It all began with the unification of Italy and the choice of Rome as the capital of the new kingdom. Quintino Sella, a politician and scientist, had a great project in mind: Rome would play a political and scientific role.
In the current Monti district, between the Esquiline and Viminale hills, Sella planned to build a “citadel of science”. The chemical and engineering institutes already existed; they needed a project for a brand-new building to host the Physics Faculty.
Pietro Blaserna (1836-1918), a physicist from Gorizia, would be the first Director of the Institute and Professor of Experimental Physics. He wanted to import the modern organisation of studies and research from European Universities in Rome. He wanted to create a “creative environment” for the development of science.
The country’s first “practical school” of physics was born, where the relationship between professors and students was revolutionary. The students could finally use the instruments and conduct experiments independently, accessing the laboratory without fixed times or programs.
When Blaserna died in 1918, it fell to Orso Mario Corbino (1876-1937) to direct the Royal Institute of Physics.
His ideas were perfectly in line with those of his predecessor. His mission was to create a modern and avant-garde physics school in Rome, in step with the primary research centres of the time. Under his direction, the Palazzina di via Panisperna became an innovative centre for the most advanced physics studies.
For this reason, after graduating, I came to Rome to meet Corbino. We immediately got along very well, and he suggested that I first go and gain experience abroad to learn from the older ones.
When I returned from my travels in 1926, I obtained the Institute’s first chair in Italy of Theoretical Physics. There was a friendly and lively environment. Brilliant students also arrived from the faculties of engineering and chemistry, and we created a group of very young scholars so that we became famous as the “boys from via Panisperna”.
Our fame is due to the 1934 radioactivity experiments, which were fundamental for developing atomic energy. Our discoveries intertwined with the significant events of the 20th century. We lived through two world wars, eventually choosing different paths.
Between 1936 and 1937, the group dispersed. Some won a professorship in another city; others decided to leave Italy.
After the Nobel, I moved to the United States with my family. Laura, my wife, was Jewish, and we were scared of what might happen. But that wasn’t the only reason. I was eager to advance with my discoveries and knew the US was the right place to do it.
In 1936, the physics faculty transferred to the newly built Città Universitaria, where it still is today.
In 1943, the Germans occupied Rome and used the Palazzina as a military base.
Later, it became the Archive of the State Police, and the Ministry of the Interior incorporated it.
Even today, to access the Museum, you need an authorisation from the Interior Ministry.
In 1999, the Italian Parliament unanimously approved the establishment of “Museo Storico della Fisica e Centro Studi e Ricerche Enrico Fermi”.
After a long restoration work, the official delivery of the new headquarters occurred at the end of 2019.
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