A debut work novelizes the life of physicist Enrico Fermi.
Growing up in Rome in the 1910s, Fermi is a precocious teenager, scouring the book carts in the Campo de’ Fiori for texts about quantum theory and letting the air out of soccer balls in order to increase their trajectory. After the unexpected death of his older brother, Enrico pours himself even more into his books to distract himself from his grief. He soon begins solving problems of projective geometry that have eluded older, better-educated minds. After studying physics at a university in Pisa, he returns to Rome to take up a professorship and meets Laura Capon, who becomes his wife. “You are the physics genius, or at least that is what I have heard,” Laura tells him during their first encounter. “But you certainly don’t act like one.” While in Rome, Fermi makes unprecedented advances in the field of physics, postulating the existence of the neutrino and adding essential discoveries to quantum theory. But the rise of the Fascists forces Fermi and his young family to flee the country (as Laura is a Jew). Arriving in America, he lends his ingenuity to the service of his adoptive country’s efforts to defeat the Axis powers, providing him with the greatest challenge of his professional life: the Manhattan Project. Fuglei writes in an amiable prose that animates key moments of her subject’s life: Fermi “handed Baudino the keys and stepped outside the jeep, but his foot gave way on something soft. It was the carcass of a jackrabbit that had been eviscerated by the blast.” Even so, the book reads less like a novel than a biography, with most of the information given as exposition. The dramatized scenes rarely contain true drama, and the characters are uniformly portrayed as well-meaning folks without serious flaws or depth. The work is part of the Mentoris Project series, the goal of which is to offer flattering accounts of notable Italians. Even so, great novels have been written about historical figures (even physicists), and readers will likely wish Fuglei had taken a few risks.
An informative, if unexciting, account of a celebrated scientist’s training and career.