A CREATIVE ENVIRONMENT
In 1881, the Institute of Physics inaugurated its new headquarters in the building in via Panisperna in Rome. Here, under the guidance of physicist Pietro Blaserna, the first Director of the Institute, who had designed the entire structure in detail, the first “practical school” of physics in the nation was launched, within the broader program of strengthening and renewal of the University of Rome, started immediately after the Unification. It proved to be an institute that, like other prestigious international realities, fully represented a creative environment because it managed, on the one hand, to combine individual skills and the scientific, political and social milieu, and, on the other, to carry out discoveries and innovations that were harmonious with the broadest cultural advance.
Like other prestigious international realities, such as, for example, the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, the Institut Pasteur in Paris, the Copenhagen school, and as regards Italy, Giuseppe Levi’s entourage in Turin, the Physical Institute of Rome fully represented a creative environment because it succeeded, on the one hand, in combining individual skills and the scientific, political and social milieu in which individual scientists found themselves operating; on the other hand, to carry out discoveries and innovations that made possible allowed cultural and scientific progress in a broader sense.
Creativity must be understood, in this context, as the potential of the human mind to produce advances in knowledge and, at the same time, to develop useful applications: creativity is often crowned by the awarding of Nobel Prizes: three for Turin for medicine, to Salvador Luria, Renato Dulbecco, Rita Levi-Montalcini; two for Rome for Physics, to Enrico Fermi and Emilio Segrè.
It was within the broader project of strengthening and renewal of the University of Rome, implemented in the first years of the unitary reign by Quintino Sella, politician and scientist, that the history of the Institute of Physics of Rome commenced. Designed by the physicist Pietro Blaserna down to the smallest details beginning in 1872, when he arrived in Rome on the chair of Experimental Physics, the institute was inaugurated in 1881 with a careful choice of spaces and structures to be used for teaching and laboratories for the exercises of the “Practical School”.
Initially the building consisted of four floors, one of which was the basement, and by consulting the records of the original projects, it has been possible to trace the intended purposes of the various rooms.
– In the cellar (basement), in addition to the battery chamber, the system for the production of direct current was installed, the power generated by water falling from the eleven bins located in the attic and replaced, over the years, by accumulator batteries.
– On the ground floor, there was a large classroom (“Amphitheater”) for the lessons intended for students of Physics, Mathematics and Engineering, for seminars and conferences and for the demonstration of experiments; a small classroom (“Little School”) for the Mathematics courses for chemists and the Physics courses of the second two-year period; the laboratories for the “Practical School” of the first two years, the pressure-gauge chamber, the mechanical workshop, and the caretaker’s accommodation.
– The Management, the Library, the Cabinet for precision instruments, the Electrical Chamber, the Chemical Chamber and other small research laboratories and, later, the Central Office of the Uniform Chorister were located on the first floor.
– On the second floor, there was the director’s accommodation and also accommodation for an assistant. Worthy of note, especially for its historical value, is the garden of the Institute where the famous “goldfish fountain” is still located today, the water of which was used by Fermi in the 1930s, as a neutron moderator to confirm his brilliant intuition.
Since the beginning of his career as a professor, Blaserna complained about the predominance, in Italy, of teaching at the university to the detriment of laboratory activities. Since the years spent at the University of Palermo, he had inculcated an experimental direction to the physical discipline: a goal that he fully realized in Rome, where the first “Practical School” of physics in the country was founded, which changed the teaching relationship in a revolutionary way. For students, there were no longer ex cathedra lessons, where only the professor and the technician could use the tools, but a synergy allowing students to finally carry out the experiments themselves, according to the German model that represented an ideal to follow and emulate. Now the students had free access to the laboratory, without having to respect fixed schedules, and this, Blaserna argued, would foster greater freedom not only for learning, but also for teaching.
The life of the Institute, a creative environment both on a scientific and institutional level, in the first decades of activity was characterized by some research sectors such as acoustics, meteorology, terrestrial magnetism, geodynamics and seismology, all cultivated by Blaserna himself, who multiplied the initiatives.
