Embracing Contradictions on the Neutron Trail with Olivia Fermi

Interview by Kaidi Ilves

“Being able to tell my family story in the context of a greater arc of social and cultural evolution ignited some excellent discussion,” says Olivia Fermi, who spoke at FDU’s Metropolitan Campus on Thursday, March 10, 2016.

olivia fermi


Olivia Fermi, MA, RTC, is an independent teacher, psychological counselor and integrity skills coach living in Vancouver, Canada. She is the maternal granddaughter of Enrico Fermi (1901-1954), physicist, Nobel laureate, and one of the key architects of the first atomic bombs; and Laura Fermi (1907-1977), New York Times best-selling author and pioneering activist in both the environmental and gun control movements. (Photos courtesy of Fermi)


FDU: What is your Neutron Trail project all about?

Olivia Fermi: My grandfather Enrico had deep qualms about his work on the first atomic weapons. On one hand, he wanted to serve his new country, the USA, in defeating Hitler’s Nazis and their allies, who were engaged in slaughtering millions and millions of people in Europe and Southeast Asia during World War II. On the other, he didn’t believe in slaughtering civilians, which the Allies ultimately did engage in as well, and argued with his superiors against using the bomb. Immediately after the war he returned to civilian life and resumed his physics research and teaching.

I grew up in a family grappling with the same contradictions about technology that my grandfather faced so directly. Eventually, I realized it wasn’t just me or my family struggling to make sense of such awesome powers. All of us alive today are in some way impacted by the existence of nuclear technology. Therefore, it is an example of a bigger dilemma — how do we live together in the 21st century, with over population, over resourcing, and climate change.

The Neutron Trail is my metaphorical name for a shared cultural inquiry into these kinds of deeper questions. Much like my grandfather’s pre-war work with the neutral neutron, it’s about slowing down, taking a few steps back to have a broader view, all to figure out the contradictions surrounding, for example, nuclear power.

We know nuclear weapons are bad, and we want to get rid of them, but haven’t figured out how to do it. Meanwhile, there are existing ways to produce safe, clean nuclear energy but we haven’t deployed them yet, because of fear and, of course, political and bureaucratic stickiness. People are still too scared of nuclear power to take advantage of its gifts.

I know it’s controversial to say I’m in favor of clean, safe nuclear energy. I truly am. I wish we were at least as scared of fossil fuels, fracking, coal, and oil as we are of nuclear energy. Fossil fuels are causing runaway climate change. Clean, safe nuclear energy could help mitigate that.

So to get back to your question, the Neutron Trail is about embracing these kinds of contradictions. It’s less about the content of the issues and more about stretching ourselves to be able to talk about, and really deal with, the truly complex, existential issues humanity is facing now, in new generative, creative ways.

FDU: You mentioned the Neutron Trail is also an immigration story…

Fermi Wedding 1928OF: A very contradictory immigration story. My grandfather fled Fascist Italy with his wife and kids because she was Jewish and at risk of being exterminated. My grandmother’s dad was exterminated by the Nazis after she left Italy. It’s tragic really. He was an admiral, a very loyal man, in the Italian navy, but the Nazis took him to Auschwitz and gassed him to death.


Wedding of Laura and Enrico Fermi, Rome, Italy, 1928.


They also left because Enrico won the Nobel Prize in physics and was receiving work offers from major universities in the U.S. But soon after he arrived, it turned out the U.S. wanted his brilliance to solve the most difficult problems of building the first atomic bombs. For the top-secret work on the atom bomb, Enrico was an enemy alien,  since Italy had allied itself with Nazi Germany. Yet, he had top-secret clearance and his own bodyguard — talk about contradictions!

But the idea of the Neutron Trail as an immigration story is bigger than the waves of immigration out of Nazi-controlled Europe before and during World War II. Historically, humans have always migrated from place to place and in recent times, with the rise of nation-states, from country to country.

Today there are probably more people migrating than at any other time in human history. Sadly, that’s because of political and economic instability, war, and climate change — especially drought and famine. I think we’re running out of space to migrate from country to country. The infrastructure isn’t there. I think we’re going to see more of the idea that we’re immigrating into new ways of living together on planet Earth.

It’s like taking the idea of immigration to a new level of consciousness. In the presentation, I spoke about a model called Spiral Dynamics that helps us chart this forward movement.

FDU: Can you elaborate a bit more about the concept of Spiral Dynamics? Did the students respond to the idea?

OF: The whole audience seemed to respond to the ideas of Spiral Dynamics quite well. We had a great discussion after, where folks talked about how it applied to them, and made sense to them. They really seemed to like it.

via PanispernaBasically, the idea is that under different life conditions, not only do our clothes, what we eat and how we work look different, but also the things that concern us, our very thought patterns and paradigms, are shaped by, and in turn shape, our reality. For example hunter-gatherer consciousness was very different than the consciousness we are used to on a university campus. With a simple, color-coded system, Spiral Dynamics offers an emergent map of the basic phases of development of consciousness for humans from the Stone Age to now and the future.


Enrico Fermi (far right) with the student colleagues with whom he did his Nobel Prize winning work, Via Panisperna, Rome, Italy, circa 1938.


FDU: What brought you to FDU?

OF: FDU and I have a mutual acquaintance in Steve McCurry, Magnum photographer. Steve received an honorary degree from FDU about 10 years ago and, serendipitously, I met both him and Provost Joseph Kiernan at the opening reception for FDU’s Vancouver Campus in 2007. When Steve heard I was going to be in New York City, he kindly recommended the University to invite me here, and I was delighted to accept.

It was an honor for me to speak with the students, faculty and community of FDU. Since then, Craig Mourton , associate provost, and I have spoken about the possibility of me returning to FDU ‘s N.J. campuses to give a workshop. I would welcome another opportunity to visit and to help contribute to the school’s wonderful learning community.

FDU: Any last thoughts you’d like to share?

OF: Getting such positive feedback as I did the other night with the talk, and your interest to publish an interview with me really motivate me to keep trekking the Neutron Trail. I would like to invite FDU’s readers to be in touch — catalyst@fermi.ca, www.neutrontrail.com.