The Historical Museum of Physics and Enrico Fermi Study and Research Center (CREF) is located in the building that housed the historic Royal Physics Institute where the group of young physicists, united around Enrico Fermi, conducted the famous experiments in the 1930s on neutron-induced radioactivity, which were fundamental for the development of atomic energy. In this building, therefore, the history not only of physics but of the twentieth century itself has passed, a point of intersection between scientific discoveries and epochal events that marked the course of the last century. Due to its exceptional importance, in 1999 the Law was unanimously voted by Parliament which established a new Research Body, the “ Historical Museum of Physics and Enrico Fermi Study and Research Center ”, supervised by the Ministry of the University. with institutional headquarters right in the building.
The project for the creation of the new research institution and the related museum involved three other ministries in addition to the Ministry of University and Research: the Ministry of Economy which supports its activity, the Ministry of Infrastructures which coordinated the work of restoration of the building from 1999 to 2019, and the Ministry of the Interior to which the building was assigned from the post-war period to 1999. A further Ministry, that of Culture, has so far only been partially involved, but greater collaboration is expected as soon as the Museum and the cultural initiatives connected to it will be fully operational.
The CREF was therefore founded in 1999, but the complete restoration of the building in Via Panisperna was completed only in November 2019. The goal is now to return the famous building in via Panisperna to a scientific use that honors the memory of the fundamental discoveries of the Fermi group. The institution’s mission is therefore twofold. On the one hand, the development of a historical museum of physics with the original finds of Fermi’s experiments presented through suitable modern audio-video systems that make the meaning of these historical and scientific events easily understandable even to the new generations: in particular, as illustrated below. forward, a three-dimensional virtual reality room was designed which represents a unique project in the museum field at national level. On the other hand, the development of an original and avant-garde research activity in the field of physics of complex systems with a strong interdisciplinary connotation.
As, for example, in Germany the memory of Max Planck, one of the fathers of physics of the twentieth century, is mainly honored by a vast network of prestigious scientific institutes, CREF is trying to develop a nucleus of particularly original and innovative research, precisely in spirit that characterized the activity of Enrico Fermi. CREF does not want to limit itself to replicating or supporting collaterally activities already carried out by other institutions but intends to develop a core of current research that connotes its scientific profile.
When trying to do something original and of a high level, even if on a smaller scale, it is natural to focus on the new scientific questions that are appearing with increasing frequency on the horizon. Often these new issues are interdisciplinary in nature and refer to the field of complex systems. This situation poses a new problem in the Italian scientific world in which disciplinary groupings tend to favor the sectorization of research instead of interdisciplinarity. On the other hand, it is clear that a new research organization, small and agile, can quickly orient itself towards particularly current and innovative activities. The CREF can therefore seize this strategic opportunity to be an institution that stimulates innovative scientific issues, or rather an “ incubator ” of start-ups of a scientific nature. The elements that enhance this opportunity are the undoubted prestige of CREF and its headquarters and also its small size, which become an advantage to allow quick and effective decisions in identifying new scientific problems. From this point of view, however, the idea is to be totally open to new developments and proposals that can also come from outside the organization and in particular from the network of scientists that is developing around the CREF. As regards the specific problems, reference will be made to the principles and methods of physics interpreted in a modern key and with a focus on social relevance and possible collaboration with companies and other institutions.
In the building in Via Panisperna, interdisciplinarity was a constant reference. A note written by Enrico Fermi, on 11 December 1938 in Stockholm in the days when he was there to collect the Nobel Prize, today re-emerges as a very clear reference for the scientific activity of CREF. Fermi was convinced that physics needed to start a more intense exchange relationship with the other sciences:
“ I am convinced that physical science must move towards an intense collaboration with other sister sciences and especially with biology. I hope that such a trend, which is taking shape today, can benefit both of these sciences ”.
Even Fermi’s most famous pupil and collaborator, Ettore Majorana, expressed an interest in interdisciplinary studies. Majorana in fact wrote in 1930 an article entitled
“ The Value of Statistical Laws in Physics and Social Sciences ”. This visionary article, published posthumously in 1942, today represents a particularly relevant challenge, especially if considering the development of Big Data which has allowed access to an incredible amount of information on economic and social phenomena. So, today, just over eighty years later, CREF has brought the paradigm of interdisciplinarity back to the center of the development of scientific research. In this sense, the current scientific activity of CREF is inspired by this vision of research that goes beyond the characteristic themes of more traditional physics and considers themes between different disciplines using innovative techniques such as data science, machine learning and artificial intelligence to approach interdisciplinary issues between physics and astrophysics, biology, social sciences, economics, medicine and heritage conservation.
The CREF Museum intends to be the place of the Historical Memory of what happened in the 1930s in the building, of the fundamental discoveries of Fermi and of the boys of Via Panisperna and of their adventurous lives still harbingers of investigations and curiosities (think of the Majorana case which continuously inspires cinematographic and editorial works as well as media services), and also aims to become, thanks to the prestige of the building and its positioning in the Monti district, or in the center of Rome, the reference for the dissemination of scientific culture in the capital and one of the poles nationwide.
The recent acquisition of the Via Panisperna building represented a crucial point for the development and prospects of the CREF which now needs a new definition of its role and ambitions. The Museum finally has a stable and adequate location for its completion, but access to the museum, as well as to the building is only possible through the Ministry of the Interior. For this reason, an architectural and plant engineering project has been created whose objective is the creation of an independent passage from Via Cesare Balbo by highlighting the building from the Viminale complex. The actual works should begin by the autumn of 2021.