On My Own: Professor at Palermo (1936–1938):
Scent of Orange Blossoms
Non sien le genti, ancor, troppo sicure
a giudicar, sì come quei che stima
le biade in campo pria che sien mature;
ch'i' ho veduto tutto 'l verno prima
lo prun mostrarsi rigido e feroce;
poscia portar la rosa in su la cima;
e legno vidi già dritto e veloce,
correr lo mar per tutto suo cammino,
perire al fine a l'intrar de la foce.
(Let not the people be too self-assured
In judging early, as who should count the rows
Of green blades in the field ere they matured.
For I have seen how first the wild-brier shows
Her sprays, all winter through, thorny and stark,
And then upon the topmost bears the rose;
And I have seen ere now a speeding barque
Run all her sea-course with unswerving stem
And close on harbour go down to the dark.)
Dante, Paradiso 13.130–38 (trans. Laurence Binyon)
Marriage and transfer to Palermo signaled significant changes in my life. From being a young man living in his parents' home, I now became the head of a new family; from being a subordinate in the Physics Institute in Rome, I became chief of an institute of my own in Sicily. At the University of Palermo I was a young, but important, tenured
professor, and my career seemed established, inasmuch according to the Italian law then prevailing, further advancement occurred mostly by seniority. I wanted to give the best of myself. I hoped to set an example of renewal and modernization in teaching and also to initiate some meaningful research in a new Italian center. I felt liberated from the need to write papers for my advancement; only science counted. Similarly, our new family would be ours alone; I loved my parents and tradition, but the family Elfriede and I established would differ from theirs in many ways.
At the beginning of my stay in Palermo, I lodged in the Pensione Lincoln, on Via Archirafi, near the Physics Institute. The pension was comfortable in its simplicity. The institute was located in a new building, with very large rooms and much wasted space. The existing apparatus dated from the nineteenth century. To offset this, there was a bronze head of Professor La Rosa, my predecessor. The personnel consisted of a middle-aged assistant, who seemed to me unretrievable for useful work, an old mechanic, competent within his limitations and full of good will, and some more than adequate janitors.
On the floor above the Physics Institute, occupying territory that in theory belonged to physics, was the Mineralogy Institute. Since I did not need more space, there was no conflict. On the contrary, the professor of mineralogy, Carlo Perrier (1886–1948) was a nice fellow, a true Piedmontese gentleman, and an anti-Fascist. He was a bachelor, about twenty years older than I, and well versed in classical mineralogy and analytical chemistry. Soon we became close friends, and this friendship later brought its fruits. He also efficiently guided me through the shoals of Palermo's university politics.
My first priority was to organize the important service courses for engineers; my second, to provide instruction on more advanced physics (fisica superiore ), which had also been entrusted to me; my third, to start some research.
I amused myself by inspecting old teaching apparatus, as I had done in Rome once with Amaldi when we were still students. At that time, we had discovered several pieces of equipment dating from the second
half of the nineteenth century, among them a gadget for demonstrating conical refraction, which required some thought before we could figure out what it was. At Palermo I found pieces going back to the times of Augusto Righi, Damiano Macaluso, O. M. Corbino, and other of my predecessors. The library was devoid of modern books and journals. On the other hand, I had a beautiful office with elegant furniture, and a letterhead that possibly went back to King Umberto I (assassinated in 1900), which I enjoyed using. For the rest, the Physics Institute was a desert.
At the first faculty meeting, with about a dozen professors sitting around a table, I could see that there were no big fights afoot. The mathematicians Michele de Franchis and Michele Cipolla were authorities in their fields. The botanist Montemartini was confined to Palermo because he was notoriously anti-Fascist, and the zoologist Giardina, although now very old, had once been brilliant. The chemists did not seem exactly at the level of their great predecessor, Stanislao Cannizzaro, and neither did the astronomer appear to be the equal of his great predecessor, Giuseppe Piazzi. All were good professors, however, with whom it was easy to agree provided one maintained polite behavior and due respect for turf.
I clearly stated that I had no intention of being a bird of passage. I would do my best to improve physics and I would not spend day and night planning how to contrive a transfer, as many professors from the mainland used to do. When my Sicilian colleagues perceived that I truly meant what I said, they helped me in whatever ways they could and adopted me as one of them. Thus my university relations were excellent.
Palermo was not, in fact, one of the minor posts usually conferred at the start of a university career, such as Camerino, or Sassari, but neither was it one of the major seats in which one landed at the end of a meritorious career, such as Rome, Bologna, Pisa, or Turin. At Palermo there were a good many Sicilians, for whom it was the seat of choice; some notorious anti-Fascists, such as Perrier and Montemartini, who were not in the good graces of the minister and would not be transferred even if they wanted to be; and some young professors at the beginning of their careers.
As soon as possible after my return from America, I had joined Elfriede in Florence, and we started making detailed plans for our imminent wedding. Elfriede ordered linens for our home from the house of Pini in Florence. She bought an elegant dress at Zecca in Rome and stocked up on top-quality household items and clothing, destined to last a long time. This fitted our philosophy, as well as that of my parents. However, when the bills arrived, some were pretty stiff. Imprudently, my father or I (I do not remember who) made some comments on this. Elfriede immediately started crying; her bitter and unusual tears startled me even more because they showed a surprising misunderstanding. No criticism of her had been implied; on the contrary, everybody was satisfied that she had done very well.
