Notice: We are in the process of migrating Oral History Interview metadata to this new version of our website.
During this migration, the following fields associated with interviews may be incomplete: Institutions, Additional Persons, and Subjects. Our Browse Subjects feature is also affected by this migration.
Please contact [email protected] with any feedback.
This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the American Institute of Physics.
This transcript is based on a tape-recorded interview deposited at the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics. The AIP's interviews have generally been transcribed from tape, edited by the interviewer for clarity, and then further edited by the interviewee. If this interview is important to you, you should consult earlier versions of the transcript or listen to the original tape. For many interviews, the AIP retains substantial files with further information about the interviewee and the interview itself. Please contact us for information about accessing these materials.
Please bear in mind that: 1) This material is a transcript of the spoken word rather than a literary product; 2) An interview must be read with the awareness that different people's memories about an event will often differ, and that memories can change with time for many reasons including subsequent experiences, interactions with others, and one's feelings about an event. Disclaimer: This transcript was scanned from a typescript, introducing occasional spelling errors. The original typescript is available.
In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of Gianfranco Chiarotti by Lanfranco Belloni on 1983 January 20,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
Starts with a brief overview of early schooling and physics studies at Università di Pavia in the 1940s, and a two-year visit to University of Illinois to work with Frederick Seitz. Building up and organizing solid state physics studies at Gruppo nazionale di struttura dela Materia; collaboration with Italian industry (Olivetti, Segesto); research funding difficulties. Comments on involvement with the Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste (J. Ziman and N. Marsh); comments on solid state physics in other European countries. Chiarotti's organizational work in Consiglio nazionale delle ricerche and the European Physical Society is mentioned. Views on the popularization of science in the Italian scientific community.
This is Lanfranco Belloni. I’m interviewing Professor Chiarotti in the physics department, Instituto de Fiscia, University of Rome, January 20th, 1983. Professor Chiarotti, I know you were born at Como in 1928, but we don’t know much else about you, your family, your background, and your early vocation.
I come from a family of average class. My father was an employee working with international transportations between Italy and Switzerland, and my mother was a school teacher. My first education was done during the war, so at least the secondary school was done during the war, and so it was mainly self-education or at least the things that I learned in physics and sciences were mainly obtained from reading books, rather than from school.
There were not regular classes during the war?
There were regular classes, but they were only a few months of the year, only certain days of the week, and of course, the teachers were not completely dedicated in spirit to teaching school. My main interest in high school, though, was not physics, but was more general science or philosophy. I became interested in physics by knowing, at the end of my high school, Professor Piero Caldriola, who is the chairman of one of the commissions that examined the final work of the high school students in my city, and encouraged me in passing from philosophy studies to something with a more experimental background. And in fact, my change was so great that I became an experimental physicist. I went to Pavia at the College of (???), which is a kind of fraternity with, for undergraduates, for bright students, and there I started my undergraduate and graduate — of course, in Italy, the university system is different. It’s difficult to speak about graduate work or undergraduate work. We have something more or less like the Master of Science in the United States.
So you said that you switched from a general interest in cultural philosophy to physics? The switch was because of Professor Caldriola.
Yes, but it was rather gradual.
Gradual, so you kept an interest in philosophy during your undergraduate years?
Well, I was in physics, at the beginning; I thought I could be a theorist, and so I studied some theoretical physics.
You found Caldriola in Pavia?
Yes, I found Caldriola in Pavia, but then, I gave my thesis on nuclear magnetic resonance, an experimental work on the resonance of protons of water. At that time in l950, at that time the field was quite new, and the equipment that we had was not adequate. Some of it came from war surplus. Some other was bought by Professor Giulotto who was the leader of this group, in what we would call the marche aux puces (flea market) in French. So the attitude toward experimental physics was on a very low level, quite a technical level, because nothing worked and you had to make them work. You have to repair the things that you bought at that time and have them work. Nevertheless, we obtained interesting results. For example, the measure of the relaxation time of the protons in water is now quoted in the literature. It was perhaps the earliest one. Times were very different, at least in Italy, but from what I remember at the University of Illinois in 1955, things have changed there, too.
So, Professor Giulotto told me a lot about the post-war conditions of research in Pavia, that they bought the war surplus, and he told me about this experiment. So you grew up in this atmosphere of cheap physics?
String and wax type of physics. So, the achievements were reached through simply simplifications. If you wanted to build a complicated thing, then you failed, and the attitude which was most important was the attitude, to simplify experiments and problems.
