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Emilio Segré
by Vincenzo Salerno

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Emilio Segre teaching in the United States.Though his name is hardly known outside the annals of science, Nobel laureate Emilio Gino Segré was one of the most important physicists of the twentieth century. Born in Tivoli to a prosperous Jewish family in 1905, Segré first studied engineering before switching to physics. In 1930, Segré was awarded a prestigious Rockefeller Fellowship, and worked with Otto Stern in Germany and Pieter Zeeman in the Netherlands. He also conducted research at Columbia University (New York), and was appointed an assistant professor at the University of Rome in 1932. During 1934 he collaborated with Enrico Fermi in a series of transuranic experiments. In 1935, working with Fermi, he identified slow neutrons, an important aspect of nuclear reactor function. (Fermi later patented the first nuclear reactor.) Physics research was and is, in fact, collaborative. A single scientist could rarely claim sole discovery of an element or effect.

Segré arrived at the University of Palermo in 1936. He describes his time in Sicily in chapter five of his fascinating autobiography, A Mind Always in Motion. With his wife, Elfriede Spiro, the newlywed Segré comfortably settled into Palermitan life and discovered much of Sicily, from Selinunte to the Woods of Ficuzza to Mondello. While the Segrés were accepted by Palermo society, it was the era of Italy's invasion of Ethiopia, and also a period of increasing antipathy toward the country's non-conformist population, which included Jews, various intellectuals, certain writers and artists, and even a musician or two (Arturo Toscanini comes to mind). Those intellectuals who had not yet fled the dictatorship were seriously considering it. Segré met a number of "exiled" anti-Fascists at the Sicilian university.

The young professor instituted written exams, then a novelty in Italy (and actually illegal), and among his students were some distinguished young scholars such as Ginetta Barresi; she was exceptional as women were still rare in the tiny masculine world of Italian physics. Segré sought to expand the university's physics department with the addition of posts for talented, promising, physicists. As part of this expansion, Segré's contemporary (and a former student of Fermi), the eccentric, Catanian-born Ettore Majorana, then a professor at the University of Naples, was appointed to a physics post at the University of Palermo, but died of an apparent suicide before actually assuming it. A specialist in atomic spectroscopy, Majorana formulated a theory on the relationship and corresponding mass of protons and neutrons, and energies that gave stability to atoms. The theory is usually associated with Werner Heisenberg. (It is postulated that some of Majorana's work might have facilitated development of an atomic bomb, a project with which Heisenberg was eventually involved for Nazi Germany, and some believe he was murdered, possibly by Nazi agents.) While Majorana's accomplishments --praised by Fermi-- are beyond doubt, and Segré did not oppose his appointment at Palermo, Majorana's influence (such as it was) in Sicilian university circles seems to have owed almost as much to cronyism and politics as to actual achievement. Had he lived longer, however, he may have become a decisive force in the field of particle physics.

Emilio Segré had first visited the United States in 1933, when he assisted Enrico Fermi in a summer course in theoretical physics at the University of Michigan. In the summer of 1936, the Segrés visited the United States, where the professor met J. Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence and other physicists who,unknown to him at that time, would soon become his working colleagues in a secret project that was to change the course of history. For now, they provided him with radioactive metals and encouraged his research in Palermo. Returning to Sicily in October, he set about the experiments that soon led to his discovery (in 1937) of element 43, Technetium (Tc). Early suggestions to name the element "Trinacrium," after Trinacria (an old name for Sicily), were resisted. Technetium was the first man-made element not found in nature. It was actually named following the Second World War, its nomenclature a reference to it being the first artificial element.

Visiting Segré in Palermo in 1937, Fermi remarked that the discovery of element 43 was the best physics research work of the preceding year. This was gratifying. Socially, however, Segré began to notice overt anti-Semitism in Italian academic-scientific circles. Such bigotry had always existed as a subtle phenomenon, but now it openly threatened the professional futures of talented people. The Segrés' son, Claudio, was born in March 1937. (They later had two daughters, Amelia and Fausta.) Segré was conveniently absent for Mussolini's visit to Palermo.

In 1938, during a second visit to the United States, the anti-Semitic laws prohibiting Jews from teaching were actively enforced. Other bizarre Fascist statutes forbade Jewish-Christian marriages and imposed various other conditions on Italy's Jewish population. It was clear that Emilio's teaching position no longer existed, and he did not return to Italy until the war was over. (Enrico Fermi, who left Italy the same year as Segré, foresaw similar difficulties; his wife, Laura Capon, was Jewish.) The Segrés quickly adapted to American life.

Working with other physicists at the University of California at Berkeley, Emilio Segré was part of the team that discovered the element Astatine, as well as Plutonium-239, which Segré determined to be fissionable. (It was used in the atomic bombs dropped on Japanese cities.) From 1943 to 1946, he was a group leader at Los Alamos,working on the atomic bomb project, and became a US citizen in 1944.

Segré had no illusions about the role of science, or the influence of nuclear physics, on human life. "While the scientist has the specialized knowledge of his discipline," he once observed, "on other subjects he is pretty much prey to the same dark forces as anybody else. His training and education may help him to overcome some of his irrational urges, but the idea that the objective, cool scientist is above the crowd is fallacious. This should be recognised by the scientists and by the public at large. Scientists are not priests of a magic religion."

He was appointed a professor at Berkeley in 1946, and remained until 1972. In 1955, with Owen Chamberlain (who had been on his team in the Manhattan Project), Segré used a particle accelerator to identify antiprotons and other antiparticles. In 1959, the team received the Nobel Prize for this groundbreaking work, which described the antiproton as an "antiparticle" with a mass identical to that of a proton but with an opposite electrical charge. Segré's book, Nuclei and Particles, published in 1964, describes this important research. He returned to the University of Rome in 1974, accepting a post as professor of nuclear physics. Emilio Segré died of a heart attack in 1989.

About the Author: Palermo native Vincenzo Salerno has written biographies of several famous Sicilians, including Frederick II and Giuseppe di Lampedusa.

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© 2004 Vincenzo Salerno