Emilio Segrè

(1905-1989)


Emilio Gino Segrè was an Italian American physicist who, with Owen Chamberlain, won the 1959 Nobel Prize in Physics for “their discovery of the antiproton.”

He was born in Tivoli, Italy and enrolled in the University of Rome as an engineering student. He switched to physics in 1927 and earned his doctorate in 1928, having studied under Enrico Fermi.

After a stint in the Italian Army from 1928 and 1929, he worked with Otto Stern in Hamburg and Pieter Zeeman in Amsterdam as a Rockefeller Foundation fellow in 1930. Segrè was appointed assistant professor of physics at the University of Rome in 1932 and served until 1936. From 1936 to 1938 he was Director of the Physics Laboratory at the University of Palermo. After a visit to Ernest O. Lawrence's Berkeley Radiation Laboratory, he was sent a molybdenum strip from the laboratory's cyclotron deflector in 1937 which was emitted anamolous forms of radioactivity. After careful chemical and theoretical analysis, Segrè was able to prove that some of the radiation was being produced by a previously unknown element, dubbed technetium, and was the first artificially synthesized chemical element which does not occur in nature.

While Segrè on what was to be a summer visit to California in 1938, Mussolini's Fascist government passed anti-Semitic laws barring Jews from university positions. As a Jew, Segrè was now rendered an indefinite émigré. At the Berkeley Radiation Lab, Lawrence offered him a job as a Research Assistant — a relatively lowly position for someone who had discovered an element — for $300 a month. However, in Segrè's recollection, when Lawrence learned that Segrè was legally trapped in California, he dropped his pay to $116 a month (which many, including Segrè, saw as exploiting the situation). Segrè also found work as a lecturer of the physics department at the University of California, Berkeley. While at Berkeley, he helped discover the element astatine and the isotope plutonium-239 (which was later used to make the atom bomb dropped on Nagasaki).

From 1943 to 1946, he worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory as a group leader for the Manhattan Project. He was naturalized a U.S. citizen in 1944. Upon his return to Berkeley in 1946, he became a professor of physics, serving until 1972. In 1974, he returned to the University of Rome as a professor of nuclear physics.

He was also active as a photographer, and took many photos documenting events and people in the history of modern science. the American Institute of Physics named its photographic archive of physics history in his honor.

He died at the age of 84 of a heart attack.


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