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Home > Dictionary of Science Quotations > Scientist Names Index F > Enrico Fermi Quotes

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Enrico Fermi
(29 Sep 1901 - 28 Nov 1954)

Italian-American physicist.

Science Quotes by Enrico Fermi (9 quotes)

When asked what he meant by a miracle:
Oh, anything with a probability of less than 20%.
— Enrico Fermi
Science quotes on:  |  Biography (227)  |  Miracle (55)

Experimental confirmation of a prediction is merely a measurement. An experiment disproving a prediction is a discovery.
— Enrico Fermi
Science quotes on:  |  Confirmation (15)  |  Discovery (591)  |  Disprove (15)  |  Experiment (543)  |  Experimental (12)  |  Measurement (148)  |  Merely (35)  |  Prediction (67)

In recent years several new particles have been discovered which are currently assumed to be “elementary,” that is, essentially structureless. The probability that all such particles should be really elementary becomes less and less as their number increases. It is by no means certain that nucleons, mesons, electrons, neutrinos are all elementary particles.
— Enrico Fermi
Opening statement, Enrico Fermi and C.N. Yang, 'Are Mesons Elementary Particles?', Physical Review (1949), 76, 1739. As cited in James Gleick, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (1992), 283.
Science quotes on:  |  Assumption (49)  |  Certainty (97)  |  Discovery (591)  |  Electron (66)  |  Elementary (30)  |  Increase (107)  |  Meson (2)  |  Neutrino (8)  |  New (340)  |  Number (179)  |  Particle (90)  |  Probability (83)

It is no good to try to stop knowledge from going forward. Ignorance is never better that knowledge.
— Enrico Fermi
Science quotes on:  |  Better (131)  |  Forward (21)  |  Good (228)  |  Ignorance (190)  |  Knowledge (1128)  |  Stop (56)  |  Try (103)

One might be led to question whether the scientists acted wisely in presenting the statesmen of the world with this appalling problem. Actually there was no choice. Once basic knowledge is acquired, any attempt at preventing its fruition would be as futile as hoping to stop the earth from revolving around the sun.
— Enrico Fermi
'Atomic Energy for Power', Collected Papers (Note e Memorie) (1939-1945), Vol. 2, 556.
Science quotes on:  |  Atomic Bomb (101)  |  Atomic Power (7)

The fact that no limits exist to the destructiveness of this weapon [the “Super”, i.e. the hydrogen bomb] makes its very existence and the knowledge of its construction a danger to humanity as a whole. It is necessarily an evil thing considered in any light. For these reasons, we believe it important for the President of the United States to tell the American public and the world what we think is wrong on fundamental ethical principles to initiate the development of such a weapon.
— Enrico Fermi
Enrico Fermi and I.I. Rabi, 'Minority Report of the General Advisory Committee', United States Atomic Energy Commission: In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer: Transcript of Hearing before Personnel Security Board, Washington, D.C. April 12th 1954—May 6th 1954 (1954), 79-80.
Science quotes on:  |  Evil (67)  |  Hydrogen Bomb (7)  |  Weapon (57)

There are two possible outcomes: 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.
— Enrico Fermi
Found in various sources, but without citation, for example in Nancy Trautmann, Assessing Toxic Risk: Teacher Edition (2001), 29. If you know the primary source, please contact Webmaster.
Science quotes on:  |  Confirm (12)  |  Contrary (22)  |  Discovery (591)  |  Hypothesis (227)  |  Measurement (148)  |  Outcome (10)  |  Possible (100)  |  Result (250)

Whatever Nature has in store for mankind, unpleasant as it may be, men must accept, for ignorance is never better than knowledge.
— Enrico Fermi
Quoted in Laura Fermi, Atoms in the Family: My Life with Enrico Fermi (1954), 244.
Science quotes on:  |  Ignorance (190)  |  Knowledge (1128)

Young man, if I could remember the names of these particles, I would have been a botanist.
— Enrico Fermi
Given as a reply to Leon M. Lederman (then a young researcher) when he asked Fermi for his opinion of the evidence of a particle named the K-zero-two, while standing next to him in a conference lunch line. Lederman wrote his recollection of the answer in his book, The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, what is the Question? (1993), 15. Lederman mentioned this statement much earlier, as “If I could remember the names of these particles, I would have been a botanist,” in a lecture (9 Jan 1963) on 'Neutrino Physics,' collected in Brookhaven Lecture Series (Dec 1963), 23, 1.
Science quotes on:  |  Biography (227)  |  Particle (90)

