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Interview of Giuseppe Occhialini by Charles Weiner on 1971 May 17, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/XXXX
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Topics discussed include: Bruno Rossi, Gilberto Bernardini, Ettore Majorana, radioactivity, Antonio Lo Surdo, Antonio Garbasso, Lise Meitner, Ernest Rutherford, C. T. R. Wilson, John Cockcroft, P. M. S. Blackett, Gleb Wataghin, Gian Carlo Wick, Franco Rasetti, Enrico Persico, Dirac's theory, nuclear physics, Emilio Segre, cosmic rays, James Chadwick, Cambridge University, Shimizu, George Gamow, Frederic Joliot, Cavendish laboratory, P. L. Kapitsa, Hans Geiger, Maurice Goldhaber, Victor Weisskopf, David Frisch, Ehrenburg, Carl Anderson, Guglielmo Marconi, Louis de Broglie, P. A. M. Dirac, fellowship from National Council of Research, Arthur Holly Compton, Surgio de Benedetti, Giulio Racah, Sergei Vavilov, University at Sao Paolo, William Bragg, Cecil Powell, sigma star, and pi-meson decay.
Today is 17 May, 1971, and we are starting in again with birds in the background.
You were talking last time about arrival back in Florence. I had asked you questions about the change in the political climate and you had discussed the attitudes of people, the anti-Fascists internally and not so externally, your own approach which was occasional leaflets and things of this type, but the fact that you were leading to, I think, was feeling more and more isolated even within your own working groups, which is a very interesting point and affects a person to a great degree. There may be more to say on that but beyond that I would like to get the details of the kind of research that was going on in the department, what was going on elsewhere in Italy, the relationships between groups of scientists, how other scientific groups might have been affected by this political situation or not affected, depending on their circumstances, leading up to the various complex factors in your decision to leave for Brazil.
Yes. I can tell something up to ‘37. As far as Florence was concerned it was evident that the going away of Bruno Rossi had taken away a good chunk from Florence. Also for the fact that he had taken away a potentially interesting person who was Sergio de Benedetti. De Benedetti was one of the Florence people and when he took his degree Bruno Rossi, during my absence, had won a physics university chair, and had gone to Padua.
You were talking about de Benedetti.
De Benedetti went away to Padua, and Bruno Rossi had got a chair in Padua. He won a chair and they offered him to build a laboratory in Padua, so he left Florence and went to Padua. He was a Venetian, so it is quite evident that this factor of being so near to Venice again where he had a house influenced his decision. So the centers of which I know where they were working were Padua, Florence and Rome, shooting up. Rome was shooting up. It had started in a big way with uranium disintegration and that you can find all about the life of Fermi and about what Amaldi will tell you. They had an elementary group of five and were joined by a young man, Portecorvo, who started from the first. They were absolutely the perfect group.
Rossi spent a lot of his energy in building this lab at the start with the hardware which was necessary to work, and while, in this moment, his activity did not suffer a complete eclipse, the big work suffered out of the fact that possibly the field of investigation was changing definitely, and thus was requiring more perfect apparatus.
The field of cosmic rays.
Yes, this was the only field that there was at this moment in Italy. I cannot tell very much of what was happening in other places for the fact that the three places which were important were cosmic rays and Rome. All the rest I really don’t remember very much. There was Carelli in Naples doing something. There was at the moment Segrè afterwards in ‘36, won a chair, and he went afterwards to Palermo. Then he started working on something that looked very very simple but in reality was extremely important for it was concerning technitium.
In Florence, was left Bernardini, myself, a very very gifted girl called Daria Bucharelli, who was behind me — experimental – and Lorenzo Emo, Francetti. This was more or less all. Work was not very exciting. It was not, I feel, the fault — the surroundings had always been very very difficult. If you went to Florence you would understand. The lab was built on a hill where no cars — to go up and to go down was rather hard. There was very very little money. Amongst the labs our director had not too much political pull so we were not getting very much money.
The director was Bernardini?
Garbasso had died. Then Rossi had left. Rossi was first head, I was first assistant, Daria was second assistant… The Professor was called Loretto Teri — never heard of him — he was very absent, he was giving his lectures and he was not inside. Not only but it was a very very difficult situation in which the real leader of the laboratory was Bernardini. He [the Professor] was always feeling that he was an outsider, and he was considering all of us as a group of scatter-brains who wanted to spend money. He didn’t understand what we were doing and he was feeling that — since he was out of the things, he was not exactly obstructing, but he didn’t do very much. Second, we committed the easy error of underrating him so that everyone around was sympathizing with this brilliant group of young people who were in Florence with a professor who was not inspiring, but the fact that he was not inspiring was after all inducing people not to give to the laboratory very much money. So it was a kind of closed circle, for which in part we were responsible.
Then started the sanctions. They were not extremely effective. I remember that within a few weeks there was a little bit of confusion for rules put down to economize electricity and so on.
The League of Nations sanctions against Italy which affected the economy.
Well, it didn’t affect very much the economy, but it was taken in a way as a bit of pretext by the directors to take the thing in their hands. There was a rule which came from outside that we would protest when there were things we didn’t like very much in the free way in which they go, asking people not to spend so much in lights.
A state of emergency.
Every time there is a state of emergency in an organization it is always used by the people who are on top to affirm their desire for control, putting down certain rules which go together with the emergency.
At this time the work was cosmic ray and gamma ray. I started working the Wilson chamber, and there I mucked it completely. Why? To do things you must have a workshop, you must have people working with you. Just working with students who, after all, were not interested in the thing. Without a workshop — fight for the work in the workshop. This building of this Wilson chamber was a long-range work. I was feeling that the important thing when I finished would be done anyhow, and that I would have lost any chance, since I would not have got the money for the magnetic field, and in the place there was not enough current anyhow for a magnetic field.
The building of the thing was — an order. Most of all it was for displaying the kind of idea of uselessness, the idea that anyhow there was going to be a war sometime and then everything would have been stopped — this kind of certitude. This, of course, was much stronger for people like me who wanted the regime to be toppled than for people who were feeling that, after all, the regime has done a lot of bad things but this colonial venture was something which was historically justified. We were only doing late what France and England had done. People were expecting to find petrol for then it was the great idea that you should find wet petrol in Libya, but they did not know that you could not take it out — it was too deep. I never went into this — they were feeling that therefore in this country there was a big future, so if only people could just coast, wait, then everything would have been all right.
For people like me, on the contrary, every night when I was going to bed, I was kneeling near my bed, asking, “let me for once be right, let me for once be right.” Every day I was seeing the confirmation that I was wrong in every newspaper that was coming — there was not this great hope. Then at this moment, in this kind of discouragement, we got a very good source of thorium C.”
It was bought by CNR. It was lent to us. There I started playing, trying to see the fusion of gamma rays but the field was already played out. It had been very very strong going in 1930. In 1931 after the positive electron, people knew that they were only to find out – my measurement had been, I think, rather accurate, and it practically was interrupted when I left for Brazil. Then the source was taken by Daria Bucharelli who set up a trochoid – put the source in a magnetic field so that she should get positive electron production. Then, I left, when I came back — Bernardini went, felt that the fight in the affairs with Florence was hopeless and withdrew.
That was pretty late, wasn’t it?
That was after I left. When I left all the team was still there. When I came back —
Which was when? When did you leave and when did you come back?
I left in July 1937. I came back in January 1938 in the holidays. I arrived very late for I started very late. I should have arrived in December and then I found that at this moment the racial law had started. Racah was out. Racah had left. He had left already when I had gone, for he was half in Pisa and half in Florence. But when I came back, if I remember well Bernardini was in a small university called Camerino and he was shifting to Rome. This I don’t remember for the situation was practically empty. There was left Francetti. Daria, I think was still there, but she was getting ready to go as assistant to Perugia. She abandoned Florence too, and that was that… You feel that everyone went his own way. Bruno Rossi had already left Italy to go to Copenhagen and then from Copenhagen he went to Manchester where Blackett was. This is one of the men if you want to know about refugees — Bruno Rossi. Maybe you know him already.
I haven’t really talked with him but I will when I get back.
Bruno Rossi is in Italy at this moment.
For how long?
He will stay one month more. I met him in Pisa ten days ago. When I went to visit (???) he was in Pisa. At this moment he is in Sicily at summer school in (???).
OK, so you are pointing out how much the situation had changed. It seems to have changed much more in that one year than it had changed in the three preceding years — in the six months of your absence. It was only six months. OOCHIALINI: Yes, in the six months of my absence, everything had happened out of the fact that in one flash the racial laws had come in Italy. At this moment, from one day to another — I was not here — I think that people found themselves just looking at the whole. They always thought they had confidence in Mussolini, so they were feeling that however risky, this was a genius, the man who had kept them in the adventure — for he was extremely intelligent. He had the same qualities that you have in a mountain guide — the place looks very different. They said, “We don’t need to worry.” The general mood was reflected in one song: “We shall never be alone. Someone will guide us. T’will be a leader strong and intelligent. Mussolini has come to Tyrol.” Then they started having some doubts that maybe — they were already having doubts at the moment of Austria. When did Austria come? Very likely it came in ‘38. I remember I was going to England and they practically didn’t allow me to land for they thought that I was a refugee, so they didn’t want to let me in England.