Elfriede and I decided to marry on Sunday, February 2, 1936. To our great regret, Elfriede's parents could not come to the wedding, but they visited us later when we were settled in Palermo. I went to the Rome synagogue to make arrangements for the wedding ceremony and told the rabbi that I wanted the simplest and cheapest wedding available, the more so as the parents of the bride could not attend. The rabbi winced, and I added that I found it inappropriate to spend money on ceremonies when there were so many tragic situations that needed help. To dispel any doubts in his mind I added: "How much does a luxury wedding cost?" He told me, and I gave him the sum, saying that he should arrange the simplest possible ceremony for us, as I had requested, and spend the difference for German refugees. This was the agreement. On the day of the wedding, however, the Temple was full of flowers and tapestries with great pomp. The rabbi gave us a short homily. "See! Adonai. . . . Before yours, there was a luxury wedding ceremony and there was no time to change the decorations. Thus you too will have a luxury wedding." A reception at the old Hotel de Russie followed. It was attended by friends and relatives, including Corbino, Levi-Civita, and my physicist friends.
From Rome, in terrible weather, we went to the Hotel Vesuvio in Naples, and as the rain persisted, we went to visit my friend Carrelli, professor of physics at Naples, who showed us a splendid calcite crystal, a present of Fresnel to Melloni, from his museum. Bad luck had it that
it slipped from Elfriede's hand and was chipped in one corner. Our embarrassment is hard to describe.
At Palermo we lodged at the Hotel Excelsior in Piazza della Libeftà. Papà had commanded me not to return to Pensione Lincoln but to find the best possible accommodation. The Excelsior was then an excellent hotel, with a first-class chef and an able manager, who was stuck in Palermo because he was suspected of anti-Fascism. He took a liking to us and treated us as his protégés, giving us the best rooms of the hotel and keeping them always at our disposal.
Before our departure from Rome, my father, unbeknown to me, had taken Elfriede aside and given her a small sum, telling her that she should use it for postage stamps to write to both families. The money would have sufficed for writing by special delivery all her life and more. Elfriede deeply appreciated the gesture.
This and similar episodes must be seen in relation to my wish to live within my professorial salary of about two thousand lire a month. My father, who was more practical, decided to add a substantial monthly supplement to my salary. When I refused to accept this, he instructed Bindo Rimini: "Go to your cousin and tell him he is not only a fool, but also rude." My father was quite right. The sum was trifling for him; it pleased him to give it to us, and it helped to make our life more pleasant. Furthermore, neither Elfriede nor I was lazy or spendthrift. After a while, I realized that instead of being haughty with my father, I should be grateful and thank him.
Immediately after our arrival in Palermo, we started exploring its surroundings. It was an exceptionally cold spell; there was even snow on some of the mountains, a most unusual condition. Later, however, we became fully acquainted with the extraordinary beauty of that part of Sicily.
On our first vacation, we decided to go on a true honeymoon trip, skiing in the Dolomites. At that time there were no ski lifts, and one climbed using sealskins; but we really enjoyed our avocation of crosscountry skiing. We went around the Sella group carrying our rucksacks and sleeping in small hotels or huts. In one of them, our room remained quite cold in spite of an electric heater. I examined it and changed the
connections of its resistors from series to parallel, quadrupling the heat output. Elfriede admired the power of physics, but the next day the innkeeper made a scene because we had used too much power.
Finally, we returned to Palermo to stay for a longer period. We started by making an official round of visits to the dean and the rector, who was most cordial. The dean was not at home, but his wife was, and she received us in a friendly way. We noticed her conspicuous beautiful and brilliant red hair and began a polite social conversation. After suitable platitudes, she offered us some karkade, an infusion of an Ethiopian plant that in those times of sanctions by the League of Nations was supposed to replace tea. It was deep red and had a flavor new to us. Caught by surprise, we found it hardly drinkable. A look between us showed us that we had had the same thought: perhaps it was used to dye our hostess's hair.
No less than mine, Elfriede's life had changed radically with her marriage and coming to Palermo. She was no more "La Spiro," but Signora Segrè. However, we had not changed our fundamental habits of first working hard and then finding our recreation in the mountains or in touring. In the beginning we did not own a car, but we soon acquired one and drove it down from Rome to Palermo. I had thus repeated a good part of the itinerary I had covered with Rasetti in 1929, but we could not enter the Palazzo Cimbrone at Ravello because Greta Garbo and Leopold Stokowski had rented it and locked themselves up in it.
The Palermo of 1936 was a beautiful city; despite its location, it was not provincial. At the beginning of the century, it had enjoyed a great cultural and architectural flowering. It had shops comparable to those of the greatest Italian cities, an excellent opera house, and magnificent villas flanking the Viale della Libertà, not to mention the antiquities, Arab, Norman, and baroque, that testified to its millennial history. All told, one could recognize a capital, perhaps slightly Bourbon, of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Surrounded by Monte Grifone, Monreale, Monte Pellegrino, and Mondello like precious stones set in a ring around a central diamond, the city offered splendid outings. In the spring we could smell the scent of orange blossoms, which became
more pungent at sunset. War and uncontrolled population influx have ruined Palermo, as they have most Italian cities.
While very busy organizing the Physics Institute, I started teaching the elementary experimental physics course, performing many demonstrations with apparatus that had been out of use for perhaps fifty years. I also prepared a few instruments in the hope of being able to begin some research. As a start, I built one of our standard ionization chambers and ordered a Perucca-type electrometer and other equipment needed for radioactive work. I hoped somehow to secure long-lived radioactive isotopes for study. I asked my physicist friends to suggest names for a couple of vacant assistant professorships automatically placing former pupils of the Scuola normale at Pisa high on my list. I thus met B. N. Cacciapuoti and Manlio Mandò, whom I was subsequently able to hire. Years later, the one became a professor at Pisa, and the other, after a long period as a prisoner of war in India, at Florence; Mariano Santangelo, an able young student at Palermo, became professor at Modena.
Among the students was a young lady, Ginetta Barresi, related to the Crocco Family, famous in Italian aviation. She was an unusual person; most intelligent, with deep Sicilian roots, sincerely religious and learned in Catholic doctrine. In those days a woman physics student was a rarity, and in Palermo she was the only one. Ginetta had no qualms about the matter; she studied her chosen subject proficiently and if people wondered, she let them wonder. Her unusual culture extended to literary subjects and was always very solid and well digested, never superficial. She became our dear friend and helped us admirably in the difficult times that were to follow.