And make them work.
And make it work. Yes.
So, after the degree, you stayed in Pavia a few years?
Yes, I stayed in Pavia. As I said I started work in nuclear magnetic resonance in liquids, but very soon, I also worked in solid state physics, because at that time there was Fausto Fumi from Milan, who came back from the University of Illinois and gave a few seminars in Pavia on various subjects, and we grasped that this was an open field. There was nothing in Italy. Nobody worked in solid state physics. It was a field which was developing very fast at that time, and we thought that we could contribute to the very early development of the field. Of course, we were always troubled by the fact that we didn’t have money for equipment, etc., so we were biased in the selection of the fields in solid state physics by the equipment that we had, and in fact, the University of Pavia, the physics department of the university had very good equipment in optics, in optics and spectroscopy, and so we started work in spectroscopy of solids. We did some work on color centers and then also on defects. The interesting defect was in a sense backed by the fact that — of course, that was the time in which physics, solid state physicists realized that most of the properties of solids depend upon defects and not upon the ideal structure. But the interesting defect was also backed by the fact that between 1955 and 1960, in Italy there was a great effort for building up laboratories for nuclear reactors, and of course, the radiation damage was an important part of this work, and we worked in defects. When I came back from the United States, I found things in 1958, 1957, 1958, I found things changed, from the point of view of funding of research. There was much more funding, much more liberal funding, much more money.
Already in ‘58?
Already in ‘58, so at that time —
Thanks to the nuclear development.
Thanks to the nuclear development, yes. We were a byproduct of nuclear physics.
You said something about your experience at University of Illinois from 1955 to 1957. You went there as an assistant with a group?
I was assistant professor. I was very very proud of having obtained such a good position, but of course, I didn’t figure among the best or the more cultured assistant professors at the University of Illinois. At that time, the University of Illinois was really the cradle of solid state physics. It was the time of the BCS theory of superconductivity. John Bardeen, Bob Schrieffer, Leon Cooper were working in a room just on the side of my office, so I was meeting them every day, and I was a very good friend of Bob Schrieffer and so, it was a tremendous time. I remember Bob Maurer was my supervisor at that time. I remember Frauenfelder. I remember Kirster(?) and Koehler and other professors and of course, Fred Seitz, who was the one who invited me the United States at that time.
Through Fumi, and through the scientific connections at that time. Seitz was writing two fundamental articles for the REVIEW OF MODERN PHYSICS on color center research, so we corresponded, and they appreciated our work, probably for the fact that we could achieve something with no money at all.
So you found quite a bigger world at Illinois?
It was very stimulating, and especially I realized that in Italy we lacked completely theoretical background for the study of solid state physics. For example, at that time there were no courses in solid state physics whatsoever in Italy, and we tried to extrapolate from what we knew from atomic physics to solids. Of course, this was completely wrong, and this I realized very fully at the University of Illinois. I also followed a few courses, like the one in group theory by Seitz, for example. I obtained great advantage from my stay at the University of Illinois, and of course the life in the United States, as you know had a great impact on people who live there for a reasonable length of time.
When you came back to Italy you found that things were improved from the standpoint of financing and funding, and you became professor at Messina first.
I was assistant in Pavia for four years, and I gave courses, and as what we call (???), associate professor. Then I obtained a chair in Messina in 1962. I stayed there four years in Messina, so I think I gave my contribution to the problems of the south of Italy, which of course is a very important problem for us.
I see. So things were changed and there were also more people involved in solid state. Besides you, there was Fumi, who was the, first a theoretician —
And Franco Bassani who was my very good friend. We worked together at the University of Illinois. There was Roberto Fieschi in Milan and in (???) a pal of mine in Palermo and John Genoa, and John Boato in Genoa and (???) in Pisa. Of course Professor Giulotto in Pavia. They all taught me a great deal of experimental physics, and especially taught me to consider the very essential things of a problem. This, I think, was his main quality.
Giulotto is a true master of experimental physics. So you kept going in experimental solid state physics. How were things in Messina? Could you manage to get the apparatus?
The times had changed by that time, and in Messina, the equipment was adequate, and of course, you resented the fact of being far away from any industrial center, for buying things, but the equipment was very adequate. It was, of course, on the scale of the physics of 1960, not present day scale, but before leaving Pavia, we realized that solid state physics could not be considered on a rather marginal way, as we had done at the beginning, to start using the equipment that we had. Especially at that time, the semiconductor industry was developing even in Italy, and so we decided to start to work on semiconductors. Of the various aspects of semiconductors, we chose one which had in former years a very large expansion. It was surface physics, the surface of semiconductors physics, and this was started in Pavia in 1960, and it had a great development in various Italian universities in the following years, so that we have given in this field some, especially in the field of electronic surface states, we have been able to give a contribution which has been recognized by the literature.
