Why are we called Fermilab?

Enrico Fermi

Enrico Fermi

On May 11, 1974, National Accelerator Laboratory was given a new name: Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. The eponym honors famed Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, whose accomplishments in both theoretical and experimental physics place him among the greatest scientists of the 20th century.

Many visitors to Fermilab reasonably conclude from its name that Enrico Fermi worked at the laboratory, but he never did. In fact, he died in 1954, years before scientists even officially recommended the construction of a U.S. accelerator laboratory in 1963.

In 1938, Fermi won the Nobel Prize for work that eventually led to the first controlled release of nuclear energy. He and his family then left Italy and came to the United States, where he accepted a position at Columbia University. He later moved to the University of Chicago, where he built the first atomic pile in the squash court under the university’s Stagg Field. While there, he continued investigating the nature of particles that make up the nucleus. He was also active in the design of the school’s synchrocyclotron. At the time of its completion, it was one of the most powerful atom smashers in the world.

Fermi was also responsible for giving the neutrino its name.

So why was National Accelerator Laboratory named after Enrico Fermi? In announcing the eventual name change, Atomic Energy Commission Chair Glenn T. Seaborg cited Fermi’s contributions to the welfare of the United States, his singular achievements to nuclear physics and his scientific successes at the nearby University of Chicago.

It is particularly fitting that we honor Dr. Fermi in this manner, for in so doing we further acknowledge his many contributions to the progress of nuclear science, particularly his work on nuclear processes. Enrico Fermi was a physicist of great renown who contributed in a most significant way to the defense and welfare of his adopted land and to the enhancement of its intellectual well-being. His greatest achievement, the first sustained nuclear chain reaction, took place in a small laboratory in Chicago. It seems singularly appropriate, therefore, that the federal government recognize the memory of a man who was at the forefront of science in his day by naming in his honor a laboratory near Chicago — a laboratory which will have a major international impact on our understanding of the basic structure of matter.

You can read more about Fermi’s numerous and important contributions to science in the Fermilab History and Archives website. Several articles on the dedication of the lab as Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory can be found there as well.