In keeping with tradition, I started writing lecture notes for my course in experimental physics. I completed and published the first volume, and I started the second but could not finish it before my dismissal. For fisica superiore, I taught electricity. I introduced written examinations, a novelty in Italian universities. The attempt produced a certain ferment, but ultimately the students became resigned to this innovation, although it was dubious whether written examinations were legal. A typical question for such exams was: Calculate the weight of
a mercury sphere of 3 cm radius. Unfortunately, the answers were not edifying.
Since the majority of physics students became high school teachers, I thought it would be useful to write a book on "elementary physics, from a higher point of view," modeled on the similar ones for mathematics, edited by Felix Klein in German and by Federigo Enriques in Italian. I worked seriously on the project, writing a detailed program for the work. It was to consist of a series of articles, and I looked for collaborators, and for a publisher. This last was to be Sansoni of Florence, who belonged to the Gentile family. The racial laws put an end to my endeavors, but Giovanni Gentile, Jr., continued the project until he died prematurely in 1942. After the war, Gilberto Bernardini resumed the initiative, and the first volume appeared in 1947. Bernardini's preface summarizes the history of the book. I believe that the idea has still some merit.
In 1936 I could not yet assemble the minimum equipment necessary to start research at Palermo, but I took advantage of vacations to do some experiments in Rome. I found Amaldi and Fermi deeply engulfed in their fundamental investigations on the slowing down of neutrons in hydrogenous substances. I had the impression that they did not want to waste time even with an old friend like myself. I spoke to Wick, who was in Rome, and did something by myself with the instruments and sources available.
All told, the school year 1936 passed quickly and pleasantly. For the summer I thought of going to have a look at the United States with Elfriede. At the beginning of the summer, it turned out that she was pregnant, but since she had no complaints whatever, we decided to go anyway. Later, with a small child, it would be much more difficult to travel, hence this would be our last chance, at least for several years, to visit America. Moreover, we were disturbed by the steady downhill trend of events. Although we personally had prospered, we were convinced of the precariousness of the situation, and this was one more reason for keeping in contact with American physicists and for showing up in the United States.
For me, the natural place to visit was Columbia University; I had
been there before, had rapidly done good work there, and had struck up a friendship with the Columbia neutron physicists. I knew their instruments, and we had common scientific interests. I thus wrote to Dean Pegram proposing to go there, and on July 2, 1936, we landed in New York. Amaldi, too, came to New York in the same period.
We had not, however, reckoned with New York's hot, humid weather and with the suffering it would bring to a pregnant woman. Elfriede could not sleep well for the heat; she got up at night to take showers to cool off; it was clear that the heat was not only unpleasant but unhealthy. Thus, as soon as possible, we departed for better climates.
Otto Stern had extolled the future of Ernest Lawrence's cyclotron to us in previous years. In 1935, when we were in Ann Arbor, Fermi and I had corresponded with Lawrence. At that time, I do not remember for what reason, he offered Fermi a millicurie of radiosodium. Doubting Berkeley's radioactivity measurements, Fermi replied suggesting that Lawrence had perhaps made a mistake and actually meant a microcurie, a thousand times less. In answer, he received a letter containing a millicurie of radiosodium. We were dumbfounded. By then I was sure I wanted to go to see the cyclotron. Later, when I knew the Radiation Laboratory from the inside, I could imagine the effect that Fermi's letter must have produced and Lawrence's reaction.
At Rome we had discussed the possibility of building such a machine, and we had even tried to locate a magnet similar to the one used for the 37-inch cyclotron in Berkeley (Marconi had used it in the radio station at Coltano many years earlier; in fact, I believe it was the one I had seen there as a child before World War I). Ultimately, however, the plan came to naught, and in 1936, cyclotron and climate attracted me to Berkeley.
We left New York by train and stopped for a few days in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Elfriede started feeling better; then we crossed the continent on a famous train called "The Challenger," reaching Berkeley in three days. We had two objectives: learning about the cyclotron and visiting California and the West. We rented a Ford car for one month,
hoping that it would also serve Elfriede to learn to drive. I then plunged into the Radiation Laboratory for several days.
Lawrence was most cordial. It was my first meeting with him and I was not used to his personality, so different from that of any other physicist I knew. He invited us to his home for dinner, where I ate avocado for the first time. (I did not like it then, but I do now.)
Besides Lawrence, I spoke with Edwin McMillan, Don Cooksey, Franz Kurie, Philip Abelson, and others I do not remember. J. Robert Oppenheimer also invited us for dinner. I gave a couple of lectures on neutrons and made a detailed tour of the Rad Lab, speaking extensively with Abelson, then a graduate student working on uranium. I told him that there was undoubtedly a mystery in uranium bombarded by neutrons. With a source as powerful as the cyclotron, the Berkeley researchers had the inestimable advantage of being able to generate an activity that was large compared with the natural activity of uranium. This should enable them to see things hidden from everybody else. As a first step, I proposed they see whether there was a difference between the activity produced by fast and slow neutrons. Of course, I had no idea of the nature of the mystery presented by uranium, but I knew it was there. Abelson worked a little on the subject and gave me the decay curves he obtained, but at the time he went no further.
I also renewed my acquaintance with Count Lorenzo Emo Capodilista. I had known him since his student days in Florence, where he had worked with the local cosmic-ray group. He had lost his mother when still very young and cherished his wealthy grandmother, a Mrs. Parrish of Philadelphia, who was a true lady, remarkable for her vigor, intelligence, and imposing appearance. Lorenzo had a heart of gold and was a wise man and a true gentleman, but not a rabid physicist like most of his colleagues. Possessing independent means and extended interests beyond physics, he tended to enjoy life. Elfriede liked him at once, too, and he later became one of our closest friends.
