University a couple of
    years ago, Robert Carter was talking. Carter was a graduate student at Purdue University when he received a letter in December 1943 inviting him to Los Alamos to work on the top-secret Manhattan Project. Carter directly worked with Oppenheimer as a technical assistant experimenting with nuclear reactors, using uranium. I could not remember his exact words but found an interview on Fox News close enough to what struck me at that time “I am so pleased it was successful, but so sorry it was used against people. Though the consequences were devastating, the work was certainly remarkable, and a stunning scientific achievement.” Scientists who developed the bomb, including Fermi, had been summoned for classified war work. The core group was aware of the usage of the bomb, actually Carter himself observed the construction of the inner core of Fat Man, the bomb detonated on Nagasaki. The role of the bombings in Japan’s surrender and the ethical justification for them has been the subject of scholarly and popular debate for decades. The controversy over the use of the bomb is certain to continue. Olivia (correctly) did not attempt to offer a solution.

    She urged for a a detailed understanding of the nuclear energy usage for civil purposes. This is the responsibility of the government relying (directly or indirectly) on this source of energy and, consequently, of the scientific community.

    Overall, the speech got the audience engaged, and alive debates and discussions took place when Italian Food was being served. People wandered around the elegant room in the Istituto Italiano di Cultura, inquiring about what
    was displayed in the posters prepared by some of the Society members (Imaging, ATLAS The time machine, What causes multiple sclerosis, Leading Edge Services and Technologies, ARIEL Advancing Isotopes for Science and Medicine …) and many joined ARPICO.

    See you at the next event, an ‘italian cafe’ will be held in June.

  • Olivia Fermi’a photos on Facebook of the event.

  • I find Olivia’s work wonderful and very interesting. Thanks again

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