Tuesday, June 26, 2007

He Had Firm Grasp Of Physics

Er... Yahoo Finance has an article on the life and times of Enrico Fermi in its investor's daily business section? Who would have thunk? :)

Still, it's a very good and brief summary of who Fermi was and why he is such a giant in the field of physics. But here's a very comment editorial about Fermi's "popularity" among the general public:

He is the namesake of the Fermi Institute on the campus of the University of Chicago, the Enrico Fermi Award given by the Energy Department, Fermilabs in Illinois and a street in Rome.

Time magazine selected Fermi as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. He won the Nobel Prize in physics.

So why isn't he a household name?

Despite the peer recognition and scores of accolades he received, he still is relatively unknown.

All I can say is, speak for yourself.

Every physics major in the world knows the name "Fermi", or at least I hope they do or else they're missing a huge chunk of their education. He may be a relative unknown to the general public, but then again, that can be said about most physicists that remain anonymous to the public, no matter how huge of a contribution they have made. I highlighted the significant contribution of John Bardeen that is even MORE obscure to most people (and to a lot of physicists as well) than Fermi. Yet, Bardeen is the only person thus far to win the Nobel Prize in physics TWICE. So not being known to the general public is more of the norm than the exception, which isn't saying much since this is the same "general public" where half of them do not know that the earth revolves around the sun. So we're not talking about a group of people with a great deal of scientific literacy here.

One part of the article that I rather like was the quote attributed to Fermi at the end of the article. It says:

"There are two possible outcomes," Fermi said about experimentation. "If the result confirms the hypothesis, then you've made a measurement. If the result is contrary to the hypothesis, then you've made a discovery."

I love that! This is exactly what practicing scientists do, and it is something most crackpots do not realize when they argue that all we do is simply to uphold what is already valid. Most of us study things that are either new, unexplained, or simply puzzling. That's what we are employed to do as scientists and it is how we contribute to the body of knowledge - by adding to it. And by golly, do we try to make a "discovery"!


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