The historical complex of Via Panisperna

Welcome to the building on Via Panisperna, home now to the Historical Museum of Physics and the Enrico Fermi Study and Research Center. This building housed the historic  “Royal Institute of Physics” where a group of young scientists gathered around the figure of Enrico Fermi in the 1930’s, conducting the famous experiments on neutron-induced radioactivity, fundamental to the development of atomic energy.

Through this building, therefore, the history of not only physics has passed but of the twentieth century itself, a point of intersection between scientific discoveries and epochal events that marked the course of the last century.

The museum presents a historical and scientific path that developed through a series of discoveries and events that took place right in the building of Via Panisperna, which led to the realization of the first controlled nuclear reaction, and which then contributed significantly to the famous “Manhattan Project” dedicated to the construction of the first atomic bomb.

This path illustrates the fundamental discoveries of physics that have revolutionized our understanding of matter, space and time and which have given rise to the search for the ultimate structure of the atomic nucleus and its fundamental constituents, a search which even today continues with new and unexpected discoveries connecting the infinitely small to the infinitely large, intersecting with events from the outbreak of the Second World War up to the present day.

The life of Enrico Fermi, one of the most important figures in twentieth century physics, unfolds through two world wars on a journey that starts in Rome, passes through Stockholm where he picked up a Nobel Prize in 1938 and continues to the United States, to escape the Racial laws affecting his wife Laura.

In that country, which attracted him also for its extraordinary scientific development, Enrico Fermi, directed the University of Chicago team that achieved the first controlled nuclear chain reaction and then played a central role in the largest scientific-technological-military project ever created, a project that would change the course of WWII.

This historical and scientific journey also reveals the exceptional personalities of the scientists who laid the foundations for all this to happen right here in this building: in just over ten years the discoveries made by Enrico Fermi and his so-called group of “the Boys of Via Panisperna” which included Edoardo Amaldi, Oscar D’Agostino, Bruno Pontecorvo, Franco Rasetti, Emilio Segrè and, in his own particular way, Ettore Majorana, opened the doors to the nuclear age. The theoretical foundations of these discoveries were first laid by Planck and Einstein at the beginning of the century with the scientific revolution that led to the formulation of the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics in the first thirty years of the twentieth century.

The applications for civil and military use of atomic energy occurred due to the great pressure of the outbreak of the Second World War and the advance of Nazi-Fascism and were made possible by the fundamental scientific discoveries that originated in this very courtyard. On the other hand, these same studies laid the foundations for modern research into the basic constituents of matter.

To outline the exceptional scientific personality of Fermi and his co-workers, the story must be interspersed with explanations of their research in a way that is understandable even to non-experts and it must also be placed in the historical period in which the events occurred and that, in addition to constituting the background, directly contributed to their development. In addition, the audio-guide chapters are accompanied by in-depth information on touch screens for the more inquisitive. Enjoy your visit!



Entrance to the Museum and general information

Historical Museum of Physics and the Enrico Fermi Study and Research Center

 In 1999, CREF was born, the “Historical Museum of Physics and the Enrico Fermi Study and Research Center”. This new research entity, promoted by the Ministry of Universities, has the objective of restoring the famous building on Via Panisperna for scientific use and, at the same time, to honor the memory of the fundamental discoveries of Enrico Fermi’s group. The mission of the entity is actually a double one: on one hand, to develop a historical physics museum with the original equipment from Fermi’s experiments, presented also through modern audiovisual systems. This will make the complex scientific work of Enrico Fermi and the historical events surrounding him easily comprehensible to everyone. On the other hand, the Center’s objective is to develop original research activity on the cutting edge of various disciplines.

Modern scientific research requires an ever more multidisciplinary approach because new problems to which science is called on to respond refer increasingly to the field of complex systems. The approach to these problems needs the cooperation of specialists from different fields: physics, artificial intelligence, biology, medicine, social sciences, and economy, just to name a few. In this rapidly evolving scenario, there needs to be a change from the sectorial organization of research of the past century to a more flexible and increasingly interdisciplinary way of doing things. CREF, created as a small and agile research institute, can quickly orient itself towards these relevant activities and can take advantage of this strategic opportuniy to be an institution that stimulates innovative scientific themes. The elements in its favor are without doubt the prestige of CREF and its headquarters. At any rate, even its somewhat limited dimensions allow for rapid decision-making and efficient identification of new scientific challenges. In the building on Via Panisperna, multiple disciplines were a constant reference. A note written by Enrico Fermi on December 11, 1938, in Stockholm, where he had arrived for his Nobel Prize acceptance, re-emerges today as a very clear reference to the scientific activity of CREF:

“I am convinced that physics must aim at an intense cooperation with its sister sciences, especially biology. I hope that such a tendency, that today is becoming clearer, may turn out to be advantageous for both these sciences.”

Even Ettore Majorana, Fermi’s most famous student and collaborator, showed an interest in interdisciplinary studies. In fact, Majorana wrote an article published after his death entitled “The value of statistical laws in physics and social sciences”.  This visionary article represents a particularly relevant challenge even today, especially when we consider the development of the Internet and “Big Data” which allow access to an incredible amount of information specifically regarding economic, social and biomedical phenomena. Now, barely eighty years later, CREF has decided to again focus on the interdisciplinary paradigm as the center of scientific research development. It’s been inspired by a vision of research that goes beyond the usual themes of traditional physics, using innovative techniques and avantguard methods.

The Royal Institute of Physics

From Pietro Blaserna to Orso Mario Corbino

 The story of the “Royal Institute of Physics” begins in 1872, within a larger project dedicated to “Rome as the capital”. The physicist Pietro Blaserna was brought from Palermo to Rome to design and direct what would become the future Institute of Physics. It was centered on experimentation and at the same time open and attentive to progress coming from international science. Thanks to these aspects, the Institute became a truly “creative environment” and for decades was a compulsory reference point for Italian advanced physics research. After the death of Blaserna in 1918, Orso Mario Corbino directed the Institute: he, too, was well acquainted with the ins and outs of the politics of research and was able to establish the first professorship of Theoretical Physics in Italy, for which he called upon the young Enrico Fermi in 1926.

In 1937 the Institute was transferred to the new University of the “Sapienza”. The building on Via Panisperna was comandeered at the beginning of the war by the military and used for other purposes before becoming part of the Viminale Interior Ministry complex. In 1999 the Italian Parliament unanimously approved the creation of the Historical Museum of Physics and Enrico Fermi Study and Research Center; it would be another twenty years before the building on via Panisperna would finally be restored and actually consigned to the Research Center.