In visiting the Rad Lab, I noticed that there was a lot of radioactive metal scrap lying around. Nobody knew what it contained. I asked for some samples to take with me to Palermo. The radioactivities un-
doubtedly had long periods, and I would be able to study them at leisure upon my return. With luck, there might be something interesting. I took several pieces of metal that had belonged to cyclotron parts. Lawrence was very kind and generous in giving me this material; he said he was happy I could use it and glad to be able to help so penurious a place as Palermo.
When I had concluded my scientific visits, Elfriede and I drove off to see the marvels of the West. We were convinced that this was a unique opportunity to do so, and some fifty years in fact elapsed before I returned to some of the places we visited. Other places, on the contrary, became frequent destinations when we settled in Berkeley.
Rasetti, as usual, had lectured us on the places we must see, and his guidance from afar was very useful to us. We went to Yosemite and Death Valley, continuing to some truly wild deserts in Navajo country, but missed the Canyon de Chelly, which Rasetti had rated a must. We visited Boulder Dam still half empty, and the Utah national parks, bought cactus seeds for Montemartini and Palermo's botanical garden, and went to Mount Wilson Observatory and to the movie studios in Hollywood. Happy with our trip, we returned to Berkeley, where I collected my radioactive material. On October 10th, 1936, we landed in Naples.
On my return to Palermo I immediately started work on the material I had obtained in Berkeley. The instruments I had prepared the previous year were perfectly suited to my program; furthermore, I had built a chemical hood and had found glassware and chemical instruments in the lab, which perhaps went back to the time of Cannizzaro. I was thus able to start chemical separations using the usual radiochemistry techniques.
I soon discovered that I had taken with me a true mine of radioactive substances. The cyclotron had been used for bombarding a little of everything, although mainly phosphorus; no special precautions had been taken, so I found many different substances that had vaporized from the target. In addition to phosphorus, a preliminary survey revealed radioactive cobalt, zinc, perhaps silver, and other activities I could not ascribe to any known element.
I first recognized a large quantity of P32 , with a half life of about two weeks. I thought immediately that this might be useful for biological experiments, but naturally, not being a biologist, I did not know specifically what to do with it. I explained the tracer technique, then relatively new, in detail to my colleague Camillo Artom, professor of physiology, and offered him the radioactive phosphorus and the necessary technical help with radioactive measurements. Artom at once grasped the technique and the possibilities it offered, and immediately thought of some interesting applications to phospholipid metabolism. Thus began a fruitful collaboration, which produced good results. Having learned a minimum of physiology and biochemistry, I tried to make a rudimentary mathematical model of a mouse, describing its metabolism by suitable coefficients. Some of the ideas went back to Volterra's old studies, which I had read as a student. I believe that this type of investigation, greatly refined and expanded, has developed into a fashionable endeavor.
In February 1937 I received a letter from Lawrence containing more radioactive stuff. In particular, it contained a molybdenum foil that had been part of the cyclotron's deflector. I suspected at once that it might contain element 43. The simple reason was that deuteron bombardment of molybdenum (atomic number 42) should give isotopes of element 43 through well-established nuclear reactions. My sample, the molybdenum deflector lip, had certainly been intensely bombarded with deuterons, and I noted that one of its faces was much more radioactive than the other. I then dissolved only the material of the active face, in this way achieving a first important concentration of the activity.
By now I was more sophisticated than I had been in Rome in 1934, and I knew that the "masurium" announced by I. W. and W. K. Noddack in 1925 was probably a mistake. Among other reasons, nuclear systematics raised strong suspicions about its stability. I thus had to prove that I really had in hand a new element, created artificially and devoid of stable isotopes. The methods for such an investigation had been pioneered long ago by D. I. Mendeleyev and Marie Curie. One predicts the chemical properties to be expected for the new substance by criteria similar to those used by Mendeleyev, and then one tries to
verify the predictions by radiochemical methods, taking into account that the behavior of trace amounts of a substance can be different from that of matter in bulk.
For this investigation I enlisted the cooperation of Carlo Perrier, who had more experience in chemistry than I. First we separated the activity we were studying from all known elements to make sure that it was not isotopic with any of them. Next we established several of the chemical properties of element 43. Separation from rhenium was the most difficult problem, but in the end we succeeded in two different ways: by precipitation as a sulfide in a very acid solution and by distillation in a current of gaseous hydrochloric acid. All this work was most amusing and of obvious importance.
By following the radioactive decay of our samples and by measuring the absorption in aluminum of the electrons emitted, B. N. Cacciapuoti and I found three decay periods: 90, 80, and 50 days. Looking back on the data fifty years later, I see that in effect we had only two radioactive isotopes: technetium 95, with a period of 61 days, and technetium 97, with a period of 90 days. They are both nuclear isomeric states with complex electronic radiations, obtained by deuteron bombardment of several molybdenum isotopes.
In this work we had discovered the first chemical element created by man. Perrier and I decided not to name the new element at the time, although we received suggestions for names celebrating Fascism or Sicily, such as Trinacrium (from Trinacria, an ancient Greek name for the island), which we did not like. Moreover, for us to avoid controversy with Walter Noddack and Ida Tacke-Noddack, they first had to retract their claims, or these had to fall of their own weight, as later happened. We also knew that many more elements had been named or announced than truly existed. Haste in naming did not seem like good style to us.
Georg von Heresy, who knew the Noddacks' work at first hand, wrote to me explaining its weaknesses. Heresy, a Hungarian educated with all refinements of the old Austrian Empire, was one of the greatest living chemists and a close friend of Niels Bohr. He and Fritz Paneth
had invented the radioactive tracer method, and Hevesy and Dirk Coster had discovered the element hafnium, using X-rays as an analytical tool.
