Enrico Fermi and the "Panisperna boys"
(I ragazzi di Via Panisperna)

In the Physics Department of Rome University located in Via Panisperna a group of young Italian scientists worked relentlessly to discover nuclear energy. They were called "I ragazzi di Via Panisperna" (the boys of Via Panisperna). They were Enrico Fermi (Nobel price in Physics), Edoardo Amaldi, Emilio Segre' (Nobel Price in Physics), D'Agostino, Bruno Pontecorvo, Ettore Majorana, and others. The director and organizer of the Department was the protective although patronizing Orso Mario Corbino (nicknamed "the almighty").


I ragazzi di Via Panisperna

"I ragazzi di Via Panisperna"

Enrico Fermi

Enrico Fermi

Enrico Fermi was born in Rome in 1901, his father was a manager of the Italian railways. He was attracted by Physics after reading a 15th century Physics book found in a stall of a popular market in Rome. When he passed the admission examination at the Physics University in Pisa (19 y.o.), the Professors were surprised of his answers and had to ask him to explain his theories. At the University, instead of learning, he often taught, replacing the teachers. At 25 y.o. he was already a University Professor, of a new chair prepared for him: Atomic Physics.

In the experiments in the department in Via Panisperna, organized with very simple, often self-made laboratory tools and materials, Fermi and the "boys" discovered how to bombard heavy metals with nuclear particles. The bombardment lead to the fragmentation of nucleuses and hence to the discovery of new heavy metals, to the generation of nuclear energy, and also potentially to chain reactions (i.e. particles of the bombarded nucleus would then do the same with neighbouring nucleuses).

Orso Mario Corbino (Director)

Orso Mario Corbino (Director).

Emilio Segre

Emilio Segre

Bruno Pontecorvo

Bruno Pontecorvo

Initially, the aim of such researches was entirely peaceful, and was to find new therapies to eradicate cancers. All their discoveries were in fact licensed as therapeutical measures.  

Unfortunately, Fermi experienced the discrimination against the Jews, which led to the 1938 Racial Laws of the Italian Fascist state. Fermi was not a Jew, but his wife was. Moreover, his protectors, Guglielmo Marconi and the director of the Physics Institute died. So in 1938, after having personally received the Nober Price in Sweden, he did not return to Italy, going straight to Chicago. He began teaching at the University of Columbia in New York. With his theories, and following also the suggestion of Leo Szilard (Hungarian), he discovered the chain reaction of nuclear energy. 

He took part of the "Manhattan" project to build a nuclear bomb, under the command of Gen. Groves, and whose premises were at Los Alamos. The project was kept utmost secret, to the point that the locations with the plants were removed from maps, and that also vice-president Truman, once he came into office, knew nothing of the project. 
Szilard tried to convince the others scientists and the US government not to use the bomb because of its devastating effects.

Robert Oppenheimer

Robert Oppenheimer

Gen. Groves

Gen. Groves

Szilard

Szilard

On the other hand, Fermi, Segre (another of the "Panisperna boys") and Robert Oppenheimer (dubbed the "father" of the atomic bomb), viewed favourably the launch of the atomic bomb on Japan as they considered that there was no other way to make the Japanese authorities understand its distructiveness. This decision of Fermi is considered by many in Italy the one negative aspect of his life.

Enrico Fermi died of stomach cancer in the USA on 29 Nov. 54. He was still a young man, only 53 y.o

 

 
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