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Via Panisperna is the street in Rome where the Regio Istituto di Fisica (Royal Institute of Physics), part of the Sapienza University, was located. The director of the institute was professor Orso Mario Corbino, a physicist who had also been Minister of Education and later of Economy in the early 1920s; it was him who recognized the potential of some young physicists, such as Enrico Fermi and Franco Rasetti, and encouraged them to form a working froup, acting as their mentor and supervisor.
Enrico Fermi, the most famous member of the group, had been born in Rome in 1901. He studied physics at the University of Pisa, graduating at the unusually young age of twenty, and then spent some time studying in Germany (Gottingen and Leiden, meeting Albert Einsten among others) before returning to Italy and teaching for some time mathematical physics and theoretical mechanics at the University of Florence. In 1926, he was granted the chair of physics at the Sapienza University in Rome; he became the leader of the Via Panisperna group, which under his leadership discovered the properties of slow neutrons, a discovery that would later enable the construction of the first nuclear reactor and of the first atomic bomb. In 1938 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for or his work on induced radioactivity by neutron bombardment and for the discovery of transuranium elements.
Oscar D’Agostino was born in Avellino, Campania, also in 1901. He graduated in chemistry from the University of Rome in 1926 and started working in a battery factory, but lost his job when the factory closed down. Afterwards, he became an assistant professor and in 1933 started to work with Fermi. After spending some months at the Curie Institute in Paris, in 1934 D’Agostino became part of the Via Panisperna group, the only chemist in the group. He contributed to the 1934 experiment that showed the properties of slow neutrons.
Emilio Segrè was born in Tivoli, near Rome, in 1905. He studied engineering and later physics at the Sapienza University in Rome; after graduating, he worked for some time with future Nobel prize Otto Stern in Germany and with Nobel prize Pieter Zeeman in the Netherlands, after which he became assistant professor in physics at the Sapienza University in Rome (1932-1935) and then professor of physics at the University of Palermo. In 1936 he became director of the Department of Physics at the University of Palermo, and in the following year he discovered a new chemical element, technetium.
Edoardo Amaldi was born in Carpaneto Piacentino, Emilia-Romagna, in 1908. Like Segrè, he initially studied engineering at the Sapienza University and then switched to physics at the urging of professor Corbino. He graduated in 1929 and joined the via Panisperna group in the early 1930s; he made important contributions in the field of particle physics, cosmic rays and gravitational waves, and participated in the studies and experiments on slow neutrons. In 1937, after Corbino’s death, he replaced him as teacher of experimental physics at the Sapienza University. During conversations with Enrico Fermi, Amaldi coined the term “neutrino”.
Franco Rasetti was born in Pozzuolo Umbro, Umbria, in 1901. He studied at the University of Pisa, first engineering and later physics, graduating in 1922; between 1928 and 1929 he spent one year at the California Institute of Technology, studying and making experiments on the Raman effect, which provided the first experimental evidence that the atomic nucleus is not composed of protons and electrons, as was incorrectly believed at the time. In 1930 he was given the chair of spectroscopy at the Sapienza University in Rome, and became part of the Via Panisperna group. He was one of the pioneers in the study of the properties of neutrons, and in 1934, he participated in the discovery of the artificial radioactivity of fluorine and aluminium which would be critical in the development of the atomic bomb. In 1937 he was awarded the Mussolini Prize by the Royal Academy of Italy – which is quite ironic considering what happened one year later (see below).
Another two prominent members of the Via Panisperna group, not seen in this picture, were phyisicists Ettore Majorana and Bruno Pontecorvo.
Ettore Majorana was born in Catania, Sicily, in 1906. Like Amaldi and Segrè, he initially studied engineering at the Sapienza University in Rome, but switched to physics at the urging of Corbino, Fermi and Segrè himself, all of whom had realized his potential. He graduated in 1929, after which he worked with the Via Panisperna group until 1933, when he was persuaded by Fermi to spend six months in Germany, where he worked with Werner Heisenberg, and then in Denmark, where he got to know Niels Bohr. He returned to Italy in 1934 and spent the following three years studying nuclear physics, quantum field theory and neutrino masses; a difficult character, he spent most of his time studying on his own rather than with the rest of the group, and did so without rest, to the point of having a nervous breakdown. In 1937, after declining similar offers at Cambridge and Yale, he accepted the chair of theoretical physics at the University of Naples. His intuitions about fermions that would be confirmed 75 years later (these are now called Majorana fermions in his honor). Considered the most promising theoretical physicist in Italy, Majorana suddenly vanished in March 1938 during a steamer trip between Naples and Palermo, leaving behind a cryptic note and an empty bank account, and his disappearance remains a mystery to this day. Countless theories have been proposed: that he committed suicide (considered the most likely by many, including several of his Via Panisperna friends, due to the circumstances of his disappearance and his troublesome character, which verged on mental instability); that he migrated to South America, where he lived under a false name; that he retired to live as a monk in an abbey; that he was kidnapped (possibly by Germany) to work on the development of an atom bomb; that he was murdered to prevent his participation in such a project; that he voluntarily became a vagabond.
Bruno Pontecorvo was born in Marina di Pisa, Tuscany, in 1913. He studied engineering for two years at the University of Pisa, after which in 1931 he switched to studying physics at the Sapienza University in Rome, under Fermi, and became the youngest member of the Via Panisperna group (he does not appear in this photo because it was him who took the photo); in 1934 he participated in Fermi’s slow neutron experiment, became temporary assistant at the Royal Institute of Physics and co-authored, with Fermi and Rasetti, a landmark paper on slow neutrons that reported that hydrogen slowed neutrons more than heavy elements, and that slow neutrons were more easily absorbed. In 1936 he went to Paris for a one-year scholarship to study the effects of collisions of neutrons with protons and on the electromagnetic transitions among isomers; while there, however, he embraced Communism, which led to him deciding not to return to then-Fascist Italy (the racial laws agains the Jews, introduced in 1938, also contributed to this, as he was Jewish). In 1940, with the German occupation of France, he fled to the United States; there he developed the first practical application of the discovery of slow neutrons, in the field of oil and mineral prospecting. During World War II he was recruited into the Tube Alloys Project (basically the British equivalent of the Manhattan Project) and contributed to the development of the ZEEP reactor in Canada, the first operational reactor outside the United States. In 1948 he moved to the United Kingdom, where he was to contribute in the creation of the first British atomic bomb; but two years later he defected to the Soviet Union. He worked for the rest of his life at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research (JINR) in Dubna, Russia, focusing on the study of neutrinos and predicting the existence of neutrino oscillations. He died in Russia in 1993, at age eighty; in 1995 the JINR instituted the Pontecorvo Prize in his honor.
The rest of the group fell apart in 1938, months after Majorana’s disappearance, as a result of the racial laws introduced by the Fascist regime. Of the five remaining members of the group, two, Rasetti and Segrè, were Jewish; so was Fermi’s wife, Laura Capon. All three were thus prompted to leave Italy; Fermi and Segrè migrated to the United States, Rasetti went to Canada. The Via Panisperna group was thus effectively disbanded. Fermi went on to work at the Columbia University, Segrè at UC Berkeley; during World War II, both scientists became part of the Manhattan Project team, with Fermi playing a key role in the development of the atomic bomb. Rasetti, who had become a teacher at Laval University in Quebec City, was also invited to participate in the project, but refused, as an avowed pacifist.