The Noddacks were chemists, highly respected for their discovery of rhenium, which they detected in several ores in 1925. In the same paper they had announced the discovery of two elements: element 75, which they named rhenium (from Rhenus, the ancient name for the Rhine), and element 43, which they named masurium (from Masuria, the easternmost part of East Prussia, where German armies had repeatedly defeated the Russians in World War I). Rhenium was soon confirmed, and the Noddacks prepared it in macroscopic amounts, but they did not make any further mention of masurium. In 1933, when I bought all the elements available in Rome for our neutron work, I found a sample of rhenium, but not one of masurium.
In 1937, after receiving the letter from Hevesy mentioned above, I had some doubts about the Noddacks' results and decided to visit them and to obtain firsthand information on their work. About September 20, on my return from Copenhagen (see p. 122), I stopped in Freiburg, where the Noddacks had their lab. Professor Walter Noddack kept me waiting for a while, but ultimately he received me. I did not see his wife.
I showed Noddack the proofs of our Lincei paper giving the properties of element 43 and asked him whether his results agreed with ours. "Yes," was the answer. I asked him whether he had found something on the chemistry of 43 beyond what we had, and he said, "No." I asked him how much masurium they had, and he answered about 1 mg, which to me seemed unlikely. He told me he had sent it to Francis Aston at the Cavendish Laboratory for isotopic analysis, which surprised me. I asked to see some of his X-ray plates, with the characteristic spectrum of 43. He answered that unfortunately the plates had accidentally been broken and hence were not available. When I asked why he had not made more plates, I could not obtain a clear answer. By then I was thinking that either they were deluding themselves or they had doubts about their results and hoped that further work might resolve
them; in the meantime they did not want to prejudice the issue. In any case it was unlikely that they had clear-cut results. Having formed this opinion, I took my leave.
I was surprised when a couple of weeks later Noddack, his wife (if I remember correctly), and a cohort of assistants showed up at my lab in Palermo. I showed them what we had. These are the only personal contacts I remember having had with the Noddacks.
After the war, when nuclear reactors produced macroscopic amounts of element 43, I had the satisfaction of seeing, not only that we had made no mistakes, but also that we had found the main properties of the new substance. Only then did Perrier and I give it the name technetium to commemorate the fact that it was the first artificial element.
One day Fermi came to visit me at Palermo and told me he thought our work on element 43 was the best piece of work in physics in the preceding year. Since Fermi did not make such statements merely to please, or without due consideration, I was elated.
The prime necessity for further work was the supply of radioactive substances. I asked Lorenzo Emo to send me more material from Berkeley, which he did, with Lawrence's permission. When I received a letter from Berkeley, I measured its radioactivity before opening it. I also sent to Berkeley a collection of test tubes containing several substances to be put near the cyclotron target where they would be neutronirradiated. Among them I included some purified uranium and thorium, because I was aware of the uranium mysteries, some ammonium nitrate, in the hope of finding C14 , and sundry other materials. The cyclotron produced so many neutrons that if my samples were simply kept in a box near the target, I could obtain precious material that would keep me busy for quite a while; or at least I so hoped.
The beginning of the year 1937 was darkened by an unexpected tragedy. Corbino caught pneumonia and died in a few days, on January 23. His death was a severe blow. He was only sixty-one, and we had all counted on his wise counsel and guidance in the difficult times we anticipated.
I immediately saw what the consequences of Corbino's death would be, and I was soon proved right. When I went to Rome for the funeral,
I found that his post, which should logically have gone to Fermi, had become the target of obscure cabals. The end result was Lo Surdo's appointment as director of the Physics Institute. I could not have imagined a worse choice. Among other things it ensured hostility, in place of benevolence, toward Fermi's group, which, in my opinion, was exerting a most salutary influence on Italian physics.
Another surprise followed shortly after: Amaldi was appointed professor at Rome. He had competed successfully for a chair at Cagliari, in Sardinia, but had renounced the appointment in order not to have to leave Rome. Immediately afterward, he was called to the University of Rome. The whole deal had very negative implications for me. I came from the same stable as Amaldi, had been first assistant to Corbino, and had seniority over Amaldi; nor could it be said that his scientific work overshadowed mine. Obviously my chances of returning to Rome and rejoining the group were vanishing. Amaldi's appointment at Rome also meant that Fermi and Rasetti either could not or did not want to put up a fight for me. Fermi, as a matter of principle, avoided losing battles, and the whole development signaled to me that my chances of being appointed to a better chair than Palermo were slim indeed. Although the idea of remaining at Palermo for a long time was not disagreeable per se, I was concerned for the future of my research. It was not easy for me to imagine how I would be able to continue to do interesting work in Sicily. Ultimately, however, Amaldi's appointment did me little harm and turned out to be a stroke of good luck for Italian physics.
Having assessed the situation at Rome, I put out some feelers for other chairs, with discouraging, even humiliating, results. For instance, I still regret having asked His Excellency Professor Nicola Parravano, accademico d'Italia, to communicate our note announcing the discovery of element 43 to the Accademia dei Lincei as a gesture of appeasement. On this occasion, I saw manifest signs of anti-Semitism, and they were not the first. Anti-Semitism had always been endemic in Italy, but it had not prevented talented people from making their way. Now one felt, however, that the disease was getting worse.
My father bought us a brand-new modern apartment on the Piazza Francesco Crispi in Palermo, which had windows overlooking the
beautiful Giardino Inglese. It was furnished for us by the Florentine firm of Gori and with some pieces designed by an architect friend of mine, which I had brought from Rome. After fifty years of service, I can still admire their quality in my California house.
We were expecting a child in March, and Rasetti's mother and the Amaldis helped us to find exactly the help we needed: Lella, a woman from Abruzzo, who had never been to school, but had uncommon intelligence and personality, and a sweet nursemaid from Poggio, where the Amaldi family had an estate. Both women excelled in their work, were of sterling honesty, and affectionate; they remained Elfriede's lifelong friends.
