Today, Fermi remembers. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
In 2001, physicist Greg Huber
wrote to Science magazine about the new
postage stamp honoring Enrico Fermi. Born in Italy,
Fermi was educated at Pisa. Then he worked at
Göttingen, Leyden, and Florence, trying to
make statistical mechanics consistent with the new
quantum physics. He finally created what we call
Fermi-Dirac statistics, and he was made a professor
at the University of Rome.
In 1938, Fermi won the Nobel Prize for his work.
That same year, he left fascist Italy and moved to
America. He soon joined the faculty of the
University of Chicago. There his work led to the
creation of the first energy-producing atomic pile
-- activated at the end of 1942.
The picture on the stamp was taken from a photo of
Fermi. He's at a blackboard. One formula on the
board is the definition of the fine-structure
constant from the Schrödinger equation.
That's the sort of near-invisible detail that we
take for granted. It's only wallpaper. But Huber put
a magnifying glass to it and found it was completely
mixed up. Terms were all in the wrong places. It was
nonsense, but only to those few who can make sense of
such symbols in the first place.
Huber did some detective work. He checked to
see if some novice could've filled the blackboard
before Fermi entered the room for the photo shoot.
But, no, the handwriting perfectly matched the
writing in Fermi's notebooks. He'd definitely written
it. Maybe he was playing a joke on people. Well, he
did have the mind of a trickster, but where was the
humor in this? The inescapable conclusion is that
Fermi goofed. And we wonder how.
The other day, while I was recording, my producer
Capella Tucker: You'd better
go back and reread that sentence.
John Lienhard: But -- but,
Capella Tucker: Because you said
wheat. I think you meant to say
I blinked in amazement; I hadn't heard my own
error. The mind does that. It rewrites things. Any
good policeman knows how wrong eye-witness
testimony can be. Our mind replays a skeletal
structure and then adds elaboration. The accuracy
of our recollection depends on how rigorously we
can control the material we fill in.
So there stood Fermi at the blackboard, thinking
about the photographer and putting the right
symbols in the wrong places. At his desk with a
piece of paper and pencil, Fermi was far better
than most -- both at remembering and at filling in
the blanks with a finely-woven skein of logic. So I
went looking for what Fermi might've said about
remembering. Sure enough, the matter was on his
mind. In one remark about modern physics, he said,
If I could remember the names of all these
I'd be a botanist.
And another remark touched on our constant need to
be reminded of the good and familiar things in our
lives. Fermi said,
Never underestimate the joy people derive from
hearing something they already know.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Huber, G., Postage Stamp Poses a Fermi Problem.
Science, Vol 294, 5 October, 2001, pg.
For some biographical material, see: