The boys from Via Panisperna

January 10, 1997

A newly discovered diary reveals how Mussolini's race laws killed Italian physics. Paul Bompard reports.

In the mid-1930s, Italy was a world leader in nuclear research. A generation of Italian physicists worked at the very cutting edge of research in an exceptionally exciting and eventful period for physics. One of these scientists, Enrico Fermi, won the 1938 Nobel Prize and was a major contributor to the development of nuclear energy.

But by the end of the decade this unique team of physicists was rapidly destroyed; first by the Fascist regime's anti-Jewish laws, then by an increasingly oppressive political atmosphere as Italy consolidated its alliance with Hitler's Germany.

Italy's top-flight physicists were known as "The boys from Via Panisperna" after the street in central Rome where the physics department of Rome University had its home. One, Edoardo Amaldi, remained in Italy during the war and afterwards did what he could to reconstitute an Italian school of physics. Amaldi died in 1989. Recently two researchers from Rome's La Sapienza University, Michelangelo De Maria and Gianni Battimelli, discovered a 20-page diary of events between 1938 and Italy's entry into the war in 1940.

The diary, which Amaldi called "The Disaster of Physics", has been published on the Internet as part of a cultural and scientific magazine, Galileo (Www.Galileo. Webzone.It/Magazine), with an introduction by Carlo Bernardini. "Amaldi had intended to write a book," explained Battimelli, "but never got around to it. He left us, instead, an enormous archive covering the whole history of Italian physics."

He starts with Enrico Fermi's departure from Rome for Stockholm, where he was to receive the Nobel Prize. On a cold December evening, Fermi's colleagues were at the station to see him off, but it was a melancholy and bitter farewell. They knew that Fermi, and his Jewish wife, would not return to Italy. The laws introduced by Mussolini earlier in 1938 to maintain the "purity of the Italian race" excluded "non-Aryans'' from university posts, from the professions and from holding commercial licences. They even expelled "non-Aryan" children from state schools.

Fermi and his family went from Stockholm to the United States, where he had been offered a job. There, he worked on the Manhattan Project for the construction of the first atom bombs.

Italy's race laws forced the many Jews among the "Panisperna Boys" to seek research and teaching posts abroad, mainly in the United States. Those who escaped included Emilio Segre, Giulio Racah, Ugo Fano, Eugenio Fubini and Sergio De Benedetti. At the same time, the non-Jews began to lose favour with the increasingly bellicose Fascist regime. They were seen as having too many foreign connections, were insufficiently imbued with the Fascist spirit, and had worked with Jews for many years.

According to the Amaldi papers, Mussolini took a dim view of Fermi's decision to receive the Nobel Prize wearing the standard white tie rather than the striking uniform designed for the Italian Academy of Sciences. Fermi also shook the Swedish king's hand instead of giving the "Roman salute" which the Fascists had made compulsory for official salutations. To make matters worse, a Fascist minister who had provided political protection for the physicists died suddenly in 1938.

Amaldi describes how the remaining "Boys" gradually lost heart as rhetoric and bombast dominated both academic and national policy. Their plans for building a cyclotron near Rome quickly evaporated. One by one they began looking for jobs abroad. Amaldi considered moving to the United States, but he left it too late. By then American universities were glutted with fleeing Europeans, and the offers he received were insufficiently attractive to warrant a move.

Those "Boys" still in Italy in 1939 did what they could to keep abreast of the great steps that were taking place in nuclear research in Germany and the United States. Amaldi describes how he travelled to America to examine the cyclotrons which had already been built there, with a view to building one in Italy.

In Ann Arbor he was a guest at a dinner organised by the Fermis in honour of German physicist Werner Heisenberg (Nobel Prize, 1932), who was passing through on his way back to Germany. Amaldi recounts how the conversation hinged on events in Europe, and how Fermi and others tried to persuade Heisenberg to leave Germany for the United States. Amaldi remembers that "Heisenberg weighed on the one hand the possibility of moving to the United States to continue working in an atmosphere essential to productive research. On the other his wish to return to his own country to try to maintain alive a certain form of culture."

After visiting the Fermis, Amaldi continued his trip across America. "At about 6am, on September 1st, I arrived by bus in Salt Lake City. The city was full of the shouts of newsboys announcing that German troops had crossed the Polish frontier. The Second World War had begun ... Mussolini's Italy was still undecided ... but this was a detail ... The purpose of my trip suddenly appeared childishly utopian ... The idea of building a cyclotron in Italy would become the subject for jokes ... I returned knowing that our group was definitively destroyed ... a war in which our country would also be involved ... and what was worse, on the wrong side."

The Amaldi papers do not reveal any startling new facts. They do, however, give a direct, personal, insider's view of historical events that caused Italy's loss of leadership in nuclear research and conditioned physics research in that country long after the second world war.

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