On March 2, 1937, Gori came from Florence to assemble our furniture; he wanted to do it personally. At about 3 P.M. , when he had just finished his work, Elfriede told me that she thought it might be better to go to the hospital, and about two hours later our son Claudio was born. My colleague the professor of obstetrics at the University of Palermo was in attendance, although once in a while he fell asleep. A few days later Claudio developed a sizeable lump on his neck, much to our horror. The pediatrician, a German doctor chosen by Elfriede, who had formerly been her colleague at the Landschulheim in Florence, made an alarming diagnosis, but suggested we show the child to the university's pediatrics professor. The latter, a very elegant Sicilian gentleman, whose looks reminded me of Freud, briefly examined the infant and then said: "Do not worry. It is nothing serious. His neck has been pulled at birth. All he needs is to sleep for a few days with his head tilted and he will be all right." This turned out to be the case.
With the 1936–37 school year approaching its end, we prepared for our summer vacation. Since Claudio was only a few months old, we could not travel far, and we rented a house at Alba di Canazei in the Dolomites, where we occupied one floor and Amaldi another. We also arranged lodgings in the immediate vicinity for the families of Bakker from Holland and of Bernardini from Florence. Unfortunately, this was to be the last vacation I was able to enjoy in the old-fashioned style familiar to me from my childhood. We collected large amounts of wild
raspberries, from which we made jam, and of edible mushrooms (which I learned to identify from a German booklet), thus commencing two lifelong culinary hobbies.
In the middle of the summer, I was called to the colors and had to attend a military training school in the ancient seaport town of Civitavecchia, north of Rome, for several weeks. While there, I received a telegram from the rector of the University of Palermo urgently recalling me, because Il Duce, Mussolini, was about to visit and all the professors had to be present. I took the telegram to the colonel commanding the school and applied for leave. The colonel looked at me intently and asked: "In this season is Palermo very hot?" I understood at once the meaning of the question and answered: "It is terribly sultry." To this the colonel responded: "Answer that you are serving in the army and that leave has been denied." I must add that the colonel gave me leave every weekend to join my family at Alba di Canazei, where the weather was good.
While at Civitavecchia, in the deep of night, I received a telephone call with the news that my father, who was at Tivoli with my mother, had been taken gravely ill. Shortly thereafter Bindo Rimini arrived by car and took me to Tivoli, where I found my mother, Riccardo Rimini, and Marco. My father was in a coma, and according to Riccardo, an excellent doctor whom we all trusted, there was little hope of his surviving. A few hours passed, and the situation was unchanged. Somehow rumors of my father's state spread, and people from the paper mill and city authorities made discreet, concerned inquiries. Somebody even started thinking about funeral arrangements. No signs of improvement appeared.
In the afternoon, the patient, still in a coma, passed a lot of wind, and then loudly and clearly spoke some famous lines from Torquato Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (my translation):
The raucous sound of the Tartarean bugle
Calls the inhabitants of the eternal shadows.
My mother, who was at her husband's bedside, almost fainted. We all rushed in, and to everybody's amazement, my father regained con-
sciousness. In a few hours he was greatly improved. For about a week he slightly dragged one leg in walking, but soon he totally recovered, without visible trace of what had happened in either body or mind. We had been terribly scared. My father's comment was: "Now I know what there is in the beyond: nothing."
Before the summer vacation, Bohr had invited me to one of his annual conferences in Copenhagen, showing that our work at Palermo had not escaped his attention; I was highly pleased and immediately accepted. On the train to Copenhagen, I met Hans von Euler and several other young physicists proceeding to the same conference, which thus began en route. They explained some of the mysteries of the latest cosmic-ray observations, harbingers of what were later called muons, to me.
At Copenhagen, the meetings were extremely strenuous. In such company, one tried to absorb as much as possible, and thus one had to concentrate without interruption for many hours at a time. I was exhausted by the end of each day.
Bohr's residence and lifestyle impressed me; they were truly princely in the best sense of the word. We also made some of the usual excursions, but continued talking physics all the time. I spoke on the new element 43.
On my way back I stopped briefly in Hamburg. From there, on September 15, 1937, I wrote as follows to Riccardo Rimini:
. . . Yesterday evening the Congress ended, with a humorous, but rather moving, feast. We acted in a sort of variety show summarizing Bohr's recent travels around the world. Through the jokes one could feel the respect and almost veneration that everybody feels for Bohr. I could not approach him very much, but I understood that he is one of the most remarkable personalities produced by mankind, and that he hovers in heights incomparably higher than those reached by common mortals, be they even Fermis. Also morally and from a human point of view he must be superior to others. Immediately after the feast I left with [Werner] Heisenberg [winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1932] and his wife. Heisenberg . . . has been a pupil of Bohr's at Copenhagen for three
years, and he has done his best work there. Bohr said a few words of good-bye to him and his wife that well-nigh made the company shiver, and everybody was clearly shaken.
I had a bad train trip, because we were continuously disturbed by customs agents, police, and similar characters. Next morning I arrived here and lodged where you see from the letterhead [the Hotel Continental]. I slept a little and then phoned "I." We made an appointment, I believe by chance, on the spot where we first met. It was then a winter evening; it is now an autumn morning. While waiting I thought of many things of that time, about progress made and changes since then in myself and in the world. I do not go into detail so as not to annoy you. In any case you know too many things not to be able to more or less guess my thoughts.
"I" is physically not much changed, although she is with child. Morally she seems to me to have become rather stupid. She has entered the mentality of the local lower middle class, which is rather unappetizing. The husband is a lawyer and notary and is 40 years old. She has lost some of the vivacity and flexibility she had in years past. She is simpatica, but completely, irremediably, foreign to me, and I have no reason to see her any more in the future. Although we did not say it, the long pauses interspersing our conversation clearly spoke for themselves. In any case I would not even have gone to bed with her with any enthusiasm. Other ties and interests are now at the forefront and perhaps now, for the first time, Claudio had signaled his existence. In any case, as you know, I dearly love Elfriede, and although I am perfectly aware of the possibility of separating persons and affections, a possibility that, although frequently contested, in certain cases exists, I do not want foolishly to hurt her.
The city of Hamburg and Germany in general after such a long absence have a curious effect on me. Although the exterior aspect has somewhat changed, I could not say that the country looks different, in spite of the abundance of soldiers, each stiff as a ramrod. The shops, with the exception of the booksellers, are the same, and so are the public places, but the whole looks to me like a shell without the animal. For me, who knew Germany as the freest country, as a fountainhead of culture for a physicist, as an unprejudiced country for girls, full of new ideas and with a lively intellectual life, it gives the impression of a total void. Void, void, and nothing else. . . .
In any case the result of this whole trip and of this experience is
rather to turn me to the future, and now Bohr and his discourses are more alive, or, better, more important to me than memories of 1933.
As already described, I also stopped on my way home at Freiburg to see the Noddacks.
Shortly after the Copenhagen conference I attended a congress held at Bologna to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Galvani's birth, but all I remember of it are visits to Ravenna, previously unknown to Elfriede and myself, and the general dismay at the announcement during the conference of Rutherford's death.
All told, 1937 had been a good year for us both personally and scientifically, although clouded by Corbino's death. Elfriede and I got along together better and better. She proved to be an excellent wife, ever equal to the often difficult demands placed upon her. She took care of Claudio with good sense, helped measure radioactive phosphorus in the lab, ran the household, acted as a secretary, read on her own account, and grew intellectually; in short, she was an excellent companion in every respect. She had also become attached to my parents, who abundantly reciprocated her feelings.
Our weekend trips had shown us a good part of Sicily. Agrigento and Selinunte (the ancient Selinus) on the southwest coast of the island in particular appealed to my imagination, although when we drove to Selinunte, the local boys scratched the paint of our car and spat on our rucksacks out of pure spite, while alternately begging or vainly trying to sell to us some fake old coins. Hiking in the Bosco della Ficuzza, we saw wild peonies for the first time. I did not know what they were, but guessed, remembering them from Chinese porcelain. At the foot of Monte Pellegrino, we found fourteen different kinds of wild orchids in an area of about five acres. Once in a while, we went to Mondello to buy live lobsters or swim.
In spite of everything, I was worried. I knew that the discovery of element 43 had been a stroke of luck, not likely to be repeated at Palermo, and doubted I could develop a sustained research program without radioactive sources and better instruments than the simple ones I had built. The university had assigned me two hundred thousand lire, a substantial sum, but a good part of it was needed for a machine shop
and for other indispensable plant; the future was not all rosy. By nature I was inclined to what I used to call "physics without apparatus," in which new ideas make up for the simplicity of the techniques. This attitude derived both from my indifferent ability as an instrument builder and from my education in Rome, where theory prevailed over technique. However, there were limits to what could be done this way. I tried in vain to obtain some money from the Rockefeller Foundation and from the Italian Consiglio delle ricerche.
To invigorate physics in Palermo, I wanted to establish a chair of theoretical physics. There was no scarcity of young candidates who could brilliantly fill it; first among them Gian Carlo Wick and Giulio Racah. I did not consider Ettore Majorana because by then he had become a recluse and never left home. I could count on a good choice because Fermi's opinion would be decisive.
I discussed the subject with the rector of the University of Palermo, the jurist Professor G. Scaduto. He was most cooperative and promised to help me however he could, but was worried that the new professor might regard Palermo merely as a springboard and might not stay long enough to exert a truly beneficial influence. Scaduto wanted a commitment on this point.
The subsequent competition had a peculiar history. Initially, I had expected that the three winners would be Wick, Racah, and Giovanni Gentile, Jr. I never dreamed Majorana would enter the competition, because he had lived in seclusion for several years. Completely unexpectedly, however, he did. The consequence was clear: the three winners would be Majorana, Wick, and Racah; Gentile would be left out. In a theoretical physics competition, the opinions of Fermi and Enrico Persico would be decisive, and both would honestly recognize merit.
Then something unprecedented happened. The appointment committee (Fermi, Lazzarino, Persico, Polvani, Carrelli) met on October 25, 1937, and put forward a most unusual suggestion. It proposed to appoint Majorana as a professor for "exceptional merit" independently of the Palermo competition, and to suspend further deliberations until the minister had acted on this proposal.
I believe, on good grounds, that in order to avoid a defeat for his
son, Gentile's father, a former minister of education and still a power in Italian politics, had conceived this plan and suggested it to the committee. With the competition held in abeyance, Majorana was appointed professor at Naples based on exceptional merit. A law allowed for this procedure in special cases involving illustrious persons, and had been used, for example, in the case of Marconi. After Majorana's appointment, the competition was reinstated, obviously without Majorana's candidacy. The three chosen were Wick, Racah, and Gentile. To my delight, Wick came to Palermo not long thereafter. Needless to say, at the time I was completely in the dark about the maneuvers mentioned above.
This was not, however, the end of the story. After a few months in Naples, where he had started his course in theoretical physics, Majorana wrote a suicide note to his colleague Carrelli and took a boat for Palermo. From there he wired Carrelli that he had changed his mind; he also mailed him a letter on the writing paper of the Hotel Sole at Palermo, dated March 26, 1938, saying:
I hope my telegram and the letter arrived simultaneously. The sea has rejected me and I shall return to the Hotel Bologna [in Naples] tomorrow, perhaps traveling together with these lines. However, I want to give up teaching. Do not think of me as a girl in an Ibsen play, because the case is different. I am at your disposal for further details.