Quotes by others about Enrico Fermi (8)

There is no democracy in physics. We can’t say that some second-rate guy has as much right to opinion as Fermi.
Quoted in Daniel S. Greenberg, The Politics of American Science (1968), 43.
Science quotes on:  |  Men Of Science (97)

During Alfvén's visit he gave a lecture at the University of Chicago, which was attended by [Enrico] Fermi. As Alfvén described his work, Fermi nodded his head and said, 'Of course.' The next day the entire world of physics said. 'Oh, of course.'
Quoted in Anthony L. Peratt, 'Dean of the Plasma Dissidents', Washington Times, supplement: The World and I (May 1988), 195.
Science quotes on:  |  Hannes Alfvén (11)  |  Description (72)  |  Lecture (54)  |  Of Course (11)  |  Work (457)

When I entered the field of space physics in 1956, I recall that I fell in with the crowd believing, for example, that electric fields could not exist in the highly conducting plasma of space. It was three years later that I was shamed by S. Chandrasekhar into investigating Alfvén's work objectively. My degree of shock and surprise in finding Alfvén right and his critics wrong can hardly be described. I learned that a cosmic ray acceleration mechanism basically identical to the famous mechanism suggested by Fermi in 1949 had [previously] been put forth by Alfvén.
Quoted in Anthony L. Peratt, 'Dean of the Plasma Dissidents', Washington Times, supplement: The World and I (May 1988), 195.
Science quotes on:  |  Belief (400)  |  Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (7)  |  Confirm (12)  |  Cosmic Ray (6)  |  Critic (17)  |  Crowd (12)  |  Description (72)  |  Enter (20)  |  Investigate (49)  |  Objectively (5)  |  Plasma (7)  |  Recall (7)  |  Right (144)  |  Shame (12)  |  Shock (12)  |  Space (154)  |  Surprise (44)  |  Wrong (116)

But, contrary to the lady’s prejudices about the engineering profession, the fact is that quite some time ago the tables were turned between theory and applications in the physical sciences. Since World War II the discoveries that have changed the world are not made so much in lofty halls of theoretical physics as in the less-noticed labs of engineering and experimental physics. The roles of pure and applied science have been reversed; they are no longer what they were in the golden age of physics, in the age of Einstein, Schrödinger, Fermi and Dirac.
'The Age of Computing: a Personal Memoir', Daedalus (1992), 121, 120.
Science quotes on:  |  Application (117)  |  Applied Science (28)  |  Paul A. M. Dirac (43)  |  Discovery (591)  |  Albert Einstein (535)  |  Engineer (72)  |  Fact (609)  |  Golden Age (5)  |  Laboratory (120)  |  Physical Science (54)  |  Physics (301)  |  Prejudice (58)  |  Profession (54)  |  Pure Science (18)  |  Reverse (14)  |  Role (35)  |  Erwin Schrödinger (65)  |  Theoretical Physics (15)  |  Theory (582)  |  World War II (7)

The most striking impression was that of an overwhelming bright light. I had seen under similar conditions the explosion of a large amount—100 tons—of normal explosives in the April test, and I was flabbergasted by the new spectacle. We saw the whole sky flash with unbelievable brightness in spite of the very dark glasses we wore. Our eyes were accommodated to darkness, and thus even if the sudden light had been only normal daylight it would have appeared to us much brighter than usual, but we know from measurements that the flash of the bomb was many times brighter than the sun. In a fraction of a second, at our distance, one received enough light to produce a sunburn. I was near Fermi at the time of the explosion, but I do not remember what we said, if anything. I believe that for a moment I thought the explosion might set fire to the atmosphere and thus finish the earth, even though I knew that this was not possible.
In Enrico Fermi: Physicist (1970), 147.
Science quotes on:  |  Accommodation (5)  |  Amount (20)  |  April (4)  |  Atmosphere (63)  |  Atomic Bomb (101)  |  Brightness (8)  |  Condition (119)  |  Darkness (25)  |  Daylight (7)  |  Earth (487)  |  Explosion (24)  |  Explosive (16)  |  Finish (16)  |  Fire (117)  |  Flabbergast (2)  |  Flash (25)  |  Fraction (8)  |  Glasses (2)  |  Impression (51)  |  Light (246)  |  Measurement (148)  |  Overwhelming (18)  |  Possibility (96)  |  Second (33)  |  Sky (68)  |  Spectacle (11)  |  Test (96)

