Thursday, January 22, 2009

DBTL 8A: The Fire Next Time

Rome, Italy
6 February 1940

A uniformed attendant had just spoken the six most frightening words in the Italian language: "Il Duce will see you now." Enrico Fermi, Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Rome, summoned up whatever reserves of courage he possessed and followed the attendant through a pair of monstrously ornate doors into the august presence of the most powerful man in Italy.

Later on, Fermi would recall that the room itself was so lavishly decorated that it made the doors seem sedate by comparison. At the time, he had no attention to spare for the decor, for all of it was focused upon the figure of Benito Mussolini. Il Duce was standing facing a pair of floor-length glass windows which opened out onto a balcony. As soon as Fermi entered the room, Mussolini turned to look at him.

The eyes Fermi found himself facing were those of one accustomed to command, of one having authority, and not fearing to use it. The mouth was thin, hard, ruthless. When the face brightened into an affable smile, Fermi found himself letting go of a breath he hadn't known he was holding.

"Professor Fermi," said Il Duce, "it was good of you to make the time to see me."

"Not at all, sir," Fermi managed to gasp out, "it is an honor."

"True enough," said Mussolini. "I'll tell you why I asked you here. As you are no doubt aware, my recent attempt to expand our country's influence overseas has met with a serious setback. It seems that, having won themselves vast colonial empires, the British and French have no wish to see anyone else emulate their example."

Fermi, who regarded the invasion of Ethiopia as a collossal blunder and welcomed efforts by the British and French to put a stop to it, prudently remained silent.

"However unfair their actions might be," Mussolini continued, "we Italians must perforce accede to them. There can be no military triumphs won, no empire built. Italy must find some other way to make her mark upon the world. And that is where you come in, Professor."

"Me?" One word was all Fermi could manage at this point.

"You, Enrico Fermi! Italy must find a new field in which to gain dominance, and I have decided that that field shall be science! You, Professor, are the most prestigious scientist in Italy, a Nobel laureate! You must be the leading force in the new Italian Renaissance!"

"I?" Fermi replied monosyllabically once more. "What can I do?"

"You must find me some project, Professor," said Mussolini. "Some grand undertaking that will establish at once Italy's preeminence in matters scientific. Surely you must know of something! Some theory which must be established, some device which must be assembled. Something!"

Afterwards, Fermi was unsure just what it was that sparked the idea he came up with. Possibly the way Il Duce had phrased his request/demand. At the time, all Fermi knew was that, without quite thinking the matter through, he said, "Well, there was a paper which was recently published by Heisenberg of the Sklodowska Institute in Berlin."

Mussolini was immediately interested. "And what was the import of this paper?"

"It has to do with an experiment I conducted six years ago, bombarding uranium atoms with neutrons in an attempt to create an artificial transuranic element. The results were rather confusing, even inexplicable, or at any rate inexplicable by me. However, Heisenberg and his colleagues at the Sklodowska Institute have come up with an elegant hypothesis which would explain the results perfectly. You see, I was attempting to add neutrons to the nucleus of the uranium atom in an effort to create a larger element. Heisenberg hypothesizes that what actually occurred was that the neutron bombardment caused the uranium nucleus to fission, to break apart into smaller nuclei. He further hypothesizes that the breakup of the uranium atom would be accompanied by the release of more neutrons, which could in their turn react with other uranium nuclei, causing them to fission as well. If the hypothesis is correct, then it would allow us to create a self-sustaining cycle of fissioning uranium nuclei."

Fermi returned from his flight through the realms of physics to find Il Duce looking at him in puzzlement. Fermi knew that Mussolini was an intelligent, educated man, but it was clear that he had been unable to follow the Professor's explanation.

"To summarize, sir," Fermi finished, "it may be possible for humanity to tap the power of the atom."

The glazed look vanished from Mussolini's eyes, to be replaced by excitement. "Atomic power, Professor?"

"Yes, sir."

"And could you yourself do this, Professor?"

"Well," Fermi prevaricated, "it would require prodigious resources. The technical--"

Mussolini waved that aside. "Resources are not a problem. The British and French have just demonstrated with insulting ease how worthless our military preparations have been. If Italy can make no military conquests, we have little need of strong military forces. Would half of our military budget provide you with the resources you need?"

"I, er, I believe so, sir."

"Then it is done," said Mussolini with finality. "You will be appointed director of a government project to create an atomic power plant. Go and prepare a list of what people and materials you will need and report back to me in a week's time. A secret project, mind you! I don't want to go to all this trouble just to find out that the British or the French have beaten us to the punch! Go, Professor, and begin planning for the --" Il Duce paused for a moment, then a smile split his face. "Begin planning for the Prometheus Project! Go!"

Enrico Fermi went.

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