Affectionately, E. Majorana.
It is easy to imagine Carrelli's alarm and dismay on receiving these communications. As Majorana did not show up in Naples, Carrelli contacted Majorana's family in Rome, as well as Fermi. Ettore's brother, Luciano Majorana, who had also been my schoolmate, rushed to Palermo and came to see me; together we tried to trace Ettore's moves through the police. We found only that he had been at the Hotel Sole, as was clear, anyway, from the writing paper he had used. Fermi immediately alerted the government, and Mussolini personally ordered the chief of police at Palermo to use all his resources to find Majorana. To no avail. He had reembarked from Palermo for Naples, but after
boarding the ship, he vanished without a trace. In all probability, he jumped overboard and was lost at sea. His body was never found.
On my return to Palermo in the fall of 1937, Perrier and I renewed our investigation of element 43, but the cream had already been skimmed, and results were harder to get. Nonetheless, we succeeded in finding interesting novelties. I had set my hopes for the future on the package, previously described, sent for irradiation at Berkeley. I also started building a linear amplifier to detect the alpha particles I expected from the transuranic elements I hoped would be present in irradiated uranium.
In the meantime I had been asked to join the Rotary Club in Palermo. Italian Rotary Clubs are very different from their American counterparts. At Palermo, the club's membership was restricted to important local civic leaders. Furthermore, the club was definitely not Fascist. My father urged me to join, and knowing me well, strengthened his arguments by offering to pay the substantial monthly fee.
At the Rotary Club I met several interesting and important persons, both visitors and local residents. I remember especially the inspired face of the composer Don Lorenzo Perosi, which could have served as a model for a sculptor representing "Genius." My election to the club was another sign that Sicilians liked and accepted me. One of the members was the excellent rector of the university, scion of an illustrious family of lawyers. We were friends, but not intimates. One day, however, at the Rotary Club, when I went to greet him with a handshake, he surprised me by embracing me with open arms, whispering in my ear: "Watch out. You have behind you the secretary of the Fascio"—the highest local Fascist authority. Mussolini had just forbidden shaking hands as an un-Fascist gesture.
In 1938 Elfriede returned to Germany for a visit. It was the last time she saw her parents. When she got back to Palermo, I met her ship at the pier with a bunch of roses. They did not suffice, however, to counterbalance a scary piece of political news: Hitler's visit to Mussolini, of which the poet Trilussa (Carlo Alberto Salustri) so appropriately wrote:
Roma di travertino
Rifatta di cartone
Suo prossimo Padrone.
(Rome of marble splendor
Patched with cardboard and plaster
Welcomes the housepainter,
Her next lord and master.)
The allusion is to patch work ordered by Mussolini along the route to be followed by him and his guest.
I decided to spend the summer of 1938 in Berkeley in order to study short-lived isotopes of element 43 that could not survive the time it took to get from California to Palermo.
For these summer forays, I used a scientific strategy I had successfully tested years earlier in Amsterdam at the time of my first visit to Zeeman's lab. I prepared a detailed plan of work, rehearsed the techniques I would use, and knew exactly the instruments I needed. With such preparations, once on the spot, it was easy to obtain good results rapidly. In this specific case, I knew how to isolate element 43 from a molybdenum target, and I knew what to measure in the new isotopes, and how.
At the time Claudio was about one year old, and it was not expedient to bring him to the United States for a few months. We thus decided that he and Elfriede would stay in Italy, first in the Alps to escape the summer heat and then at Tivoli. I would return in October for the beginning of the school year.
In 1938 it was very difficult to get U.S. visas. U.S. consulates would not give one a visa unless one's Italian passport was specifically validated for the United States, and the Italian government would not validate a passport for the United States unless it already contained a visa. In theory, this precluded obtaining even a tourist visa. Immigration visas involved additional quota difficulties, practically excluding Italians and Poles. The last fact was important; Elfriede fell under the Polish quota,
although she had never been a Polish citizen. Rasetti had, however, told me that the U.S. immigration law then in force contained a Section 4(d) that permitted entry, irrespective of the quota system, to artists, priests, and professors of a recognized university. At the time this did not concern me, because I only wanted a tourist visa, but it became vital later.
Under these circumstances I went, with my passport, to see an important official of the appropriate department. As a last-minute inspiration, I also stuck Elfriede's passport in my pocket. Our conversation proceeded approximately as follows:
"Commendatore, I am professor of physics at the university and I would like to go, for the summer, to study in California. I have a return ticket and I would like to obtain the validation of my passport."
"You know that I cannot validate it without a previous U.S. visa."
"Yes, I know; however, with this system nobody can move any more."
"Ah! You are the new physics professor?"
"The nasty one! I have a nephew who is very scared by your exam he has to pass in October."
"Commendatore, what is your nephew's name? Tell him not to worry."
The commendatore gave me the name, and I added, "I shall remember it; tell your nephew he has passed the exam."
With this, the commendatore took my passport, stamped, and signed it. I concluded: "Many thanks for your kindness; I sincerely appreciate it and shall not forget it. However, I leave here my wife and a child. One never knows. Couldn't you validate their passport too?" And I pulled out of my pocket the other passport, which was immediately validated. I still regret having been unable to repay the good commendatore's kindness; he may well have saved Elfriede's and Claudio's lives. Unfortunately, however, I obtained a U.S. visa only for myself, and not for Elfriede and Claudio.
Before departing for America, I went to Tivoli to take leave of my
parents. It was the last time I saw them. Papà took me aside and said to me: "You are right in going. If I were half a century younger, I would do the same." These are the last words I heard him speak. Elfriede and I stopped in Rome and went to see Aïda at the Terme of Caracalla, but we were not in a cheery mood.
I embarked for the United States at Naples on June 25, 1938.