Even Nobel Prize-Winning Physicists Need a Little Luck

Accidental Experiments and Chance Encounters Helped Enrico Fermi Develop the First Nuclear Reactor

The general public may view the scientific enterprise as rational and methodical, moving forward in an orderly, cohesive way. But science moves in fits and starts, sometimes forward and sometimes backward, sometimes methodically and sometimes quite by accident. The extraordinary role that chance and accident play in scientific discovery can be seen in the remarkable career of Enrico Fermi, one of the 20th century’s greatest physicists. Fermi is known primarily for his work on neutron physics, nuclear fission, and the experiments that led to the first atomic bomb.

In October 1934, …