I Ragazzi di Via Panisperna

December 2, 2011 / Local Interest
Rome, Lazio
The next time you’re walking along Via Panisperna from Piazza Venezia to Santa Maria Maggiore, stop for a second. An interesting moment in modern history took place here that few know about.

Prof.Corbino, a physicist and senator in the ’20s, took notice of one young Enrico Fermi (26 years old), gathered some other smart fellows around (all were 26 or younger), secured funding, set a course to explore this newfangled thing called nuclear physics… and let them loose.

Sure enough, the seven ragazzi (“boys”) tore into their subject and discovered secret after secret in the new fields of nuclear physics and quantum mechanics. Fermi and Segre both won Nobel prizes, Majorana (slightly autistic and considered by Fermi to be on par with Newton and Galileo intelligence-wise) did research with Bohr and Heisenberg (some of whose mistakes he corrected), D’Agostino studied with Curie, Amaldi eventually became one of the founders of the CERN in Geneva . . . their accomplishments are simply mind-boggling.

Then not a generation ago in 1938, in the form of Italy’s Racial Laws, the barbarity of some (and the fear and silence of too many) obliterated this little moment as it did so much else. Fermi, whose wife was Jewish, simply didn’t go home after picking up his Nobel in Sweden. Segre and Pontecorvo also Jewish, left right after. Rasetti, anti-fascist and anti-war, moved to Canada and became the founder of modern paleontology. Majorana it seems chose to simply disappear from a world gone mad.

The following photo of the group however makes it hard not to imagine the happier days on Via Panisperna when the ragazzi, out of sheer zeal, worked days straight without sleeping, and when they did sleep, had nothing to wake up to but the joy of discovery.

From left to right: Oscar D’Agostino, Emilio Segre, Edoardo Amaldi, Franco Rasetti, Enrico Fermi

GB

by GB Bernardini

Editor, Italian Notebook

18 Responses to “I Ragazzi di Via Panisperna”

  1. Maria M. Ingham

    Thank you for reminding me of this particular group of ‘ragazzi’. Those were horrible times and many of us suffered and are still suffering as a result of that fetid war. And what a loss of superb minds for Italy!

    Maria

    Reply
  2. Wonderful history lesson!! Not only were these young men brilliant in their field of science but they also clearly understood a great about the political scene in Italy and fortunately acted intelligently in the face of on-coming horror. Thank you for giving this one to us! btw – amazing photo…

    Reply
  3. Jim and Alice

    Buon giorno, GB. Really informative info, and we both throughly enjoyed reading this note. We will be sure to walk the Via Panisperna on our next trip to Bella Roma! Grazie

    Reply
  4. Emanuela

    Before moving to the US, I lived in via Cavour, a short walking distance from via Panisperna (where I passed almost every day). I have always been intrigued by the Ragazzi, especially Ettore Majorana, the most brilliant and genial of the group, the one who disappeared. For those of you interested in knowing more, you should read the book “A Brilliant Darkness: The Extraordinary Life and Mysterious Disappearance of Ettore Majorana, the Troubled Genious of the Nuclear Age”, 2009, available at Amazon.

    Also interesting are the following two documents:
    http://www.physics.sc.edu/CISNP/workshop/Holstein-majorana.pdf

    http://www.science20.com/quantum_diaries_survivor/ettore_majorana_mystery_might_be_solved-79823

    In the latter, you will find very interesting comments by readers. No doubt, Majorana’s discovery of the “neutrino” is still among the most important ones in Physics, but since he refused to publish anything about it, he was never credited with the discovery!

    Thanks & Best,
    Emanuela

    Reply
  5. Eleanor Walden

    The waste of the earth can only be exceeded by the waste of human life in the service of sanctimoniousness and avarice.

    Reply
  6. Just want to say thank you as those before me stated..So informative and has certainly made an impression.

    Reply
  7. Michael Yaccino

    Now see what you started GB! But I say Bravo e Grazie. You did it again.

    Reply
  8. David A. Denisch

    Grazie!I have been interested in this subject for years. Now, I have more information to pursue the exact location of their research and their stories.

    Reply

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