So you have hinted at the problem of the connection with industry. When you were in Messina, you were far away from the industrial centers in the north, where the semiconductor industry was started at Segesta.
In (???) yes, first.
Did you have any connection with industry? Was industry supporting your research?
It was supporting it a little bit financially, but it was supporting it very much with the help of people working at SGS. They came in early Saturday, they came in Pavia and we worked together and so we knew what they were doing, and they also made some preparations for us, so that some of the samples were cut, soldering was done in a more professional way than the way that we would do in Pavia. Also we developed some work that was of interest to industry — for example, the study of diffusion of lithium in germanium. At that time germanium was the main material for the electronic industry. At that time there were very good young people in industry near Milan, and so there was a very good connection, and some of them have become now big shots in industry.
They were engineers there more than physicists?
Well, no. There were physicists. There were physicists and there were chemists and engineers.
You said at that time, you meant 1958?
There were not that many physicists in industry in 1958. The only physicists in industry were the solid state physicists, so I don’t think that there were that many. In fact, I think the situation has changed, but it has changed in the opposite way than you’d think, because at the beginning, for example, the people who started this industry in semiconductors, which is now one of the main electronic industries in Europe, the SGS, started it with physicists. I remember, the man who grew crystals, the man who made junctions, the man who made all the chemical preparations were physicists or chemists, and so, in — and some of them, at least two of them were from and Pavia, and —
Do you remember the names?
I remember (???), (???), (???) and Filani.
Filani is now at (???).
Yes. And all of them came to Pavia every Saturday so it was very good, very nice. Of course, one day a week, it was not very much, but nevertheless it helped in giving the feeling and the reciprocal interest in the things we were doing.
This story never came up in the other interviews. Well, just hints. Of course Bassani was not interested because Bassani was a theoretician. He was not much involved in experimental work. All you had was Segesta? Segesta was a state-owned enterprise.
At that time it was not state-owned. At that time it was a private company. It was owned by Tiletra and the head of it was an engineer, Floriani, who had some perspective on what a modern industry should be. But by these contacts with industry and of course by contacts with American colleagues, and people who (???) and also students who went to the United States, we realized soon what Italy was doing in this field was not adequate. It was not adequate to the scientific importance of the field, and it was not adequate to the industrial achievement at that time. It was the time of the field effect transistor and the (???) technology of the transistor, so that the integrated circuits came later on, but it was the time of the diode etc. So, it followed in 1960, from the beginning of 1960, also the fact that I was in Messina, Bassani was also in Messina, and it followed, the moment of organization in physics, in solid state physics. We tried to put basis of national organization, which is now called (???).
(crosstalk) At that time, I made some effort in organizing such a thing, with the aim of obtaining more recognition and more financial support.
Well, you know that Giulotto always criticized the situation in Italy, pointing out that in his opinion, too many funds were allotted to support fundamental physics or nuclear and particle physics were over-financed with respect to solid state. What was your opinion on this issue?
Well, I think, my opinion is similar but not exactly the same, that of Professor Giulotto. My opinion is that solid state physics was under-financed, and some of this was due to ourselves. I mean, the fact that we didn’t succeed in making things known to our colleagues, the scientific interest of solid state physics. Of course, the practical applications, the applied physics was completely ignored by the academic staff of Italy at that time, so it was difficult. They considered it as engineering, as something which was not worth working and this was due probably to the fact that the scientific community was too small at that time. So if you take, say, very few people, then they have a tendency to look at the very fundamental things. The connections come when you develop a fundamental concept — divide it, consider it in its various applications — so you need a larger community. This may be one reason. Of course, there might also be other reasons which are not very good for an interview.
The reasons in Italy, the field of particle physics has always been privileged was because originally it was cosmic rays and it was cheap physics. Then it became very expensive physics, because of the need of the large accelerators, but originally it was the cheapest form of physics, so that’s why it was most cultivated in Italy. So you remember back between 1958 and 1962, there was Segesta. And what about the Olivetti, which was the real giant?
Of course, Segesta is very important.
Well, Olivetti at that time was mainly a mechanical industry.
Not yet converted into electronics?