But there was this kind of idea of catastrophes, for they were feeling now that this product that Mussolini said could not be exported, which was Fascism, not only had been exported but it had come back with a bang.
I remember in places — when I did arrive in the old restaurant where I had been eating and where I was talking to people, very much alone; the situation had completely changed. People now see me coming back, and I had the impression that there was a definite desire from the people to be friends.
Emo too left, I think he left soon afterwards for when I came back I found him, and I remember when I came back after going away I found a box full of neckties. Emo was extremely generous, and he was the only one of us who had some money — he had not as much as we thought, as a matter of fact — and then he left. He went to the United States.
He didn’t leave because of the racial laws; he left because of the job.
No, no, Emo had left, I think, just for the fact that he wanted to visit a girl in the American desert. I suppose that it was the one whom he married afterwards.
But then I have the feeling that when I came back, either Emo was there who had come back — I don’t know — there is a bit of a blank here. I arrived in Florence and there was this situation which was very much centered around Racah. All the people who were in the mountains they knew. Everyone in the university who knew us was thunderstruck — really when I arrived in January, in the morning there was in the newspaper that Racah had forgotten in one taxi a purse — mapa(?) — with one million lire. One million lire at this moment is $1600 and multiple it today — it was $200,000 — left in a taxi. He said he had met one man and then had gone out of the taxi and this money had been left. The taxi brought it to the police and then everyone was wondering — the newspapers — in Florence it was a shock to say — they knew everyone — the Jewish professor Racah, why did he do it. They were absolutely angry. [Interruption]
All right, so this was the tragical atmosphere.
You were in the middle of the Racah story.
Yes, then I think he explained. They couldn’t prove anything, and also there was a lot of pull from every side. But after all Fermi had left two months before. He had already left. It was ‘37 the racial laws. It was extraordinary that in a flash all that I had predicted came true… [Interval]
When did the racial laws come out? You came back on January 6th — you said you remembered that date — 1938. Do you recall when the laws came out? We can look it up.
It might have been afterwards for since I arrived rather late. I came back maybe from the boat on the 6th. Then I rushed to Rome for the question of passport and so on. Then I came back — and it might have been the 10th or the 12th — let me try to be accurate or at least to throw it out.
What I meant, were the racial laws already passed by the time you came back or was it after?
I think, and here I have difficulty for whatever happened while I was in a place where there are no seasons, like Brazil, it is very difficult to localize. Also, if you live where you don’t have friends, it is a different world. All my dates are fairly accurate for I know it happened… before so-and-so went somewhere — I can bracket it — but it is certain that the racial laws came before the Nobel Prize trip of Fermi. Even then Segrè had gone away. Rasetti had already gone away one year ago. I never knew why. He decided he should go to Canada – he wanted to change air, that is to say, very likely the strong stuff of this agitated work in the end had broken the nerves of many of the people of the team, and Rasetti was among them.
I think that is an interesting possibility.
You should ask Rasetti.
I talked with him in Rome by telephone. He was just leaving town so we couldn’t get together, but we talked and will stay in touch.
He is very difficult, terribly difficult. I talked to him a few days ago and he is very —
Let me ask one other question about those laws. I assume they were similar to the German laws in terms of people who were government employees had to meet certain racial qualifications –
Getting back to your coming to Florence for a minute did you either bring any equipment, any apparatus with you from Cambridge or London, when you came in 1934 to take up your position? You had to build a Wilson chamber —
No, I didn’t bring absolutely anything — nothing at all. I only brought a group of notes and a beautiful bibliography. I wrote for personal documents, of letters, and of reprints and they were not received. When I went away I brought all papers I could in Brazil for I was feeling they needed it. My croup of reprints was the most precious thing that I had. Some of them were completely out of print and xerox did not exist then.
Did you get any materials from them in the three years you were in Florence, any apparatus or any parts?
From your old friends in Cambridge or London.
My old friends in Cambridge — well, to me, Cambridge was an organization. The people in London was Blackett. The only material which I got — there was a moment in which I got interested in working while I was in Florence in photographic detection of particles for I thought that this was the chief thing. Then I wrote Blackett and Blackett sent me through a girl, called Mary Hartley, two boxes of infrared halftone plates. It was the kind of things that was at this moment starting. I put… alpha particles I don’t know how I tried them, but when I developed them they were black. This had been my first attempt at nuclear emulsion effort, possibly in 1936, which I had to take up again eight years afterwards. So this was a complete flop. Why was it a complete flop? In Florence really I think that what I did was to take gamma rays and to cut a series of bits and then to bang gamma rays a distance, just to see the type of blackening it was producing, and put them under the microscope. Then the idea that I had to get a polonium beryllium source in order to get neutrons so that I could start using things and start investigating neutron tracks to determine what you could have. This is what I was planning with the two boxes. I have the impression even now that they were no good. This was the only apparatus which I did ask about.
Yes, when I went from Brazil the second time I came back, which was the last time, I arrived in Manchester and Blackett, when I arrived, brought me in a room and there was all the bits of a Wilson chamber. “I had asked when they built this to have another one done for you. It is yours if you want to take it to Brazil.” And I said, “Look here, I think that I might.” So I spent a month in Manchester with the illusion that I could put all of it together and it could work — I could make it work there. And in this, of course I did succeed, but I built even the wood and the enclampment. I built the thing. I built the valve. I built everything. I took the lamp. I bought the lamps. I bought the cameras. I had the cameras built and so on. I bought all of it with my own money.
Did it work?
It worked wonderfully in Brazil but I could not get rid of a tremendous amount of noise in tracts which there was. I changed it in places. I discovered that all of Brazil was practically — every expansion was black with tracks — so I started again. I started again playing at cleaning the thing. I put lead from every side and so on. Then I realized that maybe since I had built again the partment(?) of the thing the sand on which the cement had been done was radioactive.
Is the Wilson chamber the kind of thing that requires special facilities to be built? By this I mean, could you have started from scratch yourself, either in Florence or — you did, didn’t you?
Yes, I could if I had had enough guts.
I could if I had organized myself, if I had not fallen into a kind of religious depression, I could.
I could, for after all I remember that a good friend of my father gave me a gift for a start of 10,000 lire. Then I got the Celle Prize, 3,000 lire, making 13,000. Then I got another prize of 10,000. With the first prize I paid a part of my debts. I sent some of the money which I was owing to Emo and Portevista. Portevista was already in England and had sent me a check and he was very very hurt when I gave back the money to him. Then I bought a motorbike. It was the only thing that kept me alive… As I told you the other day I was dreaming when I left, of using the money from the fellowship in 1931 to buy a motorbike for the first three months only. All right with this money and all the rest which I could put on, after three years I was without a motorbike — still I think that I deserved to have a motorbike.
Then I had this… typical… all the causes from depression, this bit of loneliness of which I gave you one example. There have been others. Then I was, as I remember, pretty desperate. I was womanizing quite a lot and I was completely isolated. Apart from one or two friends I could not talk to anybody any more. I became allergic to newspapers. The only thing which I could do was to go to pass some time in the library in Florence. It was an international library and I would just try to select those books which would keep my Englishness alive.
Another story of a bit of a friendly persecution from people due to my English background; everyone was against England, against the British. I remember when King George V died, they sent me friendly letters of consolation for my king… this was not only the people who were Fascist, it was in a kind of way accepted — an example of a coarse joke going around.
I was trying to reconstruct something from the period. I wanted to get some other circumstances besides the apparatus. Did you ever get the Wilson chamber going in Florence.
In Florence, no. I started building something and when I went away I was building something but it would have taken a long time to put it in order. When I left, my friend Francetti left too for he was a Jew. But when I came back in 1947-48 I found out that he had salvaged the copper and brass bits of the chamber to which I had given a rather complicated recepting cycle and made out of it an intelligent thing. It was my fault, as I say, for I could have possibly built a straight-forward Wilson chamber. From the other side, I was obsessed… At the time the small Wilson chamber was finished, so I wanted to build what was called a giant chamber. Well, for the giant chamber, when I made the calculation I found out that there was not enough money.
I had gotten involved in this giant chamber for I had spoken to Blackett before going, and he said to me, “This is made. You cannot do it.” “Why can’t I do it?” “Well,” he said, “it takes very good engineering design and to build the valve is an engineering job. You will find that you will spend a good part and so on.” “But I think I can solve the problem,” I said, “in a very simple way so that the design for it.” Then, when I went in ’38 in Manchester I found Wilson was the assistant of Blackett. And then again this argument of the engineering job came. I said, “Look here, Blackett, now I can tell you how it can be done.” Wilson said, “Yes, yes, it can.” “All right, how do you say that it can?” “I did it.” “Where is it?” He said, “I did it in my Ph.D. thesis in Cambridge two years ago when I was with C. T. R. Wilson.” So the work could be done but everything was me putting up but taking a lot. Then Bernardini suggested I should go to Marconi. This was the way.
This was before Manchester, no?
This was before the Manchester.
This was before you left for Brazil for the first time?
Yes, before I went to Brazil.
Well, sorry, you were asking about the Wilson chamber. About the Wilson chamber, I start again. I had ideas. I had the idea that Blackett had forsaken this Wilson chamber, which was as big as this, thinking that nothing else could be done to it. He has taken away the magnetic field out of it so that it did not seem that it was any great use at this moment to start and put it in condition to take the same photos for then I could have insisted that it should be left in Cambridge in working order rather than to bring it in Birkbeck just for trip to make a kind of training instrument, a kind of trial chamber. My idea was that the thing to be done was the giant chamber. On this I had been thinking during the last month in Cambridge and there was some reason for doing this. Also the business of magnetic field. The line which Blackett had taken was to have not a big chamber but a very big magnetic field. I thought that with a bugger chamber — now, if you look at the relation between the current and the radius, you will find out that the bigger you make the chamber. You have the most advantage in using the power which is at your disposal for building a magnetic field in a big space. Do you understand? If you start with a small magnet you find out that while you are increasing the size you don’t increase the power in a proportionate way, so you have advantage.
Then Bernardini suggested that Marconi should help. Well, Emo brought me in his car to Venice, I had written a letter to Marconi. Marconi said that I should come to him. Then there was a short – standing there a letter was called. When I arrived there there was another man who was called Marconi too, which was his assistant, called De Marco. This Marconi greeted me instead of Marconi and gave me a letter. I took the letter. It is still some place for I left it in Brazil. I never used it. It was a letter written evidently by his secretary with a signature in Marconi’s script on top of it, in which it was a nice letter saying that “I think that what Dr. Occhialini wants to do is worthy of help, and so on. I recommend and so on.”
When I got it back to the professor, he said, “So you went to see Marconi,” and I showed him the letter. He had a fit. He said, “This letter doesn’t mean absolutely anything.” Here is the President of the National Council of Research. I don’t know if he was really the President of the Academy — if the Academy did exist or not… Either he asks you what you want to build this thing — for I brought him certain plans which were wrong, the thing was very very big, and soon afterwards, I decided my plans were correct for C. T. R. Wilson has shown that you don’t need a piston and then you can do it with rubber in the place of the piston, and then the engineering problem of having something which is as big as this which flies, stops, was solved. At this moment I was thinking of using a copper or a steel plate… but I discovered that if you put lead — this was the great second Wilson chamber which had been the origin of all the work that had been done on cosmic rays up to the War — you damp the expansion and you make the movement of thing level up by introducing a space chamber to separate your Wilson chamber with a very thick net, then when you have something that sucks in.
Now I knew that this was possible for I was coming out of England so I said, if I do remember now, “Thank you for helping me, for summing it up.” A small Wilson chamber I had already been working on. I did not have any much confidence — if I should do something I should have some kind of breakthrough. Black was involved in high magnetic field with which he could curve particle. I wanted to have big space for the complication of the phenomenon wanted to be done. I was right. I was right. As a matter of fact, the chamber which Blackett built, which you could see through a hole in Anderson way, always did work, and was working even in ‘47 when they decided to send it to the Pic du Midi. But it was still the same, that is to say, the poor chamber had already come in ‘47 at the end of its road. It was only by bringing it to the mountain that they could hope, but Peyrou was the École Polytechnique and Gregory and Herb Bridge of MIT — you will notice that I put the emphasis on the people who did the work and not on the leaders, at this moment. Sometimes it is right, sometimes it is wrong. I hope I’m fair. I think I am fair.
So there was no point in not having at your disposal 20,000 gauss — impossible, absolutely — for one, not having this magnet which would cost a lot of money. You need a special grant from someone. I was hoping that I could have from Marconi a special grant and then I knew very well what I could do. I could ask for bekinations(?). This was the important thing. At the moment when I decided that I couldn’t do that, all the work on the Wilson chamber went down.
You asked them, though, specifically for a grant and got a letter instead?
I remember that in Florence I had a group of friends. One of them was a designer. I concocted what is called a project, in which I was showing what it should be. It was a chamber of horrors, now that I think about it — there were mistakes. First of all, it was horizontal. It was drawn horizontally and when I made the sketches I made it vertical but the man thought it was better to have it horizontal, so I put it horizontal and then he put a little man — it was the size of this — standing there, so I had to leave by car to bring it to Venice. It was two or three pages, written, rather vague, at least I was saying that with special artifice it would have been possible to illumination, and so on.
Just raise what you can out of this for it came out impromptu, for I had really forgotten. It came back from this question of recalling the first of the trip, the fact that I went to this place called Officinea Galileo in Florence and I went with Emo asking them if they could help me and they told me that yes. (???) had been smiling. A few days afterwards, I heard that they had said to someone I knew that absolutely, they had just heard of me, but they were not dreaming of spending neither one penny nor to put any organization to give me help.
Would they have been in the position to make a grant? What is the Officinea Galileo?
This was the Florence workshop — industry — it was the biggest Florentine industry. They had known me since childhood. They had known my father. In the same industry was a friend of mine, who now is the director, and he was not there at the top of things. Then it was this friend of mine who said to me, “Look here, I heard the (???) talked about. If Occhialini comes again, just be kind to him but —.” The same man who told me this is Director-General of Officinea Galileo. Three or four years ago he came here. I said that he should set down a University Chair in Florence for special research. They have done it. They have deposited in a bank the money to pay a professor his wages. They gave to this professor — who is a former assistant of my Chair — a little house out of use nearby. They gave him all the possibilities of the workshop so the scientific activity could be performed. My friends say, “All right. This is a kind of reclaim for everything.” I have a letter here which shows this. It is written Laboratory of Space Research…
So the reply you asked, if they had the means or not, it may be idle — I was asking for much less. They had certainly the means and they had interests in other directions. Very likely I made my point in a very disorderly way. I did not sell my goods very aptly as I generally do.
This I dearly loved [referring to document] and from this I am extremely happy to have learned my lesson. Here.
[Reading] Do set down this our will and testament believing man responsible for what he does, sole author of his terror and his confidence.
[Talks while pacing]… (Interval)
All right. Let me ask this question: when you went to this industry in Florence for support of the giant chamber, was it after you had gone to Marconi?
You had gone to Marconi with the idea of getting a grant because what you got out of it was a letter?
I went to Marconi with the idea that all the power in Italy was there and that this was the only place from where I could hope to get total general help without reaching towards the floor and starting again. It is not as it is nowadays. All right, I could have all the money which I want, but if I don’t have the money to pay people of if the workshop, the industry which builds it, is at a distance of 100 kilometers from here and I need 700 lire a month and I don’t even have the money to go there to look at what happens. Now, the situation has changed very very much, as we were saying yesterday, and this was the story about — once, if I wanted to move, I should have paid for it. I never used the phone for long distance: it was too expensive. Now it is a very affluent society.
As I told you, the first time in my life in which I went in a sleeping car was in 1938 in Brazil and when I travelled with Compton in ‘39… we travelled together from Sao Paulo to Rio. Otherwise all my displacement between Florence and London were done second-class. This you can do, of course, when you are young. Imagine, you arrive in Geneva and then you wait for another train which takes you to Paris, and then you arrive in Paris, and so on. You do it without friends. Now it is different. I can phone to someone and pass some hours and so on.
Let me ask some questions, getting back to this business. The CNR would have been the place to which you could have applied directly for a grant.
Yes, but this I could have done through my professor. All right. I suppose that I should have drafted a kind of plan that the money was not very very much. My professor was not very powerful for I had also disauthorized him through the fact — so here there was not the typical question. The man was a bit of a fool, and he suffered from an inferiority complex. He was living in a place where people like me and Bernardini were childishly begrudging him for being in the place of the very generous and very intelligent Garbasso. Out of this had come the circle there that we were denying authority to him and people would never give money to a laboratory so that poor Occhialini could receive half… So this was the thing. In this letter which I showed you yesterday evening which I have seen only yesterday evening, there was practically a proposal for me to work in Turin from Professor Perucha(?). This came and this I never knew. But my father never felt that I would have left Florence and this kind of tense atmosphere where we tried to keep, to watch the dead in Florence.
Really, the situation was that it could have been done. Now I tell you the last thing. I discussed it with my father. My father said, “Well, there is one way. I still keep my attitude of silence and anti-Fascism. You — should go to the Fascist authorities and beg them, I will not be sorry.” It was not possible [for me]. The only way was to go to Marconi who in a way had assisted in starting part of my work and to us inside the regime his power to get the money without being a part of the system. You might call it very meretricious but I don’t care what you do, you see, just getting the money through Marconi directly, for he believed that by planning something which is intelligent and going and giving a speech, being one of them — you have seen the speech of Corbino?
The 1934 speech, yes.
This was the real idea. In 1934 he came back. This was the real attitude. “I had a conversion and I declare that I believe in this regime. Now please give me the money so that I can prove that you are great.” Do you understand it?
Yes, so you too can have a newspaper headline which will say “The Victory of Fascism — Italian Science Makes an International Contribution” which is what that headline said. [Interval]
As I was trying to tell you yesterday night, when a man refuses, he does it for several reasons, and that sometimes they make such a scene for me of motives that one of them is not good enough. The disappointment was total and in a kind of desire of self-destruction in my first version I put only a kind of political atmosphere. There was my political atmosphere and there was my neurosis. Now, it came out that what I wanted to undertake could have been done in England at this moment but none of the political forces, none of the industrial forces would help me. So I remained with this 10,000 lire which I could have spent — where I started building something but my heart was never into it for I wanted it to be an apparatus that would have been good to work for the 145 or 46. When I did work seriously, this has been the way in which I did always work. I always have been looking at the future. I always felt that if you must do what everybody does, at a certain moment it is no good. You should, like a good businessman, do what people will do next year. I learned from the Western that you never draw a gun if you are not ready to shoot and you know how to shoot. When you start building an organization, you cannot do it on the faint hope that some help will materialize, that there is not going to be any war, and so on.
From the other side, when Mussolini started the Abyssinian War, I was sure that in one year Fascism would be finished and that the English would have landed in Austria and that they would have cleaned all, so that maybe it would be better not to compromise myself.
Let me ask you a few specific questions that fill in some of the gaps. Were there any newspaper attacks on scientists or physicists? Like this question of someone is in the laboratory making Jewish physics, or something like that kind of attack that they had in Germany?
Yes, there was only one example in Italy. And I want to be absolutely clear that there was only one, for sometime ago from a friend of mine I heard attributed the attack by Professor Cocconi, who was in CERN, to someone. It is not right.
He was telling you that someone had made this attack?
No, I know the story and the story is different. Without making the other name, you see I only want to be on record.
You’re discounting it in case I hear it.
Or in case you have already heard it. Never mind. In a case like this I always prefer not only to give you my opinion but to tell that the opinion of other people might be different, that I am right and they are wrong. I forgot the name but it will come.
Now, Bruno Rossi left. A group of people applied for it in Padua. One of the people who applied was Bernardini. He applied for the fact that Rossi leaving, said that he would be extremely happy if it might have been left in the hands of Bernardini. It would have been a rather good thing for then when the war would have been finished I am sure that Bernardini would have got a pilgrimage to ask to put at the disposal of Rossi this place again. Other people asked. One of them, whose name you can set down, was Ivo Ranzi. He asked to get there. He was a Bologna man. He had been working with Bruno Rossi. Rossi had a lot of esteem for him. He had been investigating heaviside layer by a method which he had invented. When Rossi made his expedition to Asmara, Ivo Ranzi went with him. He was a part of the same scientific expedition. Asmara is in Abyssinia. There was a Padua expedition from CNR and they went to study cosmic rays near the equator, and Ivo Ranzi was a part of that. So they were friends.
Ivo Ranzi took the line of Stark. He asked to go in Padua in this place by saying that after all he was the only Italian physicist who was not guilty of making Jewish physics. You will ask what physics was he doing. He was simply working on Hertzian waves and as you know Hertz was a very good Aryan. This is lovely. This, I do remember, for it was told to me. This man during the war played an infamous part. He helped SS to search laboratories. When the Germans did retreat he went personally with his Iron Cross to sack the laboratories and to indicate what he knew that they had. I know that Daria Bucharelli, the girl which I spoke about, was quite heroical for there was radium and she hid the radium. People in Florence and their colleagues were hiding their things for this conjuror of death was trying to raze things so that the retreating Germans could bring them towards the North, collecting apparatus. Everyone was hiding apparatus. They were leaving only the cheapest things for they were afraid — they were sacked, pillaged. So this was the man. You have an example of this. That was all.
That’s all you know. There was nothing you know about the Rome group. Was the Rome group subject to any attack? After all, Wick was an anti-Fascist.
Yes, Wick was an anti-Fascist. I know that he was an anti-Fascist. I had the impression — his mother was English — that Wick kept quiet. Why did I have the impression? Well, as I told you, there were four people that kind of declared way, whatever was their state, anti-Fascist, and one of them was Wick. I told you the names of the other three — de Benedetti, Portecorvo and me. These were the people with whom I could talk, and be sure that in ten days time I will not have to quarrel again just because you said this. When I met Portecorvo in England after the war, he said — Wick had been living in the States — that in a kind of surprising way, Amaldi, who was not an old anti-Fascist, had done — the group in Rome was in the situation in which I would have liked to be. They had their help coming from the government. They had their help coming from Fermi. Fermi did not need to make a political profession to get what he wanted.
Do you understand the idea? For example, during the war, I had been told that Amaldi was absolutely exemplary. He told me, and sometimes in a kind of devious and hypocritical way if you ask a question to people, you might just be interested and so on — ask him that you are interested in the kind of way in which the Jewish Italians could during these years keep on having a culture. Where they are finding the books? In whose house they were received so that they could talk about it and so on? Ask Amaldi. And if you ask this question in the right way, he will tell you in whose house.
This happened. It was his house.
That is very interesting.
He was the only one who was left.
He pulled people together out of the nucleus of the Rome group.
They had Bernardini, they had Feretti, who became the theoretical physicist. Then there was Bucharelli who had gone from Perugia to work in the Sanita. She abandoned the university. She wanted to work in the Sanita, which is where they do biological work.
Yes, and then there came a group of young people like Pancini, Conversi, Piccioni. They went on working on the original Rossi line. They took the attitude that since the political situation was hopeless, at least they could make physics. They didn’t make any contribution at all to Fascism.
When the Civil War started, Pancini actually — I never could know from him the story, but he is credited for having destroyed the Herman Goering Division. He was the electrician of the place — the electronical man — and he built a system of transmitting stations with bits and so on. Then he was in contact with the bomb command and he succeeded in following the German Goering Division and he succeeded in calling the Allied Bomber Command when they were in (???). This was apparently the most brilliant action of Pancini.
Let me get back to ask about your publications during the three-year period. Did you do anything that led to specific publications? We are talking about the period from when you left London to the time you left Florence.
I made one technical notes — I made a publication on the boron beryllium radiation, that is to say, I took all the photos which I had taken for the positive electron stuff and I analyzed them — I found out that the spectrum was ending at a certain point. Then I wrote a letter to Chadwick sending him the results and offering him co-publication since it had been done with his sources. Well, he generously said that it didn’t matter. [Interruption]
When we had left off I had asked a question about the research during this period which led to publications. We had talked about other things —
Yes, I told you about the paper and Chadwick — then there was all this work, very painful work, in scattering of gamma rays which went on. It was nearly finished when I went to Brazil. Then I put it in a Congress and they gave the cards and I was finished with it, so ‘34 to ‘37, fundamentally no publications. There was the stupid work of fighting for the Wilson chamber.
You mentioned two prizes. What were they for and who gave them?
One of them, as I said, is the first important prize which I received, which mattered. This is given to a research assistant, that is to say, “Poor guy, for an assistant professor, pretty good,” and then they gave him this prize – Celle(?) — of 3,000 lire. As a matter of fact, whenever they ask me what are my honors, I say I got the Celle Prize. [Interruption]
Let me remind you: we were talking about the two prizes. You told what you did with the money but you didn’t explain really about the prizes. The Celle Prize you explained was for the Assistant Professor. You had almost gotten through with that and then you were going to tell me about the other one which was larger, I believe.
No, the other one was a prize of 25 pounds.
Let’s so back to the Celle Prize, then. How much was it, exactly when did you get it, and what was the specific reason that they said?
I cannot tell you. It is in these clippings or newspapers which my mother or my father collected, so I cannot tell you when it was. I suppose it was in 1934. This was the prize. Then there was another industrial prize called the Palauri(?) Prize, and with this I got the motorbike.
When did that come?
It came almost in the same year.
Well, I had come out in Italy and at this moment the wind was blowing in my way. I was existing and they had a prize and people were thinking about my name at this moment.
Specifically they said something, didn’t they? They said, we’re giving it to Occhialini because of his work on so-and-so.
Sorry, this is certainly contained in some (???) which I don’t have.
But it may be in those clippings which I am borrowing.
It is like the most celebrated possession which I have, the C. V. Boys Prize.
Soap bubbles Boys? He is the one who did the book on soap bubbles.
Yes, and this is a 25-pound prize which is given in England and this is the most important thing which I did receive, I liked the idea of the 25 pounds, I liked too the idea that someone in England appreciated that I was working there. It is very very simple. When you get it from your own country, from your own people, it does not matter very very much. But you feel that you have wasted a bit of your time when — you know, in Florence, in the Cathedral, the Domo, there are two paintings. One of them is indicated to a contetiero(?) called Giovanni Ocuto(?) — John Occult(?) — he was an Englishman who did ask for a certain time to take care of troops and so on, and I think that it must have pleased him a lot to be put inside the major church of Florence just for service rendered. The Boys Prize was equivalent, so I was very very happy. It does not carry very much, but this prize was got by Ruches(?) and Butler. Some years before it had been given to Powell. So it is something which is given to promising people for achievement.
When did you get it? What year?
I got it, I think, in 1950.
I see. I thought for a while you were talking about the earlier period.
I got it in ‘50.
So that was later. There were two Italian prizes you mentioned — one was 10,000 lire.
The 10,000 lire was the Valauri(?) Prize which I got in ‘34, and the Celle Prize which I got in ‘34, and I think it was ‘34 — you will find it in the newspapers that it is this. The Valauri Prize was divided — given to two people — one of them is the engineer who invented the principle, which is called teledynamo (I never met him), he was called Pesterini(?) — and the other half was given to me. With this I bought an MW, 2 cylinders 750 cubic centimeters motorbike.
That was a good piece of apparatus.
It was a wonderful thing — the best thing that existed at the moment.
Let me ask a few specific questions which when I am through with them will get on to the specific circumstances of leaving for Brazil. We have the general circumstances but not the specific ones. The questions — on the three years in Florence: What about teaching duties?
Teaching duties — I was assistant. I had practicum.
What does that mean?
Exercise of physics.
For what level of students?
For the second and third-year students.
The architectural students were in a physics class that you taught?
There was a physics class and I needed some money. Apart from the assistant, which was carrying a rather small teaching, I was giving this course in physics. I bought a small motorbike and this was very very hard. While I was at the architectural school — correct — Racah phoned me compliments. “At this moment I hear that you got the prima Celle.” I said, “Hell, how much is it?” “It is 10,000.” Then I remember that I went out from school, crossing the streets of Florence at 70 kilometers an hour. I was like drunk on this idea that I have this money coming to me. I did realize that I was in danger for I was driving like a fool, but out of the news of this money I was like drunk. I remember passing the Domo and so on. I did not kill myself, but when I think about this there was one time in which I could have got killed driving in ecstasy — it was then. When I arrived I remember one film with John Garfield in which there is a man who drives — he has been told that there is money coming to him — in a car, and he is in the snow, and then he disappeared — ice.
So how many hours a week did your teaching duties require?
What I had was not very much — for this attention to the people. It was not a really very important job for we had a certain number of exercises set. People would go and do a bit here and a bit there and then they would rush in and were cross — it should be put in order and a person should arrange the apparatus — you were there and then you would come back and do your business and eventually to finish reading an article. But sometimes there was the assistant to the lecture of the professor, but after all, in ‘34, Garbasso died, and Teri had a different style so he didn’t need very much assistance. But before when I first got my degree and then my job of assistant-in-charge — the first year after my doctorship, when I was not paid, then I was supreme assistant, completely unpaid — and then I had a lot of work for I was supposed to, in two or three days to prove what was the velocity of a bullet coming out from a revolver, just in a place where there was absolutely nothing. This required a lot of ingenuity, taking some apparatus in the museum and making it work; to take something which had never worked and then to trick it in such a way that it would give the right results. I remember the typical thing was the Atwood machine. Do you know what it is?
Yes, the old gravity machine, isn’t it?
Yes, you must pull one string. The moment at which you pull the string it depends which are the results. So from midnight up to two o’clock I would know at what moment to pull the string.
But I never had any important teaching duties, and as a matter of fact, I completely denied teaching duties. I cannot hold my attention enough. I am subjected always to moments of anguish, of anger, and of sleeplessness, which influences me very much and fouls up — if I want to deliver a very very good lecture I need, let’s say, ten days to prepare it. Since in my career I never had the time, enough years to accumulate ten days, ten days and then in the end everyone has… and there is also timidity, tremendous timidity. I don’t like to talk in public. I need really to be scared stiff to talk in public. This happens also in scientific meetings and so on. I suffer a lot. I am a perfectionist, and I have also, what I think is very important, this low pressure business, which affects me. The other day I was travelling in the train and the same fact of thinking, reviving certain moments, I had my hands completely frozen. I came down from the train… was not standing on my legs.
Is this a continuing condition that you have had for a long time?
I think that whatever I have done in my life has been done in intervals, between moments, in which I had normal pressure. Even now, for example, if I must go to a meeting of the faculty, it gets me here. Just to be with more than two or three people is a tough job, and on certain occasions, I think about it, deliberation, to fight against it. On certain occasions, fighting is not enough.
Altogether I am not a good lecturer. I am a very bad lecturer. In the important parts of my life has been spent sometimes in going to bed at two or three o’clock in the morning and I could not produce things when I do this. In the morning I am completely empty. There is something — I don’t know if it happens to everyone — I noticed it in mountains. In skiing, racing, it is always very bad. There is a certain point in which you come out only in the distance. If you must do mountain climbing, the first quarter of an hour when the climb starts has always been agony. I explored caves alone, and I will tell you, the discontinuity from the moment in which you get in, when you step in a cave before entering the cave, half an hour in front, just waiting, waiting, and then you get in. You allow time to pass. You allow the fear to burn itself. It is the same thing on some occasion when you are ready to place bumps, to dynamite, to blow up.
On one occasion I was alone at this cave and I knew that there were things which I was not knowing. I had no experience and I had to invent all over the place. I lost a lot of time. And then I was feeling I was scared stiff until a moment when I didn’t care what happened any more. So then I did understand — I read the story in which — it is like fools’ fear. You burn it. Once you have burnt it, there is nothing left. It is what happens when you jump in water. When you jump in water, you have taken off expiration, and then you climb. If you expire enough, you lose practically the desire of breathing. Then you must look at the watch to know that you must emerge.
It is the same thing if I must deliver a one-hour lecture. It is after 30 minutes that I am ready, warm, tuned up. On some occasions it happened that after 45 minutes, when the lecture is almost finished, that I start then. It is very very difficult to make me stop for after the one moment when I pass the barrier. But generally when you are in a meeting, the moment at which you start getting warm is the moment at which the chairman tells you to stop. Then you go out in misery, knowing that — all of this I know. It is associated with this kind of thing, but I tell you that I was not a coward because they must give me the time to destroy my fear.
I had also this question — when I was a child, I had 50 pressure(?), so when I had 70 I was feverish. But no one ever had temperature. They were looking at the thermometer and sending me to school, forcing me to go to school at 36.8, and I was not standing on my legs. At 36.8 I was feverish. I know only now that is so.
Is there any medication that one takes for this?
I’m a queer fellow. It is the story which happens to all the people with low pressure. They start being alive at 11:00. At 11:00 when everyone is going to sleep, these people start feeling. If I could only lecture from midnight to three o’clock, it would be paradise. But I must lecture in the morning.
Let me summarize then, not what you said, but specifics on the teaching duties. The years in Florence were not too different, not in quality or anything, but in terms of the possible involvement in research. It was similar to the years in Cambridge and in London, because although you had teaching duties you pointed out that they didn’t take up all your time. You were still primarily a researcher, with all of the particular problems in that Florence period?
Next question about the Florence years: were there seminars at the department or elsewhere in Italy in connection with other departments?
Yes, we introduced seminars very early. It was in the department. They were invented by the astronomers that were on the top.
At Arcetri, you mean?
Arcetri, yes. The seminar was really a regional function. It was not known to people very much in other universities. The seminars were the most important activity which we had there. I think who introduced it was Professor Abetti. Bernardini was extremely fond of it, and every one of us. It was a very much parochial thing, but at the same time, completely international. Racah again spoke to us on relativity. He learned relativity. Bernardini asked him to study relativity and then he learned relativity just for the seminar. Then we had — when I think about it, it was extremely useful — we had Hull.
A. W. Hull or G. E. Hull — the American x-ray man — what were his initials?
I’ve forgotten. Hull came and spoke. He described to us a rather technical advance which was the gas tubes — the thyratron. I did not know that a few years afterwards the thyratron would play such an important part in my life, for, as I think I have told you already, the fact that they had given a group of thyratrons as a present to Wynn-Williams in the Cavendish, made it possible and easy to control the Wilson chamber — for this would start a current of a few amps in a fraction of a second. Then we had Bethe.
When? Was this when you were a student?
When I was a student there were no seminars. I speak of the period — maybe ‘28. The seminar was started by Bernardini and Rossi. It was maybe the last year when I was still a student.
Do you remember what Bethe talked about?
No. Then we had Bruno Rossi who explained to us about cosmic rays. We divided it. Half of it was given by me, and half was given by Bruno Rossi. Again, it was a very great disappointment for me because I was not good at all. I am painfully conscious of my deficiency as a lecturer and so I still remember it. Then there was another one which I think I prepared very much. I don’t remember if it was about absorption of gamma rays. It was then that Bernardini talked on the atomic nucleus, as I think I told you once. Then there was Bernardini and Rossi mixed on floor letters, for it was their first — the work in which they had started. And Puccanti, who was one of the grand old men of Italian physics, now completely forgotten. An extremely intelligent person in Pisa who was a genius in physics. The day on which he gave this seminar, the seminar was interrupted by the stopping of the war in Abyssinia. I remember that he was 100% Fascist — was not convinced that he had to stop delivering. He was very much a Fascist. He believed in it. They phoned from the university that everyone must go back and he said, “I got five or ten minutes to finish.” Everyone was Saying, “No, no.” Did you ever see a film called Becky Sharpe of Mamoulian in which there is a running away of all the officers from Brussels for they are coming to Waterloo, and it is all done in a flurry of gowns and red mantles who run away. It looks the same thing. So it is for this that I remember this was a part of my bitterness this day that he had a good lecture. Even the man who was a Fascist was feeling that maybe he should not be interrupted, and all these new people were feeling like the good soldier Schweik that they had to rush away.
You’re jumping now to the later period.
I’m not jumping to the later period. I’m only telling you the kind of seminars. This took place after I went and so on.
It was continued all during this period.
The seminars continued quite a long time. This lecture was at the end of the war so it was in ‘35 or ‘36.
Who would be the audience, generally — other staff assistants, advanced students?
Yes, the staff was the people from the Physical Institute, the people who were playing at — physics people, very few, two or three people. There was a crowd of clients coming from chemistry. The chemistry people were very friendly and they liked to come in the afternoon for the road was very poetic and they would come. We would assemble in a room as big as this. Just a big wall and there was a black table. On the table was the thing. Everyone was crowding on chairs. The people there were astronomers. Abetti was there. It was the tradition of these astronomers which has now grown very very much in Acetri. If you go there and you ask them to show you the room, the room is still there but now it has become a reception bureau.
I remember one photo — the person who was the important person here was Racah. Why? Not only for his temperament but also for the fact that he was rich, and he was one of the few people to have a car. Persico had also a car so he would bring three people. But the car-owner Racah tried a certain coquettry by putting inside this car which held 4-5 people, by filling it so people were travelling on it outside, on the top and so on. On occasion, in the evening in Piaza and Piaza Senorea we arrived in this car and then we started emptying it. He came out and then 14 people. It was a kind of game. You should know that it is a game in America from films and so on.
How often were the seminars held?
It was very often. It was either once every week — I do remember this whole thing. Every time there was someone coming we would capture him.
Did you find many outside visitors during the years ‘34 to ‘37?
From outside of Italy?
We had a lot of people in Italy. Since Abetti had been a pupil of Hale and being internationally [known], we got it. I remember in ‘34-‘35 when an American called O. L. Wilkins explained to me what you could do with nuclear emulsions. It was wonderful. Then I decided to give a seminar. He gave a seminar in the middle of the general lecture, I believe. Wilkins was really the person who put credibility in the method. He was an American. Few people remember him. I remember the lack of confidence that people had in his conclusions. I looked at them years afterwards. When I understood what it was about I wanted him to come back.
People were coming to Florence. It was a pretty place and people were coming. They were attracted. Vavilov, the physicist, I think it was Sergei Vavilov, was the brother of the Vavilov, one of the men who is credited for having been the leadering in the Cernkov effect, so much that there are many Russian people who tell me that (???) had been forgotten in the (???). He came to us and I remember that I went with him. We had lunch in Florence. I brought him to have lunch with me in the (???). Then we discussed politics. I discussed with him about Kapitza. Kapitza had been at this moment obliged to come back so I was asking questions. He made a very very good point and convinced me, when he said, “Look here, if you were in love with your country, if you are feeling that your country needs you, would you hesitate, would you choose to remain in England or would you come back to your country.” Then I said, “I think you are right. If I was in love with my country, that is what I would do.”
But he implied the decision was Kapitza’s willingly, and not the Soviet Government’s imposition of their position on him? Of course, there are two interpretations.
Yes, I am not telling you my interpretation. I am telling you what I was told. I knew that this was the thing, but it is evident that Kapitza — well, there is a shape in the human mind, by which you very speedily adapt yourself. Otherwise you would die. There are certain animals in the cage and so on.
When Vavilov came, I could not be there for some reason. I had to leave. Then they commented on what he told them. “It was very funny. He looked like a serious person, but what he said was absolutely unbelievable.” I said, “What did he say?” He said, “You and I have the capability for dictating one point” and this shocked some of the people who were there…
Did he give any specific experimental —
I was not there. It was on the basis of experiments. They could have been a bit shocked but I don’t remember — he had also philosophers, everyone. That way it is a kind of game which is completely accepted, but it was extremely important. The first part — soon after my studentship we had Persico, who was one of the leaders. Then Persico went to Milano, and we lost him. This was the second loss, together with Bruno Rossi, which I found when I came back.
Let me ask if you had any joint seminars or if you participated in seminars in other cities?
Not very much, I would not be surprised if Rossi might have been. Don’t forget, please, that an assistant was earning $130 a month. On $130 you can squeeze everything —I’m not bragging. I come back again on this, people were living in a certain shape and in a certain place. Only if they had a certain mark — the people who had cars. Movement, if I do remember in my young life, was considered a bit of a luxury. It was done on Sunday, Saturday, when we went out from Florence. We were going with Racah and we would climb the mountains and would go and look at caves and bathe. Altogether it was a bit of paradise in Florence — much more than now, of course. The mountains are very near — this proximity — the sea. This was a period in which a lot of things were happening in Florence. It was a situation with red and green lights which came then.
I’m sorry — what do you mean?
Green and red signs.
In the city — do you mean neon signs?
No, it was the moment when they started having — there was very little traffic — but at this moment I do remember that they started motor traffic lights. Then in ‘35 this tremendous thing happened. Florence was connected with Bologna with a tunnel and so Tuscany ceased to be isolated. Part of the history of Tuscany was that it really was very much isolated. Up to the moment in which they were kept to themselves, they didn’t suffer. When you went there you had the impression that it was a typical collectivity which was underdeveloped. Then came the tremendous adventure of the first Autobahn in Italy, the autostrade which was connecting Florence to the sea — a two-track road. It was after the war. During the war it was practically destroyed and then they started building it again.
This was the kind of paradise in which we were living. This explains why people who live in Florence do not like to abandon it. This explains why at the moment in which I was leaving Florence I had a very clear idea that I was closing the door of my youth, and that I would not be young any more.
I think that is precisely the point I want to get to now. After all of these developments in the three years since you were back, from ‘34 to ‘37 — you have explained the background — but what were the specific circumstances which then resulted in a clear decision for you to leave, and you acting on the decision?
Well, if you want to know, it happened during the evening. (???) came to my house… On this evening I said to my two friends, “It doesn’t matter. I am very very thankful for this has decided me.” I suppose it happens to everyone. This had decided me. I got this type of decision when I was a soldier. I decided there that I did not like the Army. I decided I had to leave. I could see that there were people all around me who were completely adapted. They didn’t like the Army. These people there in 2 or 3 days became my friends, and every night when I was going to sleep I was telling myself that “whatever happens, Oh Lord, don’t make me forget that I must get out from here.” I might be induced by crying and so on to feel that I betrayed them by leaving them. I might have committed the maximum limit of injustice by claiming that I can be useful to them. “Lord, protect me. This is not the land where I do belong. I must get out from here.”
This was the same thing. It was very very cold during this night, I do remember, and the day afterwards I had absolutely decided — I was looking at Florence to see if I could exist. I suppose it happens to everyone. When my father died, I was professor at the University of Genoa. The last days my father went into the clinic of the university and in the evening they did not allow me to go near my father’s body. Then I went to look for the director. The director, when I knocked at the door, shouted at me from the top that I should go away. Then I decided there was something wrong. I went up and wanted to fight with him, and he closed the door. Then I think that he was taking drugs, but in this evening I was with a colleague and I said, “This is too much. This is what’s happening, makes it impossible for me to remain in Genoa.” I wrote a letter to the director saying that this had happened and I was waiting for an explanation. I didn’t get an explanation. Three months afterwards I got my demotion… So really I have been very very sharp in my leaving. All my life there really have been stories of the moments when I want out. The event here was that you can do only if you are so stupid that you want to ignore the price.
When from Brazil passed voice that I was ready to get out — not in England — that I wanted to start again — and then when I received the letter from Wataghin that I was going away, I took the particulars of the address and so on and I did destroy the part of the money so that I could take the decision unhindered by the fact that what they were offering me was not enough. It was not.
Let me reconstruct that now. You explained that you took the decision. Then, did you make specific steps on your own to find a place to go or was it just that you had this chance letter from him?
I think that I passed the voice. I do remember that at this moment by letter, by voice, I started saying to everyone that I wanted out. Then I received this letter. I don’t know if it was associated or not.
When had he gone to Brazil?
Wataghin had gone in ‘34.
OK, and then the letter stated that he had a specific position in mind which would be available for you.
Yes, he said that there was only one job, and at this moment I got the letter. The job was, I think, to be assistant with the possibility of becoming professor. I didn’t care about what it was — I really wanted out.
This was real.
When you let the word out, were there other possibilities? Was there any possibility in Enland?
I didn’t let the word in England. I simply felt that I could not be — I generally don’t ask friends to look after me — if you want, it is a part of my timidity. If I can do things on my own, I do it. I considered that the situation was such — I had no passport, not my fault, but remember when in ‘34 the moment of Russia, and even before, when I had been asking if I could go out, but “you have military service,” and so on, the police was asking me… You understand — there was the idea that it was already an act of treason like for the Russians. It was already an act of treason, “What are you going to do?” I replied, “I am going to the Cavendish Laboratory?” “Well, the Cavendish Laboratory is a British laboratory and they work on physics. Are you telling me that there are no laboratories like this?”… tell you a think of this type and suppose to stamp your passport.
OK, but was it any less difficult to go to Brazil?
This comes in the part which I have already told you. I could have gone to Brazil — there was a very easy way out. Following a course of lectures of Fermi, they had built a university in Sao Paolo where they had been asking a number of Italian professors. So it was practically like a kind of British counsel, university set. There was Professor Fountebea(?), who was a mathematician. There was Wataghin. There was Ungaretti, who was the great Italian poet. There was Professor Unoratto(?). There was Professor Albanese, who was another mathematician. There was Galvani who was a statistician. There was Barone, the Baron of Turino-Furi, who was a Sicilian or a man of Southern Italy who was not in mineralogy — what is the other thing?
No, the other thing which has to do with man.
Anthropologist — the geology of man — yes. I remember that I replied, yes — I did not say to anyone. Then I received a telegram from Rome and I was called by the man who was looking after the Italian immigration in Rome. He asked me for a rendez-vous and then I took my motorbike and I went to Rome. I arrived on time, full of dust, I had started at 3 o’clock in the morning. I was supposed to see him at 11:00 and I made it. I changed myself and dusted myself in the lunch(?) chamber… and then I came there. They said, “Here you are and so on. You got from Sao Paolo and so on.”… I said, “All right, can I go?” “Yes,” they said. “I shall be a kind of Foreign Legion man who goes there.” They said, “No, you shall be an ambassador of Italianity.” “All right. Can I have my passport?” “Yes.” “I want to have an official passport.” “Ho ho, ho ho.” Then I did understand that there were strings, but there I was and I wanted out.
Then he said to me, “You shall be assigned. You will leave your university assistant place, since it was precarious, and we shall assign you to school. So you should be professor in the school, we nominate you professor of the school and then you decide that you leave and you contract.” It had become a kind of contract between governments.
That is very interesting.
Then he says to me: “I expect that you shall have success.” I said, “Why?” He said, “You managed to be liked in England by the English, so you can be sure that in any place in the world they will like you.” Then I don’t know if it was on this occasion or at the next meeting or another man who said to me, “Since you are leaving, there is a law which say” — something about marriage. He said, “Are you married?” I said, “No.” He said, “Nine months from now you will not be allowed to marry anyone except an Italian, so if you want to come back and liver here, now that you are out, if you want to marry a foreigner.”
It was nice to give you that advice.
It was extremely friendly. He was called Parini(?), a very intelligent man. I never had very much to do with him but he looked like a very efficient Fascist.
After this I came back on the motorbike. I went to my professor and I told him, “I am leaving.” “You are leaving. What will happen to you? Just at the moment in which Bernardini will be made a professor. You might have become my head, my first assistant. What will happen to you?” Well, in a way, he was right… I think it is an organic thing — having it in my blood, then I did discover that maybe there is a justification. People, they cannot stay in the same place always. They must change. They must change also for the fact that differently one will be like women, who have got one menopause. Men have several. I remember that Bernardini was in a bit of despair with me for I was playing all the time Sibelius, and I was discovering that really, I had lost vitality. Of course, I had lost vitality for the loss.
But I remember when I went away — this happened in ‘37 so I had 30 years — I remember that on the ship everyone was dancing. I was feeling that I didn’t belong, that I was a very very old man. I was feeling that I should not mix with people who were so young and so full of life.
How old were you?
30 — a bit less — 29 1/2. So I was in one of my menopauses, and I think that for every man there is a moment — at 19 years you have the crisis of puberty, a crisis in which you kill(?) yourself… to be young. Then there is the moment at 31, 32, at which you are discouraged — you are finished. If you pass this barrier and —
There are others.
Yes, but the important thing is to put the finger on the fact that there is one at 30. I don’t think that people do realize. I know that on one or two occasions with younger friends of mine, I could do something about it, for they did not know. But they were in the state, which is like a sickness but you do not know it. You are in a trough.
Yes, you are in a sort of malaise which cannot be attributed to anything specific.
If you look in the history of man, you will discover that there is also this. There are some moments when you are up and down which are not always explained, but it is to me very simple, it is this kind of periodicity low with waves which run in the life of people. So maybe there is something in the stars this way, for when you ask a person what happened in this period. “It did not happen anything.” “Why?” Maybe the right reply is I was in the eclipse — the moon was in — “I was in the phase.”
You were in your “man-o-pause” — not menopause.
Yes, I was in the first or in the second — the moon phases. I was half in darkness.
I would like to work out a plan for the limited remaining time. We will have to change our style a little bit in order to cover the ground that I want to, and then we will fill in later.
That is all right. Ask it.
Let me tell you what I have in mind so you can think about it for a minute. One is the outline of Brazil: what you found there, what the differences were from the other places you had been, what research you were involved in, what the problems were in teaching and so on. Another thing that I think is important is something which I don’t understand at all — the large Italian community there, the background of this, your relationship to it, as well as to the political aspects of it you mentioned. Then we must get into Bristol. If we can’t do that we’ll do that another time. [Interval]
To start off, there is nothing more to say about the circumstances of leaving, the goodbyes, and so forth. Maybe there is, but I want to get the specifics of the date that you left, then what you saw on your arrival there, how you reacted, the new culture in comparison to what you had known in terms of as well as scientific life, and then some background of the Italian community which is entirely new to me, and then how the work proceeded there and how this was related to the developing political situation in Brazil and elsewhere.
First, when I did arrive. I joined the increasing community of all the people who go to Brazil and then to the next one who comes they tell him, when I did arrive here there was nothing of this. You did not recognize it anymore, and so on.
It sounds like people who talk about Israel.
Exactly. I am absolutely sure the situation has been changing so speedily in building, in roads and so on, that everyone in their level of life is shifting, and the increase in the number of roads. Some places you could only go on horseback then macadam came and so on. Certain parts of it I found very very primitive, wonderful. Even in Sao Paolo, it was picturesque.
When I came there, you could buy wonderful spurs, all to do with horses, swords for going and cutting, and special knives for going in the Matto, in the Brazilian jungle. Afterwards they disappeared. There is always another frontier in which civilization spreads over it.
The first impression I had when I did arrive, was there was a laboratory which just constituted only my one room in this polytechnic school, and the first impression I had was of richness inside the laboratory. Everything which had been absolutely unobtainable for us was there. Things of which I had never dreamt — tools, soldering irons, everyone could have his own soldering iron, and tests(?), wonderful tests — and then already the civilization, the first microminiaturizing had happened in Brazil while it was not present in Europe. We had glass valves while there they had iron valves. The dimension of the valves was one-third. The gadgets where were there… I could remember the (???), color coded switches everything which was completely ignoring —
So it was the Garden of Plenty.
It was the Garden of Plenty. There were two great crises in Arcetri in Florence which had pushed me out which were about instruments. One of them was that I had been forced to buy with my own money an oscillograph, for there was no oscillograph at all. This thing had got burnt through an accident of war. Then the thyratron — I had bought a thryatron — and in the end I had paid for it from my own pocket. It was 535 lire, two-thirds of my wages, and the thyratron was a thing which was built in England but it was rather rough there. You could buy in the shops of Sao Paolo thyratrons — very small — and then there were iron-covered oscilloscopes. The one which I had was very very big. So the first thing which I did in this land of plenty was to send as a present to my professor a small oscilloscope. My oscilloscope was a bit bigger than this.
How big was the screen?
It had an opening of one inch and a half. Then I sent it to my professor and I sent it in a violent gesture. He did not understand. I know what happened. He called one of the people in the lab who was very faithful to him and he showed it to him, “Look, what Occhialini has given to me.” In the meantime people were starving for similar. One day Daria Bucharelli got courage and went to him and said, “Look here, I hear that there is a little oscilloscope here. Could I try it?” He said, “It has got 7 foot. It is a 7-foot one,” or 7, or 8, or 9 foot one. He counted them. To put in your hands such a delicate thing — something which was coming out 11 or 12… filament. Then there was the indirect heating and so on.
So my first impression was to buy something. When I told my father he was very cross. He said, “Well, you sent it to your professor as a slap when you could have sent it to me.” This was Italy at this moment. It pains you, I think, the situation. Whatever you can buy from the shelf — it was small and good and cheap — it could come out only in very big shape. There was no miniaturization in Italy, and maybe not in Europe. The Phillips values had come already here. I had the impression that I was in another generation.
I found the people there very very intelligent. I found an old man called Emilios Su Lesantos(?), who when I explained to him how difficult it was to stop — to do counting by thyratron by the fact that you should stop it with another thyratron — looked at this thing and said, “No, you can do it very well with a drop of resistance,” and the morning afterwards he showed me that he had done it — very very brilliant. Then there was a young man, very big, sleepy eyes, called Shoenberg. You can write it as you like — it depends upon the place — Lithuanian, maybe Russian descent, a Jew. When you go to see Shoenberg in Cambridge, if his sister is there, if you look at her, she should have the same face as Shoenberg had. Absolutely the same features, there is some tie of family. This was a theoretical man, a mathematician, extremely good and extremely dispersive like many of the people there. The pest of South America — the curse — is that they want to do too many things at the same thing. Their ideal man is Leonardo… When a man has got many abilities and can do many things he is a Leonardo da Vinci. But you know very well, Leonardo is the curse of the Italian people. Without a man like Leonardo, without a man like Marconi, we would have been completely happy — we might have escaped Fascism. But it is the idea of the many jobs, the universal genius that was Leonardo which gave us a superiority complex. In another field Marconi — that you can do wonderful things if — you have the intuition to use certain apparatus in a way which is not obvious.
All right, then, I started planning for an experiment which had to do with (???) latitude. I knew where to buy counters from Holland and they came. Then this thing was arranged and Damile Susosantas(?) built very beautiful complex apparatus with lamps on every side, compact. I remember that I had brought with me a very little bulb set which I had built myself and people were laughing to see how primitive were the things which we were doing while — it was all very very professional there compared to, say, Italy, which already was one step behind in all this electronic way.
You are saying that there was a very high technological level?
No, I said that there was a very high software that was at your disposal. The American industry was pouring things in, and while in Italy there was only Fiat, the financial level was so high that you could buy Ford, you could buy Cadillac, you could buy DeSoto, you could buy everything. This was the situation. People had been selling coffee, so everything which they would need was there. This did not mean that they could do things themselves. I remember that going in shops I could have anything.
But these components were important?
