This photo about the Italian supreme physicist Enrico Fermi is rather famous.

Yet nobody ever questioned, as far as I know, the wrongness of the fine structure constant written on it.

So I am asking you this: why is the fine structure constant written in a wrong way? And what is he drawing?

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ As a counterpoint, when I was a student, every time a professor showed this photo, they would point out that the fine-structure constant was written incorrectly. $\endgroup$ – rob Apr 13 '18 at 15:00
  • $\begingroup$ Ahhh as I thought I couldn't be the first one xD I just wonder why it was wrong written. I don't think Fermi just wanted to be photographed just for showman manias :D $\endgroup$ – Les Adieux Apr 13 '18 at 15:02

They have noticed, see this link.

That's the sort of near-invisible detail that we take for granted. It's only wallpaper. But Huber put a magnifying glass to it and found it was completely mixed up. Terms were all in the wrong places. It was nonsense, but only to those few who can make sense of such symbols in the first place.


The mind does that. It rewrites things. Any good policeman knows how wrong eye-witness testimony can be. Our mind replays a skeletal structure and then adds elaboration. The accuracy of our recollection depends on how rigorously we can control the material we fill in.

He has exchanged $e$ with $h/(2π)$ symbols, as they say in the link , people do such substitutions, more so with age. One should check again formulae as a matter of course.

  • $\begingroup$ Your link cites a 2001 letter to Science by Greg Huber, which was probably the first observation of this error after the image in question appeared on a US postage stamp. $\endgroup$ – rob Apr 13 '18 at 21:04
  • $\begingroup$ "what is he drawing" I guess since the fine structure constant is also there, demonstrating how the orbitals would change, or the energy levels? due to the extra interaction by drawing the classical forces. It is also interesting to observe that in a system where h=e=1 it is the same , 1/c en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fine-structure_constant#In_non-SI_units $\endgroup$ – anna v Apr 14 '18 at 3:23

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