He was responsible for the creation of the Physical Circle, to spread the physical culture and the most significant discoveries of the time, and the creation of the International Office of the Uniform Chorister, which allowed both to further enhance the equipment of the laboratories and to broaden the range of action of the institute itself.
In 1899, Blaserna succeeded in the establishment of a chair of Complementary Physics, which was assigned to his pupil Alfonso Sella, while in 1900 he was responsible for the invitation of Vito Volterra to Rome, as chair of Mathematical Physics. The arrival of Volterra thus began a further fruitful scientific partnership which led, among other things, to the foundation of the Italian Society for the Progress of Sciences (SIPS) in 1907.
As the research directions evolved, the institute’s laboratory was enriched with innovative equipment dedicated to the study of X-rays, UV radiation and radioactivity, until the turn of the century when in Rome there was decidedly oriented towards the ” physics”, thanks to the presence of Alfonso Sella and, on the latter’s death, with the arrival of Orso Mario Corbino.
In the years of relative stability and growth of the Royal Physical Institute under the direction of Corbino, the conditions gradually matured that led between 1926 and 1938 to a completely new and exciting chapter of science and physics. The main enactor of this turning point was, as is well known, Enrico Fermi.
Established in 1891 by Pietro Blaserna, the Circolo Fisico had as its objective the promotion and dissemination of science through conferences, discussions and reports. The members with a degree in Physics residing in Rome and students enrolled in the second two-year course of the Physics course were admitted by regulation.
In this popularizing undertaking, Blaserna was assisted by several female researchers, regular frequenters of the institute, including two of her students: Evangelina Bottero Pagano and Carolina Magistrelli Sprega.
The topics covered in the numerous meetings, inaugurated on January 5, 1891, were wide-ranging. Eight lectures on the radio had particular resonance, in the wake of the successes of the Curie spouses in Paris, who had already begun to disseminate news of their research beginning in 1898 and announced, on December 26, the discovery of a new highly radioactive element, namely, the “Radium”.
In 1898 Blaserna introduced the paid-event formula to allocate the proceeds to the Physical Institute itself: 3,394 lire were generated by the radio conferences alone (which would now correspond to about 14,000 euros)
The conferences of the Circle attracted not only experts and specialists, but also a wider audience including Queen Margherita who loved to be kept informed of the most recent scientific advances by Blaserna.
Founded in 1897, the Italian Physical Society (SIF) had as its first President Pietro Blaserna, a founding partner together with Riccardo Felici, Antonio Ròiti, Augusto Righi, Angelo Battelli, Galileo Ferraris, Antonio Garbasso, Antonio Pacinotti and Vito Volterra.
The organ of the company became “Il Nuovo Cimento”, a monthly founded two years earlier with headquarters in Pisa which published not only previously unpublished contributions, but also reviews of selected scientific articles that appeared in the most prestigious international publications.
The first general meeting was held in Rome at the Physical Institute in via Panisperna 26–28 September 1897, in the presence of 53 members. The purpose of the company, as stated in Article 2 of the statute at the time, is to “promote the study and progress of physics”.
Among the illustrious physicists who have subsequently held the presidency include: Antonio Ròiti, Augusto Righi, Angelo Battelli, Vito Volterra, Michele Cantone, Antonio Garbasso, Orso Mario Corbino, Quirino Majorana and Giovanni Polvani.
With the Royal Decree of 5 September 1935, the Italian Physics Society was established as a non-profit organization, based in Bologna.
Under the presidency of Polvani, with the end of the war, there was a decisive relaunch of the Company, also thanks to the launch of new and prestigious initiatives including, in 1953, the birth of the International School of Physics of Varenna, later named after Enrico Stop. The world-famous school hosts postgraduate courses every year in all fields of physics and its applications. Over its more than 60 years of life, the school has hosted over 60 Nobel Laureates (as students or teachers).
