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Unearthing Fermi’s Geophysics

Follow Nobel laureate and legendary teacher Enrico Fermi’s lost course on geophysics.

Nobel Prize–winning physicist Enrico Fermi (1901–54) is known for his work on experimental particle and nuclear physics, quantum theory, and statistical mechanics, and for his particular ability to condense complicated problems into approximations for understanding and testing theory in a variety of scientific disciplines. Six of his graduate students went on to win their own Nobel Prizes.

Unearthing Fermi’s Geophysics opens a window onto two underrepresented facets of this extraordinary thinker: Fermi’s teaching and his contribution to the field of geophysics. Drawing on Fermi’s handwritten calculations and notes, many of which are reproduced here in photographic facsimile, physicists Gino Segrè and John Stack have reconstructed a coursebook of Fermi’s insights into the physics of a range of geological and atmospheric phenomena. From gravity on Earth to thermodynamics in the atmosphere, the physics of raindrops, the Coriolis effect in hurricanes, tidal physics, earthquakes and seismic waves, Earth’s magnetism, atmospheric electricity, and much more, Unearthing Fermi’s Geophysics reveals the hidden workings of the world above, around, and below us—and of the mind of a great scientist who was able to bring those physical workings to light.

Download Enrico Fermi’s handwritten notes

208 pages | 44 halftones, 12 tables | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2

Earth Sciences: General Earth Sciences, History of Earth Sciences

History of Science

Physical Sciences: History and Philosophy of Physical Sciences, Theoretical Physics


Unearthing Fermi’s Geophysics is a rather unusual book. It is a text on geophysics that Enrico Fermi might have written, based on notes from a course he did give at Columbia University in the late 1930s. It is idiosyncratic in its coverage of topics, but does an excellent job of illustrating how Fermi went about exploring a field for which he had no background other than being a (remarkably able) physicist. Segrè and Stack have done a fine job of filling in the details needed to make sense of Fermi’s lecture notes. This invaluable book is not only clearly a labor of love, but also a boon to students of the history of science and of Fermi.”

Robert Rosner, Departments of Astronomy & Astrophysics and Physics, Enrico Fermi Institute, and Harris School of Public Policy, University of Chicago

“An assured and informative biography of the pioneering nuclear scientist.”

New York Times Book Review, Editors’ Choice, on "The Pope of Physics"

“Superb. . . . A definitive study of Fermi’s life and work.”

Wall Street Journal, on "The Pope of Physics"

“Impressive. . . . Both intelligent and extremely engaging.”

Washington Post, on "The Pope of Physics"

“Humane, scientifically astute, and beautifully written.”

Physics Today, on "The Pope of Physics"

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