They were important, but don’t forget I was coming from Italy which didn’t know very much. All right, but I had also seen at this moment in England — and the sanctions certainly were a step — but it was different. There was really one up in quality of the things which were coming from the United States. As you know very well, the people who first detached one of the electrodes from the socket and they put it on top were the physics people. They put the plate. The Americans took the patent on the grid which was outside. Now, a grid outside was a different story. I don’t know if you understand why, for you got certain capacity effect. Certain leaks you remove. At the same time they had invented, perfected the theory of building every part in steel, metal, apart from certain things which were being soldered. They had invented the soldering of glass to socket — it was done whatever way you wanted to do, but all the rest was not blown. Then again, the grid was coming on a place which was — it was wonderful and it was small. It was a very bottom step to miniaturization for this kind of thing around was minimizing the charge effect.
What I was getting at was that the availability of the components — and you have explained that they were from outside, but nevertheless they were available — in order to take advantage of the availability, you have to have a budget, and I wanted to know something about the kind of financing that was available in the departments. And also another important thing — the workshops — whether there was a staff provided, whether there were workshops, and in that sense, how did it differ from Italy and from the Cavendish?
Don’t forget that this was the starting of something. It was the starting of everything so you cannot compare it. Don’t forget that when the people went there, there was not a tremendous practice of what should be done, so that a lot of apparatus was getting accumulated. But they put a lot of money in so that people could come there — all the time coming… It was extremely easy if you wanted something. It was a paradise — this I do remember. For example, a solution which would have been impossible — I discovered that I had to build a set — the set should have been traveling on the boat — the boat was furnishing only dc. All right, how do you work in a world which is running on ac and dc — then you must have a converter — then you phone and they bring you the little converter and you look at it under the oscilloscope and you find that everything is wonderful. So you discover on this occasion that the best way of running a set is to buy batteries, to have a converter and to get your ac this way for it does not change. There is no jump, so this was bought. Then we wanted to have another set, and I remember while I was talking about this Emilios Delos(?) Santos brought a gasoline set which had its own generation(?) attached and then you could load the batteries — if you had six small batteries you could load them in gasoline and they would deliver 60 volts, if I remember. This would allow you to run on batteries.
This was something. I cannot tell you how much it was the thing, but if you want to know, (???) I found there whatever Wataghin succeeded in building. At this moment they were wondering what they should do. I said, “Look here, the best thing to start for an underdeveloped country is cosmic rays.” This I understood and I had been one of the first people who had understood this. Years afterwards I explained this to UNESCO when they asked me as an expert to put a paper. I gave them a paper in which I explained that cosmic rays can do to undeveloped people, that it is more clever…
Wataghin had been there since ‘34 —
‘34, or maybe ‘35
— and they were gradually building up. Was there no research specialty that had emerged in the department prior to your coming, or was it pretty diversified?
No, he had called me just for the fact that he wanted me to help to start research.
There was not much research going on?
There was technological research going on in the technological school.
But you were at the University at Sao Paolo?
But this was the new thing built which was the university in a place where there was no university before. They called people — Italians for science. They called French people for sociology. If I remember well Levi-Straus was one of my colleagues there and it was there that he got all these crazy ideas about — also another philosopher, Bonson(?).
And your department was called the Department of Physics at the University of Sao Paolo.
Departmento di fisica(?), yes.
What about teaching duties there? Was that part of it?
There were teaching duties, alas, yes.
About how much of a proportion of your time?
I had three hours every week in Italian. Everyone spoke Italian then.
What was the background of the students — national and learning?
National, this was a state in which a great part of the people come from immigration and there was a tremendous amount of Italian stock. Italian is rather near to Portuguese and people adapted. It was Italian up until the moment when Brazil went into war because then they used the war to nationalize the country. But before at Sao Paolo and every place, when I was trying to speak Portuguese, they said, “Please, speak Italian. It is quicker, otherwise we will lose time.”
There were certain places in Brazil — it was well-known — it is forgotten now, but everyone knew — in Santa Catarina(?) for example, in which you could not marry unless you knew German. The Lord Mayor was German, the policemen were German. You could not go and complain to a policeman because the policeman could speak only — the priest would bury you in German — all this the war made compulsory to stop, all this collectivity from using their language, and then the people had to learn the language.
When did Brazil get into the war? Do you remember the date?
‘42, maybe in June.
Then what was the decision of the Italian community during that period?
They had been rather kind to the Italian community but the Italian community could not any more — people had been arrested in the street just for the fact that they had said, “Let’s go and eat macaroni.” Sometimes this was happening. But I jumped, and this was your fault.
All right, and then I left. I left rather late for I wanted to have finished the set. I wanted to make this observation on the ship and it was for this that I arrived only in January for I left — we were getting from the Italian government free possibility of coming back. I discovered when I was there — this was the part of the thing which was not stipulated — a free ticket on an Italian ship to come back once a year, or if there was no place on the ship then you could be commissar aboard, which was a very dangerous thing to do for if something was happening you were supposed to give a speech. You were travelling under national covers(?), so if something happened by radio then the captain would call all the Italian people and they would have a kind of commemoration and the commissar aboard, which was nominated every time by the government — then I came back, as I said in January, then I met Racah. It was in a kind of shaky situation and we arranged it. Then I left and I went rushing to Britain. There in Britain I met Blackett of course, and I think I met Heisenberg if it was the moment in which Austria was conquered. If it was in ’38, then when I was crossing on the train Austria was invaded. When I arrived in England they tried to prevent me from getting in because they didn’t know what I was. Then I produced a very hard letter of Blackett which I had kept because I did not want to offend anyone. Then I went to see Blackett in Manchester. Then there was there Heisenberg. Heisenberg had shown in a very conclusive way —
Excuse me. Blackett was in Manchester then. When did he go to Manchester?
I don’t know. He had been in Birkbeck College in ‘34.
I may be wrong but I have down here Manchester from ‘45.
We can look in the Encyclopedia Britannia. [Reads quickly]… “He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1933. From 1933 to 1937 Blackett was London University Professor of Physics at Birkbeck College, leaving to become (???) Professor of Physics in the University of Manchester.” This was in ‘37 so when I arrived in ‘38 he was there.
I was mistaken obviously.
“In 1953 Blackett was appointed Professor and Head of the Physics Department at the (???).” In ‘53 Blackett went to London.
So on this trip you visited him at Manchester.
I think it was on this trip that I met Heisenberg, and then I led Blackett and Heisenberg to see some places which they had never seen. Then in the morning at 6 o’clock Blackett led me to a train which was going to London, and then I went away.
It was probably because Heisenberg wag on a trip to the US for the Harvard Tercentenary at that time. That could very well have been the connection. Oh, but you said it was ‘38. I’m not sure then.
At this moment I am not sure just for one particular.
It’s not essential. But the purpose of the visit to England was what?
I wanted to see Blackett. I was feeling that I had paid a very heavy price to get my passport and I wanted to go and see my friends — my friends and my girl friends too. It was very evident when I was at the customs, when they searched me and then they found my book of addresses, and they made me very very angry by asking me: “Who is she? Who is she?” and so on. The exchange became heated at the moment. They asked me if I wanted a job in England. I was very very cross. When I arrived in London I met Wadsworth(?) Jones who was a good chemist whom I had known. What have you got… They thought that you were too preoccupied in just waiving the suspect that you were a Fascist. Just for this… very stupid, for if you had allowed them they said, “Are you Italian?” “Yes.” They said, “Show your membership card.” “I don’t have it.” “Have you got at least your badge.” “I don’t have it.” “I am told that you are always supposed to wear it always.” “I suppose there are some people who do it and some people who don’t.” What they really wanted was for me to show them that I was a fully qualified Fascist then I was not dangerous for I could go back home.
Oh yes, so you weren’t a refugee then.
Yes, they were preoccupied that I would come and get a job. Then I remember it was Austria for the fact that Heisenberg was very preoccupied about the destiny of Schrödinger. Then I phoned to Rome, I had the assurance over the telephone from Bernardini that Rome had already made contact with Weizsächer who was ambassador to the Holy See. Weizsächer was the father of the Weizsächer physicist and Weizsächer was… From England they did not know exactly what to do and I said, “Here, there is a friend,” and I was explaining on the telephone in very diplomatic terms, “Here there is a general friend who is a very important person.” I was explaining in a kind of flourishing way, and said, “We want you to protect.” They said they had already done it.
I’ve seen the letters about this — inquiries that Lindemann and others were making about Schrödinger. He had been at Oxford and had left the job at Oxford and gone back to Austria.
Schrödinger acted like a fool really. Do you know Catch 22? Have you seen the letter, which is known everywhere, in which he wrote, “I will come here if you accept the fact that there is a lady with me who is not my wife.”
I didn’t see this in the form of a letter, no.
Did you hear about it?
From everywhere. Everybody knows about the two Mrs. Wasn’t this the time that you said you went to the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning?
I think it was the second time.
Then we will wait on that. So this was just a visit to get acquainted. Did anything come up? Oh yes, you told me that this was the time when the cloud chamber business with Blackett came up, where you had the opportunity to take the pieces.
No, that was the second time.
That was the second time, OK.
I had during one year piled up money and I brought all the money to England and I bought also the motorbike for myself.
This was just a vacation and the position in Brazil seemed to be a permanent one so there was no uncertainty in your mind about that.
In Brazil it was not permanent but I was completely free to do what I wanted. I didn’t go very much around with the Italian. They were treated differently. There was a situation to which I regret to say that I adapted myself easily.