Then followed the presidency of the Company Gilberto Bernardini, Giuliano Toraldo of France, Carlo Castagnoli, Renato Angelo Ricci and Giuseppe Franco Bassani, Luisa Cifarelli. Current President of SIF is Angela Bracco.
Among the other scientific journals of today, in addition to “Il Nuovo Cimento”, around which the society was founded, are: “Giornale di Fisica”, “Quaderni di Storia della Fisica” and “La Rivista del Nuovo Cimento”. SIF also publishes journals in collaboration with other European societies: EPL (“Europhysics Letters”) and EPJ (“The European Physical Journal”). Many of the fundamental articles by Enrico Fermi and his group were published in “Il Nuovo Cimento”.
Since 1984 “Il Nuovo Saggiatore”, the main Italian scientific bulletin, has been serving as a popular scientific journal, as well as an information bulletin for the society. Since 1999, it has been freely available in its online version. Since 2014, the company’s bulletin is also accompanied by an electronic newsletter: “SIF Prima Pagina”.
In 2001, on the occasion of the centenary of Fermi’s birth, SIF established the prestigious Enrico Fermi Award to celebrate his memory and link the illustrious name of one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century to the company. The prize is awarded each year to one or more members who have particularly honored physics with their discoveries.
The successor to Pietro Blaserna as the director of the Institute of Physics in via Panisperna since 1918, Orso Mario Corbino (1876–1937) was born in Augusta (Syracuse) and studied Physics in Palermo, under the guidance of Damiano Macaluso, a pupil of Blaserna himself. Graduated in 1896, he directed his research towards electrodynamics, both in terms of the theoretical aspects of the discipline and the applicative aspects, with particular interest in the production and transmission of energy.
In 1900, he obtained the position of free lecturer in Experimental Physics, two years later in Electrical Engineering and, in 1905, he was called to the chair of Experimental Physics in Messina. In 1907, following the untimely death of Alfonso Sella, he was called to Rome by Blaserna and Volterra, where he then began to approach the new problems related to the structure of matter, distinguishing himself as one of the few Italian physicists conversant in issues related to the theory of relativity. Installed as president of the SIF in 1914, he was elected a member of the Accademia dei Lincei in 1919.
In contact, thanks to his scientific interests, with industrial circles, he held numerous administrative and institutional positions, including his appointment as Minister of Public Education in 1921 and of the National Economy in 1923. It was in this capacity that, in that year, he established the Office for Radioactive Substances, known as the Radio Office, which was transformed in 1925 into the Physical Laboratory of Public Health, which will have a central role in the subsequent research of via Panisperna, starting from the end of the 1920s.
Aware of the backwardness of research in Italy and having now achieved significant autonomy of action and authority during his directorship, Corbino, through his influence exerted on organizational, financial and academic levels, transformed the Roman Institute of via Panisperna into an avant-garde center that became the seat of the studies of the new physics: central, in this undertaking, was the creation of a chair of Theoretical Physics in 1926 on which Enrico Fermi was installed.
A lively research group soon formed around Enrico Fermi. And in that Institute, Fermi conceived and animated, in the 1930s, the fundamental experimental research that would lead him to the Nobel Prize.
It was Blaserna’s interest in musical acoustics that characterized some of the institute’s research directions: A skilled violin player and keen connoisseur of music theory, in 1885, together with Arrigo Boito, he represented Italy in Vienna, at the International Conference for the adoption of the Uniform Chorister (or diapason), the purpose of which was to establish the reference musical frequency for singers and musicians, orchestras, military and civil bands from any part of the world.
On that occasion, it was decided to adopt the normal French tone whose pitch was set at 435 Hz (A3); for his part, Blaserna managed to establish at the institute in via Panisperna the Central Office of the International Chorister, in operation since 1887; this is a metrological center for the conservation of the sample tuning fork and the dissemination of the reference frequency. For this center, Blaserna acquired extraordinary funds amounting to 15,000 lire (about 65,000 euros today) for new tools and personnel, an assistant and a mechanic.