Scientists come in two varieties, hedgehogs and foxes. I borrow this terminology from Isaiah Berlin (1953), who borrowed it from the ancient Greek poet Archilochus. Archilochus told us that foxes know many tricks, hedgehogs only one. Foxes are broad, hedgehogs are deep. Foxes are interested in everything and move easily from one problem to another. Hedgehogs are only interested in a few problems that they consider fundamental, and stick with the same problems for years or decades. Most of the great discoveries are made by hedgehogs, most of the little discoveries by foxes. Science needs both hedgehogs and foxes for its healthy growth, hedgehogs to dig deep into the nature of things, foxes to explore the complicated details of our marvelous universe. Albert Einstein and Edwin Hubble were hedgehogs. Charley Townes, who invented the laser, and Enrico Fermi, who built the first nuclear reactor in Chicago, were foxes.
In 'The Future of Biotechnology', A Many-Colored Glass: Reflections on the Place of Life in the Universe (2007), 1.
Science quotes on:  |  Archilochus (3)  |  Broad (18)  |  Complication (20)  |  Deep (81)  |  Detail (65)  |  Discovery (591)  |  Albert Einstein (535)  |  Fox (8)  |  Fundamental (122)  |  Hedgehog (2)  |  Edwin Powell Hubble (17)  |  Invention (283)  |  Knowledge (1128)  |  Laser (4)  |  Marvel (24)  |  Problem (362)  |  Scientist (447)  |  Charles Townes (3)  |  Trick (19)  |  Universe (563)  |  Variety (53)

To my knowledge there are no written accounts of Fermi’s contributions to the [first atomic bomb] testing problems, nor would it be easy to reconstruct them in detail. This, however, was one of those occasions in which Fermi’s dominion over all physics, one of his most startling characteristics, came into its own. The problems involved in the Trinity test ranged from hydrodynamics to nuclear physics, from optics to thermodynamics, from geophysics to nuclear chemistry. Often they were closely interrelated, and to solve one’it was necessary to understand all the others. Even though the purpose was grim and terrifying, it was one of the greatest physics experiments of all time. Fermi completely immersed himself in the task. At the time of the test he was one of the very few persons (or perhaps the only one) who understood all the technical ramifications.
In Enrico Fermi: Physicist (1970), 145
Science quotes on:  |  Atomic Bomb (101)  |  Dominion (6)  |  Experiment (543)  |  Geophysics (3)  |  Greatest (53)  |  Grim (4)  |  Hydrodynamics (2)  |  Nuclear Physics (4)  |  Optics (15)  |  Problem (362)  |  Ramification (3)  |  Terror (16)  |  Test (96)  |  Thermodynamics (27)  |  Trinity (7)

[After the flash of the atomic bomb test explosion] Fermi got up and dropped small pieces of paper … a simple experiment to measure the energy liberated by the explosion … [W]hen the front of the shock wave arrived (some seconds after the flash) the pieces of paper were displaced a few centimeters in the direction of propagation of the shock wave. From the distance of the source and from the displacement of the air due to the shock wave, he could calculate the energy of the explosion. This Fermi had done in advance having prepared himself a table of numbers, so that he could tell immediately the energy liberated from this crude but simple measurement. … It is also typical that his answer closely approximated that of the elaborate official measurements. The latter, however, were available only after several days’ study of the records, whereas Fermi had his within seconds.
In Enrico Fermi: Physicist (1970), 147-148.
Science quotes on:  |  Approximation (16)  |  Atomic Bomb (101)  |  Displacement (5)  |  Dropping (3)  |  Energy (185)  |  Experiment (543)  |  Explosion (24)  |  Flash (25)  |  Measurement (148)  |  Paper (52)  |  Second (33)  |  Shock Wave (2)  |  Trinity (7)

See also:

Carl Sagan Thumbnail In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) -- Carl Sagan
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