Referred to as the “architect of the nuclear age,” Enrico Fermi was a nuclear physicist, a Nobel Prize winner, and a Freemason. Throughout his prolific career, he made substantial contributions to the fields of Quantum Theory, Statistical Mechanics, and Nuclear and Particle Physics. Fermi excelled at both experimental and theoretical work – a distinction accomplished by few physicists.
He labored for the betterment of humanity, yet his research ultimately led to the creation and utilization of the atomic bombs, which killed over 200,000 citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. Brother Enrico was adamantly opposed to the utilization of the hydrogen bomb, yet he ultimately argued for the development of knowledge regardless of the consequences of the use of that knowledge.
Early Years in Italy
Born in Rome in 1901, Enrico Fermi’s fascination with Physics began at age 14 following the tragic death of his older brother, Giulio. Distraught after losing his brother, he went to a local market and found two physics textbooks written by a Jesuit physicist in 1840. Despite the fact that the books were written in Latin, Fermi read them cover to cover. From that point on, Enrico’s passion for physics became the focal point of his life.
His understanding was so advanced in the subject that his entrance essay for the University of Pisa was deemed equivalent to the work of a doctoral student. There he received his undergraduate and doctoral degrees, and he published his first important scientific work in 1922 – his year of graduation.
Enrico Fermi became a Freemason joining the Adriano Lemmi Lodge in Rome, under the Gran Loggia d’italia di Piazza del Geso. His intellectual curiosity made him a natural fit for the studies of Freemasonry, and he rose to the degree of Master Mason in 1923. His climb towards greatness continued as he was appointed Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Rome at the age of 24.
In the 1930s, he conducted a series of experiments to study the impacts of bombarding various elements with neutrons. This work led to the successful splitting of an Uranium atom for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1938. Fearing for the safety of his Jewish wife, Fermi began searching for an escape from the impending genocide. Soon after, Enrico and Laura emigrated to the United States, fleeing the Fascist Regime’s take over of Italy.
Emigration to the United States
Upon the discovery of nuclear fission, he went to the University of Chicago and later to Los Alamos to serve as a general consultant. Brother Fermi contributed significantly to the Manhattan Project. As a leading member of the Manhattan Project, Brother Fermi worked on the development of nuclear energy and the atomic bomb although he was a vocal critic of the use of the technology as a military weapon.
The Royal Society
Did Brother Fermi’s Masonic career continue in his participation in the Royal Society? Some Masonic Scholars have explored the hypothesis that modern Freemasonry was instituted in the 17th century by a set of philosophers and scientists who organized it under the title of the “Royal Society.” This political and philosophical club, subsequently referred to under many other names including the ” Royal Society of Sciences,” had many ties to the ancient fraternity of Freemasonry. The Royal Society is known today as the United Kingdom’s National Academy of Science. Recently celebrating its 350th anniversary, the Library and Museum of Freemasonry held a special exhibition focused on the extraordinary number of Freemasons who have been Fellows of this august body since its inception.
Hundreds of Royal Society Fellows have belonged to the Craft, including several royals such as King George IV, Oscar I of Sweden and Norway, and H.R.H. the Duke of Kent. Other notable members of the society include Sir Winston Churchill, Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, and Edward Jenner.
Brother Fermi was elected Fellow of the Royal Society on April 27, 1950. In his later years, he did important work in particle physics and was an inspiring teacher at the University of Chicago. Unfortunately, in 1954 at age 54, Brother Enrico died of stomach cancer due to his exposure to radiation in his experiments. His legacy of service to Humanity continues long after his death.
Fermi stated, “Whatever Nature has in store for mankind, unpleasant as it may be, men must accept for ignorance is never better than knowledge.” Does the expansion of knowledge, even when applied to controversial ends, always benefit humanity?