Physicist Nella Mortara, assistant to Corbino, friend and colleague of Fermi, was also in charge of the Central Office of the International Chorister at the beginning of her career. In 1955, Edoardo Amaldi, Director of the Roman Physical Institute at that time, decided to close it: Today, the new sample frequency, set at 440 Hz, is transmitted via radio.
In 1906, the physicist Vito Volterra, at the Congress of Italian Naturalists in Milan, proposed the establishment of the Italian Society for the Progress of Sciences (SIPS), a new association that was to emulate, as a model and as a function, similar European associations, in particular the French and English ones that saw first light in the second half of the 19th century.
The following year, therefore, the most renowned enterprise of the multifaceted organizational activity of Volterra mushroomed, through which its role as leader of Italian scientific policy was consecrated also by virtue of the peculiar character of this society which aimed to create a stable and lasting link between science, technology and production. A strategic role was played not only by the Director of the Bank of Italy Bonaldo Stringher, but also by Blaserna who supported the Volterra project together with, among others, Alfonso Sella, who, not surprisingly, was the first secretary of the newborn institution.
The SIPS of 1907 was ideally linked to the 12th Congress of Italian Naturalists in Palermo of 1875 during which Pietro Blaserna, with Stanislao Cannizzaro and Terenzio Mamiani, a member of the Superior Council of Public Education, advocated the inclusion in the statute of a specific article that provided all members with equal rights. SIPS was thus one of the first companies to open membership to women.
Characterized by an unprecedented technical–scientific entrepreneurship for Italy, SIPS was by no means intended to be just a cultural association, but aimed to be the engine and intermediary of important and useful activities in both theoretical and practical fields. For the diffusion of science, SIPS aimed to carry out a great enterprise because it aimed to bring together different the normally distant parts of the world, thanks to the creation of new organs which, functioning as forges in the interest of technical and scientific progress, favored the full inclusion of Italy among the European industrialized countries.
At the basis of the general theoretical approach of the SIPS was obviously the recent renewal of science, as Volterra testified in the opening report of the society’s conference in 1907 with the significant title: “The present scientific moment and the new Italian Society for the Progress of Sciences “.
Pietro Blaserna was born in Fiumicello d’Aquileia in the province of Gorizia in 1836. He graduated in Vienna at the age of 22 in Mathematics and Physics and, after a period spent in Paris alongside the physicist Henri Victor Regnault, he returned to Italy in 1861 to work at the chair of Physics at the Institute of Higher Studies of the newly established Royal Museum of Physics and Natural History in Florence.
In 1863, he was entrusted with the chair of Experimental Physics at the University of Palermo. It was here that the scientific and human partnership with the chemist Stanislao Cannizzaro was born, a partnership at the center of the initiatives and reforms that would characterize Italian scientific life in the following period.
After moving to Rome in 1872, he was called to hold the chair of Experimental Physics at the Capitoline University, and, from that moment, he became one of the protagonists of the reorganization of the scientific culture and research policy of the country.
The undisputed first actor in the birth and organization of the Institute of Physics in via Panisperna, he was Rector of the Roman University in the years 1874–76 and Dean of the Faculty of Sciences from 1885 to 1891.
In 1879, he was appointed President of the Central Meteorological Office which, in 1887, again under his presidency, assumed the geodynamic skills. He held office until 1907. Elected Senator in 1890, from 1906 he was Vice-President of the Senate.
In 1897 he was the promoter, with other Italian physicists, of the foundation of the Italian Physical Society, of which he was the first President. From 1904 to 1916, he was President of the Accademia dei Lincei.
On the international front, he became a member of the Weights and Measures Office in 1897, as well as its Secretary General from 1901 to 1918.
He carried out a great deal of research and experiments on induction, on the refractive index of alcohols, on heat, on the kinetics of gases and on acoustics, founding, in 1886, within the Institute of Physics in Rome, the Office of the Uniform Chorister.
He died in Rome in 1918.