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15. The Physics Institute of Rome between wars: Orso Mario Corbino and Enrico Fermi

The Physics Institute of Rome between wars: Orso Mario Corbino and Enrico Fermi

The project, conceived in the context of the renewed historical site of the Centro Studi e Ricerche Enrico Fermi, intends to retrace the history of the Institute of Physics from 1918 to 1938.

Starting from the work focused on the scientific biography of the first director, Pietro Blaserna (1836-1918), we intend to deepen the figure and work of his successor, the physicist Orso Mario Corbino (1876-1937), who directed the Institute of Physics from 1918 to 1937, the year of his death, and moved it to the new headquarters within the university ‘cittadella’ of Sapienza.

We’re studying the copious manuscript and largely unpublished material preserved in national and international archives, libraries and scientific institutions

The goal is to focus and retrace the intense relationship existing between Corbino and the group of young researchers led by Enrico Fermi, stressing his fundamental work of mediator and advisor: because, if it was clear to everyone that the scientific direction of research was now in the hands of Fermi, the role of Corbino, as well as that of supervisor, was also that of mentor, and guide, within a group that had characteristics that were all peculiar and decidedly distant from the European academic model.

We also intend to pay attention on some particularly significant events related to the Corbino ’s management.

This was a period in which scientists were perfectly aware of the importance of conveying science and new discoveries, both theoretical and applicative, towards the widest and most varied audience.

In terms of communication and dissemination of scientific culture, in particular of Physics, we’ll stress editorial and museum activities, as well retracing the organization of exhibitions and conferences: in particular we’ll deepen the story of the first International Nuclear Physics Congress of 1931 in Rome, in which the most important physicists of the time participated, including Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Jean Baptiste Perrin and Wolfang Pauli, and the women scientists Marie Curie and Lise Meitner.

Furthermore, we’re examining the multiple and decisive relationships that the Physics Institut had with other foreign institutions: from the Cavendish Laboratory of Cambridge, to the Cophenagen school directed by Bohr, to those of Leiden and Gottingen, to reach the United States with the California Institute of Technology directed by Millikan and the Berkley Institute, where Lawrence, starting from the second half of the Thirties, developed a new concept machine: the cyclotron.

The result of this research is an anthology of Orso Mario Corbino’s writings – under preparation -, chosen amongst those inherent to his interests in research policy and scientific dissemination, some of which are particularly important and interesting, and yet difficult to find; an anthology preceded by a broad introduction on the figure and work of the Sicilian physicist, which focuses attention on those aspects most connected to his research policy and his relationship with Enrico Fermi and his group of collaborators.

The next step will be to write a complete biography of this important Italian physicist, that will embrace all the various aspects of his dense career: scientific, managerial, political and executive.

  • M. Focaccia, Pietro Blaserna and the Birth of the Institute of Physics in Rome -A Gentleman Scientist at Via Panisperna, Springer Biographies, 2019;
  •  G. Battimelli, G. Paoloni, University, industry and politics: Orso Mario Corbino as organizer of physical research in Italy (1908–1937), Quaderni di Storia della Fisica, 23/2020, pp. 79/89;
  • M. Focaccia, Orso Mario Corbino. Un manager della ricerca all’Istituto fisico di Roma. Antologia di scritti (in corso di stampa)

Miriam Focaccia

  • Raffaella Simili, Professore Emerito, Alma Mater Studiorum-Università di Bologna
  • Giovanni Paoloni, Professore Ordinario, Sapienza Università di Roma
  • Sandra Linguerri, Professore Associato, Alma Mater Studiorum-Università di Bologna
  • Giovanni Battimelli, già Direttore Museo di Fisica, Sapienza Università di Roma, Alma Mater Studiorum-Università di Bologna, Dipartimento di Filosofia e Comunicazione
    Sapienza Università di Roma, Dipartimento di Fisica e Dipartimento di Lettere e Culture Moderne