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Oral History Transcript — Giuseppe Bassani

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Interview with Giuseppe Bassani
By Lanfranco Belloni
Pisa, Italy
December 9, 1982

Transcript

Belloni:

Professor Bassani, I know you were born in Milano in 1929, but we don't know much else about your family. Who were your parents and what did they do?

Bassani:

My father was Luigi Bassani, my mother Claretta Riccadonna. My mother was a housewife. My father was an employee in an insurance company.

Belloni:

What kind of education did your parents have?

Bassani:

My parents had a secondary, high school education. They were not university educated people, and they belonged, I would say, by family tradition, to the middle bourgeoisie—Italian middle bourgeoisie. The family of both my mother and father had some land in the south of Lombardy. They were wine makers.

Belloni:

You went to secondary school in Milano?

Bassani:

In Milano.

Belloni:

Were there any secondary school teachers or other people who had a strong influence on you, in science, or in other fields?

Bassani:

One teacher I recall as a major influence was my teacher of mathematics and physics. He was an astronomer named Flora -- later director of the astronomical observatory. At that time, which was just after the war, he had been a naval officer. When he came back to school, he gave a course in physics and mathematics, with implications as to astronomical problems. It was a fascinating course.

Belloni:

He was an astronomer at Brero --.

Bassani:

Later. But at that time, he was a high school teacher because he was a naval officer, and he had studied astronomy as a hobby, I think.

Belloni:

Did you expect from an early age to go to college?

Bassani:

Not really. My parents thought that I should study oenology -- following family tradition. In fact, I had an uncle with an industry of wine makers, Riccadonna, and he wanted me to go into his industry and to work for him. But then there was a teacher in high school who convinced my parents to send me to college.

Belloni:

And you went to Ghislieri?

Bassani:

Yes. After high school, there was a [???] for admission to the Ghislieri College so I went there.

Belloni:

At what point did you decide to major in physics, and how did this happen?

Bassani:

I think, at the moment I began college. I had been reading a lot about developments of physics, and knew something about the history of physics, during the time of preparing for the examination to go to the Ghislieri College. And at that time, my decision was made -- to try physics.

Belloni:

Had you read about the recent developments in modern physics?

Bassani:

Yes, in modern physics. There was at that time the impact of the development of nuclear energy and so on. It was in 1948.

Belloni:

Were there any of your undergraduate teachers or any courses that made a particularly strong impression?

Bassani:

Yes, I also liked philosophy very much. I was always fond of philosophy and literature, mostly philosophy.

Belloni:

Of your teachers at Pavia University, whom do you remember particularly?

Bassani:

Oh yes. The four years of study after the Laurea were mostly in mathematics and physics. I remember in particular Professor Giulotto of experimental physics and Professor Caldiro¬la for theoretical physics. This was in my field; and as I mentioned before, philosophy outside of my field.

Belloni:

You were reading philosophy even then?

Bassani:

Oh yes, and we also followed courses, by Bontadini who was then a professor at the university. And Paci, Enzo Paci.

Belloni:

Paci who later came to the University of Milano?

Bassani:

University of Milano, yes.

Belloni:

Bontadini went to teach at [???]

Bassani:

Yes, Bontadini, and at that time he was professor of theoretical philosophy at the University of Pavia.

Belloni:

Paci was at Pavia, follower of Edmond Husserl.

Bassani:

Yes. He gave lectures at the University of Pavia. Of course at Ghislieri College we were students of all faculties; some in our group were studying philosophy, some of us were studying literature and so on. At times we followed each other's courses. It was a very stimulating community there in college.

Belloni:

Who did you like best, Bontadini or Paci?

Bassani:

I must say I could understand Paci better. Bontadini was a bit too difficult for me.

Belloni:

I would have thought the reverse. I remember Paci as a very fantastic speaker. He did not have as much interest in the philosophy of science.

Bassani:

Yes. But Bontadini was more theoretical-minded, the things he talked about. One should have known Egan. That was his general interest.

Belloni:

At what point did you decide you wanted to make a career in theoretical solid state physics?

Bassani:

Well, it was at the beginning of the first year, when we had to decide about our thesis. There were two of us graduating in Pavia, the same college, and we went to talk to Professor Caldirola and he suggested that one should follow his line of research, and that I should follow something a little bit different, and particularly thought about solid state physics, because Professor Fumi was coming back from the United States and he had new ideas in this field. And so I started my thesis under the direction of Professor Caldirola, but working directly with Fausto Fumi. It was around 1951, '52. I graduated in November 1952.

Belloni:

And you worked with Fumi?

Bassani:

With Fumi, yes, and the thesis was on the theory of color centers, particularly of the F center and [???] lights.

Belloni:

I see. And later, you already said about your family, they wanted you to be in the vineyards. After you graduated at Pavia, you moved to Milano or came back to Milano?

