A f(e)rmidable family

At the beginning of October, Olivia Fermi, granddaughter of Physics Nobel prize-winner Enrico Fermi, stopped off at CERN on the second stage of her "nuclear pilgrimage", using the opportunity to meet CERN physicists…whom she compared to rare, exotic birds.


Olivia Fermi, photographed outside the Globe of Science and Innovation while visiting the Organization.

Olivia Fermi is tracking neutrons. She featured her project called "On the Neutron Trail" by a visit to Italy on 29 September, for the 110th anniversary of Enrico Fermi's birth. Her project, inspired by her grandparents, Enrico and Laura Fermi, takes her on a pilgrimage through the history of nuclear physics. Olivia's long journey started at the site of the future Fermi centre (currently under construction) in Rome, where Enrico Fermi made some of his most important discoveries, and will include Hiroshima, where the first atom bomb was dropped, Fermilab and, of course, CERN.

A photographer by profession, Olivia Fermi visited CERN and met with physicists on 3 and 4 October. She also used the opportunity to take some photographs - in the hope of a possible artistic collaboration with the Organization - and cast her artist's eye (and camera lens) over the various experimental areas and key CERN landmarks she visited, including: the CERN Control Centre, SM18, nToF, ISOLDE and ATLAS. "CERN is the 'pure science' part of my Neutron Trail," says Olivia. "It was fascinating to see these experiments and the direct link between my grandfather's work and the physics of today." 

Olivia is naturally drawn to the "social sciences" so she was also eager to meet members of the ConCERNed group, with whom she was able to exchange views and discuss various matters. "We talked about what the term 'community' means at CERN," Olivia explains. "Physicists are singular characters and together they form such a remarkable community! Meeting them was rather like going to Brazil to see exotic birds! It would be interesting to create an artistic project based around the theme of community, on what it means to be "alive" and on the meaning of life from a physicist's point of view. I have a few ideas on how to explore this theme…but I won't tell you any more for the time being!"

Enrico Fermi died at the age of 53 and never knew his granddaughter, but she says that this has not stopped him having "a great influence" on her life. No doubt about that! Why else would she be on the neutron trail? 


Enrico Fermi, Nobel Prize for Physics, 1938

Enrico Fermi was born in Rome in 1901. At the age of 17, he entered the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa where he obtained a doctorate in physics in 1922. He taught physics, mathematics and mechanics at the University of Florence for two years from 1924 to 1926, during which time he developed the laws of statistics today known as the "Fermi-Dirac statistics". These enable us to understand the behaviour of fermions (particles subjected to the Pauli exclusion principle), such as electrons. In 1927, Fermi was appointed Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Rome.

In 1934, he evolved the ß-decay theory, combining previous work on radiation theory with Pauli's idea of the neutrino. Following on from the discovery that same year of artificial radioactivity by Frédéric Joliot and Irène Curie, he demonstrated that nuclear transformation occurs in almost every element subjected to neutron bombardment. This work resulted in the discovery of slow neutrons, which notably led to the discovery of nuclear fission.

Four years later, Enrico Fermi was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for his work on the artificial radioactivity produced by neutrons, and on nuclear reactions brought about by slow neutrons.

In 1946, he accepted a professorship at the Institute for Nuclear Studies of the University of Chicago, a position he held until his death in 1954.

A fuller biography of Enrico Fermi (based on the Nobel Lectures, Physics 1922-1941, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1965) can be found on the official Nobel Prize website.


by Anaïs Schaeffer