In the footsteps of the “boys of via Panisperna”: between scientific research and civil commitment

Enrico Fermi and the “Boys of Via Panisperna” are a notable example of the intertwining of scientific research and civil commitment. We intend to continue the research, based only on primary sources and in particular on new archive material that has become available, such as the material by Emilio Segrè in Berkeley, in order to clarify some further aspects of this general theme. In particular, the complex aspects of the discovery of the effects of slow neutrons and the relative patent, the development of research in Rome during the war, the construction of the solidarity chain between physicists, following the Diaspora due to racial laws, will be considered. We will also broaden the research to other physicists directly connected to the Via Panisperna club, in particular Aldo Pontremoli and Giulio Cesare Trabacchi.

By way of example, special attention will be paid to their involvement in the famous polar expedition of the airship “Italia” directed in 1928 by General Umberto Nobile. If on the one hand Pontremoli was the “physicist on board” in what was the first scientific expedition to the North Pole, in which he tragically lost his life, on the other hand Trabacchi played an important role in providing the expedition, as Director of the Physical Laboratory of Public Health in via Panisperna, some important measuring instruments, of which we will reconstruct the history.


The airship “Italia” in one of the intermediate stages on the journey to the North Pole. Source: ACS, Duce’s Secretariat, Reserved correspondence (1922-1943)