Bassani:

Yes, Professor Caldirola was professor in Milano at that time. He had moved from Pavia to Milano, and Professor Fumi was in the group of theoretical physics at Milano. So I moved from Pavia to Milano, with a fellowship of the National Research Council, and I worked for two years, from '52 to the summer of '54, in Milano.

Belloni:

And you continued in the research that you had started with your dissertation?

Bassani:

Yes. I continued in Milano working with Fausto Fumi, and particularly on defects, the theory of defects in ionic crystals.

Belloni:

So that was more theoretical work and you were closer to Fumi than to Giulotto?

Bassani:

Yes.

Belloni:

That was a real research project. Later on you moved to Urbana, Illinois. How was this trip made and what were your impressions of these places, the situation in Italy and Urbana? Say something about your first experience abroad.

Bassani:

Already in 1953 Fausto Fumi suggested that I get experience in the United States. Since he had been at Illinois and he considered himself a pupil of Fred Seitz (who was at that time one of the professors at University of Illinois; Loomis was he experimental science --

Bassani:

-- and I was doing the theoretical side.

Belloni:

That was the beginning of a systematic activity in Italy?

Bassani:

Yes.

Belloni:

Professor Giulotto told me about the difficulties of the times. He always felt that solid state physics did not have the particular support, as compared to nuclear and particle physics. How do you feel the situation was? I mean with respect to support, compared to particle and nuclear physics?

Bassani:

For some time, we felt kind of isolated in Italian physics, because the big trend in Italian physics was toward elementary particle and nuclear physics. Particularly elementary particles. Also because of the presence of the big international center in Geneva, CERN. That had a tremendous influence on the development of Italian physics. So we felt, either way in the beginning, some a little bit?? in Italian physics. The situation changed in time after many students and many new people developed, and our work began to be recognized.

Belloni:

The beginning of the GNSM?

Bassani:

Yes, and that was also the beginning of the foundation of the group for the study of the structure of matter of the (Nacional)??

Belloni:

Would you tell us something more about the early times of the organization of the GNSM?

Bassani:

That started as a gathering of people who were interested in this field of research, privately, and it was a kind of private little group, and later we decided to go to the National Research Council to organize, to ask them for support for research in structure of matter, not only for solid state physics, also atomic and molecular physics.

Belloni:

You were Giulotto, Fumi --?

Bassani:

Yes, Giulotto. [Fumi at that time was in the United States.] He came back and joined later. There was Chiarotti. There was [???] and [???] and a few others. It was altogether ten, twelve people who started this organization. Nevertheless, with two purposes: one was to have more communication in a sense and organize meetings, and the other was to organize the financial support, from the National Research Center -- which, after a time, was more readily available. Though it was never abundant. Especially in comparison to the rest of physics.

Belloni:

So you were looking mainly for funding from the National Research Council and you were not much interested in having contacts with industries?

Bassani:

That was always one of our objectives, to have also contacts with industry, but it never materialized to a large extent, because of the difficulty of the intermediate state. When people are involved in fundamental research, and the industry is involved mostly in the production, it is necessary to have a section of development, a kind of people who were interested in the connection between the two, and that kind of people were not readily available.

Belloni:

Why not?

Bassani:

Because the university career on one side, and the career in industry were extremes.

Belloni:

As Professor Fumi said, there were not yet physicists in industry that could bridge the gap.

Bassani:

Now the situation is much improved in this respect.

Belloni:

And no one in Italian industry ever thought that the field would have such a great implications for them.

Bassani:

In the sixties already there was a General Society for the Production of Semiconductors, and the telephone industry of course was already using transistors, and the building of medical equipment, and so on. In the sixties, it was available. But Italian industry depended mostly on patents from the United States. It was thought, (this is my interpretation) that it was too long a process to start from basic research and to transfer the knowledge from basic research directly into production.

Belloni:

You mainly concentrated on National Research Council.

Bassani:

Yes. And later on, at the end of the sixties, the [???] Materia decided to establish some laboratories of the National Research Council, which had the purpose of bridging the gap between the fundamental research and the industrial production.

Belloni:

Fieschi was involved.

Bassani:

Fieschi was involved in the creation of the laboratory at Parma. Then a laboratory was created at Pisa mostly in atomic and molecular physics. And a laboratory on electronics and electronic and magnetic properties was created in Roma and has been directed by Paoletti.

Belloni:

Chiarotti was not involved in this.

Bassani:

Chiarotti now has become the director of a new laboratory, Institute of the Structure of Matter, which has been created in [???] by the [???] also for this purpose.

Belloni:

It was Fieschi who started this laboratory in order to bridge the gap between industry and science?

Bassani:

Yes. I think most of the activity in this direction was carried out by Fieschi and his collaborators, yes.