Not yet converted into electronics. It was converted into electronics by buying SGS and making an agreement with General Electric and they built a laboratory in Milanese, and we had connections with this laboratory. At that time, there was the Olivetti General Electric and (???) at a later time. However, they made an agreement with General Electric and other American industries, I can’t remember — I remember; to buy mainly the know-how. So the research was not very supported. And for this interview, I have looked back this morning. I have looked back on some of the old documents and for example, I came upon one very striking thing. Once I was the chairman of this group, this organization for the condensed matter in Italy, and at that time, I had a talk with two very good people working in Olivetti General Electric, and they said that the firm was closing down the research laboratory, unless they could obtain some external support, so the state, the National Research Council supported this new group of solid state physics in Italy. We obtained from the National Research Council that they supported some of this work, so instead of having help, we helped the development of (???) — which was a very good thing, because of course, industry is a thing that it brings employment, money, etc. I have no regret that, but just to show you how different things may be in Italy than in the United States, for example.
Because Italian industries prefer to buy US parts?
Yes. And probably also it was the only thing to do, because they moved too late, it was probably, 1964, 1965, this thing I remember. It was probably too late for developing a thing that was really competitive in — However, then we developed, we had some connection with Olivetti mainly on… And the common interest of the GNSM and the — They organized for example a course, starting 1967, for their staff and I taught in (???) for several years and some of my colleagues working in solid state have taught in that —
To the engineers?
To the engineers, yes, and of course, through that, there was a connection, so we knew what they were doing. Now, this is what is concerned with my personal career. Of course, I know that they have now connection with other groups. But with me, the connection was simply through giving courses in (???) for their staff to have some more understanding of the basics of solid state physics.
They made an agreement, as you said, with General Electric, and tried to move from the electro-mechanical level to the electronic level. What can you say about your connection with the (NATO?) schools and how was it to work in this (???)?
Well, of course, any professor, any researcher in physics teaches which is our job. So teaching was done on several occasions in the NATO schools, and, especially for — what I’m concerned, I collaborated with John Ziman and now Norman March for the international schools at the Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste. This is a school which now has — it is for developing countries’ students, but it has obtained a good standard in the world, I think not only in condensed matter but mainly in nuclear, elementary particle physics, but also in condensed matter.
Also in condensed matter.
Also in condensed matter. The school in condensed matter started in 1968, and regularly in 1970. The chairman of the Trieste committee was John Ziman and now Norman March of Oxford and we organized a school every two years, and I think are the most known physicists in developing countries.
That’s an important job that’s being carried out by the Trieste school. Well, of course you taught in many places, as you said, in Italy, Mexico City, also Brussels. How would you compare the Italian development in solid state physics with the development for instance in the other European Countries, except Great Britain, of course.
Well, if you compare it from the point of view of achievements, I would say that in various fields, we can compare with many countries in Europe. For example, for the modulation spectroscopy that was very popular around 1965, this was developed in Italy — in Italy and in the United States at the same time — and it is not always recognized in the literature, though there are places where it has been recognized. And the funding of our research, of course, cannot be compared with the funding of research in France or in Germany. It’s difficult to make comparison of this with the Soviet Union, but certainly it does not compare with the Soviet Union, quantitatively. So we have always been forced to consider very definite scientific problems, and attach to a problem more than to a field; because to develop a field, you need more money than we had in those days.
Also in the sixties?
Also in the sixties. And of course this was the beginning. Now things have changed. Now there are many people working in material science. There are many people working semiconductors. Solid state physics has developed in the various universities and the various laboratories. There is a lot of money that goes into it, but nothing like in German or in — specially for the fields which are very costly, like surface physics, which need —
— which was your Italian specialty, you said.
Well, it was not Italian specialty, but certainly Italy gave a contribution in this field, so, the money was not enough.
The money from the state?
From the state. Late, in 1965, 1967, 1970 there was a project for using the synchrotron radiation for doing optical studies or X-ray studies here in Frescati by using a storage ring of the National Institute for Nuclear Physics and in this connection, the fact that we were connected, we got a lot of money. The project was very well funded, but it was funded too late. I started it in 1967, which was just at the same time as Hamburg started the same project. But in the beginning people did not realize it was an important thing, so again, money was not given, and then when, they saw the large developments in Stanford in Hamburg, in Novosibirsk in Orsay etc., then the money came in through the National Research Institute for Nuclear Physics, and the CNR I think now is well funded.
