Hiking the Neutron Trailposted on April 25th, 2011 by Sara Wintz
On March 23, Olivia Fermi, granddaughter of physicist Enrico Fermi, gave the keynote address for the Department of Mathematical Sciences’s Second Annual Physics and Art Exhibition. Fermi’s talk was part of Peak Performances’ season-long exploration of collaborations between art and science and was held in conjunction with performances of The Matter of Origins by the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange. Sara Wintz gives her impressions of this special event cosponsored by Montclair State’s Office of Arts & Cultural Programming, College of Science and Math, and College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
In her talk, “On the Neutron Trail: Seeing Fulcrums and Frames,” Olivia Fermi discussed sociological, cultural, and historical details surrounding the creation of the atom bomb. Like the participants in Montclair State’s Physics and Art Exhibition, who were invited to create images that illustrate a scientific concept, Fermi illustrated the context that surrounded the creation of this landmark scientific event.
“Part of the philosophy of ‘The Neutron Trail’ is to embrace the disconnects,” Fermi said in an interview following her presentation. “I grew up feeling a mixture of pride and guilt, but the people that would meet our family, they were always very respectful and, well, beyond that, there’s just tremendous gratitude for my grandfather’s work…in general…but when it comes to our nuclear legacy, it comes with more conflict than that.”
Using family portraits, physical artifacts, and her own memories, Fermi spoke about her family in relation to the larger scope of history. Her presentation was prompted by questions she had about the impact of her grandfather’s work today.
Fermi asked the audience to think of where their grandparents were during World War II; she then asked them to pick people in groups of two or three and talk about their own families at that time—to pick a family member who might exemplify their family’s experience and discuss that person in detail. “[T]he idea isn’t to finish; it’s just to begin something.” Fermi said, over the chatter of students.
Fermi explained that her grandfather was part of the quantum revolution that revealed the inner workings of the atom. He came up with the first theory of the weak force and was an “experimentalist as well as a theorist.” Fermi integrated photographs of pages from her grandfather’s notebook, historical cartoons, and newspaper headlines of the era alongside the story of her family’s early years in the United States after they arrived in 1939.
Her grandmother was home cooking when the scientists from Los Alamos came home to celebrate the announcement of their discovery. Yet, because it was kept secret, she knew only that they were celebrating. She didn’t know what it was about.
To provide parallel historical details, Fermi showed slides of Georgia O’Keefe, who was painting in northern New Mexico at the time of the Manhattan Project and was unaware of the secret activities taking place only miles away. To provide students with a sense of the prevalence of nuclear culture in New Mexico today, Fermi showed photographs that she had taken in the region of signs that read “ATOMIC CITY TRANSIT” and “ATOMIC GRILLE,” as well as of historical landmarks like Trinity Site (flooded with touring photographers).
At the end of her presentation, Fermi drew a long stick from the podium shelf—her grandfather’s slide rule—and explained, “I just want to remind everyone that this is how they built the bomb: with slide rules.”
I asked later how she decided to present a mixture of photographs and physical objects in addition to her own written lecture. Fermi responded, “People take in information in different ways. Some people are more visual, more verbal, more conceptual, and this is really expanding upon that, it’s a way of expressing different points of view. We tend to take in information through the written word, like, what’s in a paper, on the internet—especially when it comes to news and history. There’s a bias there. By including the Georgia O’Keefe—she was painting while they were making the bomb and after—it’s a reminder that there’s other things going on in life.”
For Fermi, growing up in a “nuclear family” had its ups and downs. Coming into her own as an individual, she began to feel conflicted about her family’s legacy and to search for understanding. “When I was looking at Trinity Site, I felt very conflicted inside—that it was a tourist site but that it should also be a memorial [to those who died in Japan.] … I can never quite come to terms with it.”
Today, as an applied behavioral scientist, Fermi studies how individuals interact in groups. She works as an individual, executive, and entrepreneurial coach, and a lot of her work involves conflict resolution. She studied theater as an undergraduate and worked briefly as a stage manager before transitioning to psychology.
After her presentation, Fermi took questions and comments from students and community members in the audience. The afternoon’s discussion closed with the words of an audience member, who said, “I think that if Enrico Fermi were alive, he would be inventing the next technology.”
Fermi followed up her keynote address with a student workshop exploring issues of power and legacy. Visit her blog, On the Neutron Trail, to read more.
Sara Wintz’s writing has appeared in The Poetry Project Newsletter, Jacket, HTMLGIANT, 6×6 and HARRIET: The Poetry Foundation Blog. She was communications assistant at Peak Performances from 2009 to 2010 and is a 2010 graduate of the MFA program in writing at Bard College.