Eye on the Prize

A Mind Always in Motion: The Autobiography of Emilio Segrè

by Emilio Segrè
University of California Press, 332 pp., $30.00

Emilio Segrè
Emilio Segrè; drawing by David Levine

In 1926 Enrico Fermi was appointed a full professor of physics in Rome. He was only twenty-five years old, but he had already made several significant contributions to physics, the most important of which had to do with the statistical mechanics of particles like electrons. This was the first of several discoveries for which Fermi deserved a Nobel prize (although he did not receive one until 1938). He was, at the time, probably the only scientist in Italy who really understood modern physics. Until 1928 there was not even a text in Italian suitable for introducing graduate students to the subject. Fermi was determined to change all of that, and he began recruiting students who were not much younger than he was.

One of the early recruits was Emilio Segrè, whose posthumous autobiography. A Mind Always in Motion, has been published only recently, nearly four years after his death in 1989 at the age of eighty-four. Segrè wanted his book to appear posthumously because, as he writes, “I tell the truth the way it was and not the way many of my colleagues wish it had been.” He was not a man of much tact, as his book reflects.

Segrè was born into a prosperous, nonobservant Jewish family that had lived in Italy for centuries. His father owned a paper mill in Tivoli and, as a sort of unpaid service, looked after the nearby Villa d’Este, whose absentee owner, the Archduke Francis Ferdinand, wanted the buildings maintained at no cost to himself. One of the most attractive parts of Segrè’s book is his description of his seemingly idyllic childhood in Tivoli and then in Rome. He has particularly fond memories of his bachelor uncle Claudio, an engineer and member of the Italian academy, who encouraged Segrè’s budding interest in science, especially technical gadgets involving electricity. By the time Segrè reached high school he had begun to read Maxwell’s Theory of Heat and other works of advanced physics on his own. He found it difficult. “I had not yet learned,” he writes, “that in order to study physics, one has to use paper and pencil and work through the calculations as one goes along. Usually I read these books at school during boring classes that I disdained.”

After graduating from high school, Segrè entered the University of Rome intending to become an engineer and perhaps work in his father’s paper mill. He also discovered mountaineering and, with a group of fellow scientists—and without guides—completed a number of challenging climbs, including the so-called Italian route on the Matterhorn. It was through his climbing friends that Segrè first heard about the arrival of a “sort of genius” named Enrico Fermi. Segrè attended one of his lectures and was extremely impressed but nonetheless continued with his engineering, which he was finding increasingly distasteful. However, in the spring of 1927 he met Franco Rasetti, a young…

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