I see. Again, this was always money from CNR, from the state, and —
There was some money from industry. I think (???) contributed to a very small extent, buying a computer, at least giving us a computer, that was used for the X-ray beam and there was also Fiat which gave a small contribution, but mainly the money came from the state.
Came from the state. I see. So the contribution of Italian industry is still very low.
…there is not a negative contribution?
I think it is still a negative contribution, because the state is really helping for industry. I don’t know what, for research. I don’t know whether they use this money for squaring the budgets.
So, did you ever have an offer for a job from industry?
When I was very young.
You turned it down?
Well, then I preferred to stay at the university since my real interest was more in freedom of research than finalized research.
Ok, so, only at the beginning, just after graduation.
Yes, for the first five years or so.
Did you ever consider migrating to another country?
Well, of course, having lived two years in the United States. I have considered it. I had a lot of offers for jobs in the United States, but nevertheless at that time, the end of 1950’s, Italy was booming. Our economy was booming. Money was sound, so we were expecting really that with an effort; we could bridge the gap and become mature, modern country, so I participated in that feeling. I decided to stay in Italy.
Did you ever serve on any government panels?
I have served in what is called National Committee for Physics of the CNR, 1968, and years after.
I see. And what was your impression of that experience?
I think it is a difficult job, and I was not engaged as much as to be able to give any judgment. It’s a difficult job to judge; yes, it is science management. You should judge from papers which is a good project, and which a bad one and it is not always simple. I think it could be done better than it is done, but it was not done in a better way when I was on that committee.
I see, so you had that job for —?
For four years. And then, of course, in this (???) I worked in management of research for many years, first as a chairman, then on various boards.
You succeeded in bridging the gap between the solid state and particle physics a little bit?
A little bit. Very, very little.
So you were also on the EPS Society, the European Physical Society?
Yes. I am a member, the Semiconductor Section of the Condensed Matter Division. I organized several conferences; I was in touch with the various national and international organizations for that business.
And is European solid state physics more intensely cultivated in Germany and Great Britain?
In Great Britain and also in France.
Also in France?
Also in France; and to some extent also in the northern countries.
The Scandinavian countries?
The Scandinavian countries, and of course very much in the Soviet Union. I think in the Soviet Union, it is by far the most cultivated; the most important. It is not a bad choice. From a Marxist viewpoint, science has to serve society, so —
I don’t know if this is the proper chronological point, I don’t think so, but, what was your wife’s background, education?
My wife was a physicist, and started doing physics after she married me.
That’s the rule.
Probably it was an unfortunate occasion, but now she’s a school teacher.
I see. I don’t have a complete list of your papers. Have you ever written any popular articles or books or anything of that sort?
No, I have never written any. Well, occasionally for newspapers, but not books.
But you did write some articles.
Yes, I have, for some of the monthly magazines.
I see. What is your attitude toward popularization, especially in the field of solid state, your field, or physics in general?
Well, of course, it’s also that, a very difficult thing, and it should be done better than it is done now, because the support for financing research very often comes from the popularization of the ideas. But of course, we have been very weak in solid state physics, in this type of popularization, although of course solid state physics in general is very good for that, because it has really changed our life with the transistor, with the (???).
Sure, but 99 percent popular articles are either the Black Holes or Quarks or the Big Bang, the cosmological things, or elementary particles. It seems these two extremes provide the most spectacular —
Well, in Italy. I think if you look in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, for example, you see a more balanced type of approach.
Sure. Very sort of professional, not so much — I would consider SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, of course, a (???) journal, let’s say, (???) similar to LA SCIENCE DE LA VIE. SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN is considered rather —
But there are good papers, for example, in RESEARCHE (???).
RESEARCHE is a good journal. Perhaps it reflects the fact that France is pretty strong in solid state.
Well, in science in general.
Science in general. Well, what is the attitude of your colleagues toward popularization? What do you think the others think?
Well, I would say, the average member of the academic community does not think very much about popularization. I think my colleagues, at least here in Rome, are more aristocratic in a sense. They think science is for the scientists. However, we see in Italy that there are some people who have gone this way very far, so this is not true for everybody.
Sure, sure. But, there are some — for instance, (???) is popularizing his subject almost every day, either on TV or writing for journals, but from the solid state physics, except, I think Fieschi(?) wrote some, wrote books popularizing applied research in general and technological, physical technological research. Of the solid state Italian social community, he was the one who wrote the most in popularization. So, well, what have we left out?
It depends upon you.
I think we have touched upon most of the subjects, and I thank Professor Chiarotti.