Belloni:

It was also Fieschi at Milano --

Bassani:

Oh yes. He also did his thesis with Caldirola, and then he went to work on solid state physics with Fumi. We also collaborated during the period when I was in Milano from '52 to '54, and then also after my return. After 1967, I was at the University of Pisa, and then at the University of Roma. I continued working on the optical properties of solids. I got interested in the (non-effects) two photon absorption, two photon transitions, in solids, and the effects of external fields, electric fields and magnetic fields. At that time, during this period, I wrote a book with one of my first students, on the electronic structure of solids. I had other students during this period, who are professors already (long list of names). They are all very good students. If I had to say what was the major satisfaction of having come back to Italy (having worked here for these many years), I would say that the major satisfaction has been the development of such a fine group of physicists, who started working with me and who are now much better.

Belloni:

You're too modest. Well, also Professor Fumi pointed out, there was that school in Varenna in '58, one of the first recognitions of any Italian school in solid state, when I think Mott came, and Seitz, and that was the beginning of a sort of relatively recognized important group in Italy, which was unique on the European scene.

Bassani:

Yes, in fact, the type of theoretical physics connected with experiments, in the field of the structure of matter, did not develop so strongly in other parts of Europe, where the origin of the theoretical physics was mostly in field theory and in elementary particles. This was a different line of work, for which there has been a great demand, and which has produced nice results. And I think that it is a type of physics which established complicated phenomena from the basic point of view of the general theory through a strict contact with experimentalists. I would say, phenomenological theory of condensed matter. And this was quite typical of Italian physics. But I think it originated from the school of science in -- Bardeen, in the United States -- to be accurate, because all the people who were involved in the beginning had been at the University of Illinois.

Belloni:

And it also spread outside of Italy. You taught in Switzerland, at [???]

Bassani:

Yes, on a sabbatical leave, and I had there a very fine collaboration with [???] which still continues. Collaboration on two photon effects, and [???] optics in solids, and in atoms also. We did some work on hydrogen and tronium, I mean, with two photon transitions.

Belloni:

So the Italian school has spread beyond Italy through various collaborations?

Bassani:

Yes, through various collaborations.

Belloni:

You are a member of several editorial boards in both Italian and European journals.

Bassani:

Yes. I was a member for a few years of the editorial board of the Journal of Physics of the British Physical Society, and I'm a member now of the editorial board of [???] and a member of the editorial board of Solid State Communications. I consider these professional activities quite important, because through the selection of the best of the papers which are submitted to journals, one gives an indication and one sets a standard -- a standard for the kind of scientific production. And I must say also one gets first-hand information on what is going on in one's own field, which is also quite important.

Belloni:

I see. Outside this professional activity of research and teaching and refereeing papers, would you say something about [???] Have you ever written any popular articles or books?

Bassani:

No, I have not written popular articles or books. I have given a few conferences here and there. Last week in Milano on symmetry in physics. And some conferences of general interest, and they cost quite a bit of effort. I think they are very important, these kinds of activities, because one sees other things from a more general point of view. At times, in doing research, one is involved too technically in a specific problem, on which one is working, while it is necessary from time to time to think about the general problem, or general problems. And at times an invitation to give a conference on this field, to people who are not really specialists, might be a good thing.

Belloni:

There are not that many conferences on this particular subject, in Italy, in Milano. There are lots of conferences on elementary particle physics, the latest developments in elementary particle physics, or black holes and cosmology, but there are not that many conferences on, that will explain to a lay audience the new elements in solid state. For instance, on physics of condensed matter. This is something that is not very much touched upon in conferences to lay audiences.

Bassani:

Well, at times, this is true. Now there is quite a new interest, in the whole complex phenomenon. I think there is a return of interest, both from the technical point of view, and also from a more general point of view, on the study for instance of phase transitions, of transition to turbulence, on the study of the liquid. There is a return of interest in this field, which was considered more or less totally explained by quantum mechanics. Now we know that in quantum mechanics, we have the fundamental laws for the explanation of these phenomena. It is like having the bricks to build a house, but we have to build the house. And so to understand the phenomena of complexity, on the basis of the elementary law of quantum mechanics, is still a problem. And of great interest. Which, contrasting about the biological [???], related to this question.

Belloni:

This is sort of a recent interest. In the past, you and your group were not that much interested in popularization.

Bassani:

No, we did not have much of a chance. We were deeply involved in research, and we were not many. Then we had the problems of participating in international conferences, to be present on the international scene, and all these aspects. That took up a lot of our efforts. As you might know, when one gets older, one becomes more interested in the general aspects of science.

Belloni:

One more thing about the name of Professor Bassani. He says that he signs his full name: Giuseppe Franco Bassani.

Bassani:

Yes, because as frequently happens in Italy, the mother likes one name, the father likes another name, so we have two names. My mother liked Franco Bassani, so I use that name.

Belloni:

Thank you very much, Professor Bassani.