For a history of Italian geophysics

Read time: 6 mins
Per una storia della geofisica italiana
Geppi Calcara e Franco Foresta Martin
Springer Italia
Year 1938. The director of the newly established National Institute of Geophysics (ING) launches an innovative project that fits well in the autarkic economy of fascism: to exploit wind energy for electricity generation.
For a history of Italian geophysics

Year 1938. The director of the newly established National Institute of Geophysics (ING) launches an innovative project that fits well in the autarkic economy of fascism: to exploit wind energy for electricity generation in order to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, in line with what other countries had already been doing especially in the United States and Denmark. To identify the best sites for installing the wind power plants three Italian regions are chosen where the first necessary anemological analysis should take place: Liguria, Istria, Calabria. In order to draw up the "wind maps " a new type of anemograph had been realized in the meanwhile in the ING laboratory to be mass produced by a company in Bologna. But the imminent war would halt the project and the anemographs would remain packed in the ING warehouses for the duration of the conflict.

The Director of ING who had advanced this farsighted proposal - his subsequent attempts to revive the project in the aftermath of the war were unsuccessful- was Antonino Lo Surdo, an experimental physicist born in Siracusa in 1880, whose name is now known to scholars of the history of physics in particular for his conflicting relationship with Enrico Fermi's group of "boys", while he remains virtually unknown to the general public (although there is a street in Rome named Lo Surdo, at the side of Marconi Avenue, and in 1980 a commemorative stamp with his portrait was issued).

He is indeed the central character around which revolve the events narrated by Franco Foresta Martin, who is among the most experienced scientific journalists in Italy (as well as trained geochemist ), and Geppi Calcara from the "Archivio Centrale dello Stato" (National Historical Archives) in the book entitled "Per una storia della geofisica italiana" (For a history of Italian geophysics). The book is the result of the discovery of unpublished documents and the meticulous analysis of publications of the time. It casts new light on a crucial and dramatic period for science in Italy and re-evaluates at the same time the figure of Antonino Lo Surdo both as a scientist and as a research manager.

The story begins around 1930, after Mussolini had appointed the Nobel Prize Guglielmo Marconi as head of the National Research Council in order to revitalize Italian science. The first step was the reorganization of the meteorological services, at the time known as "services of meteorological predictions", being part of the geophysics department. And - in the wake of the disastrous earthquakes and volcanic eruptions of recent decades that had caused very heavy damage and casualties - a seismic monitoring network and a first embryo of civil protection were set up. But the Office of Meteorology and Geophysics (which was located in the historic Roman College founded by the Jesuits in the sixteenth century) was not considered adequate for the coordination of the new services.

For this reason on 15 November 1936 ING is created (which in 1999 became INGV, National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology). As head of the new institute, Marconi appoints Antonino Lo Surdo, Full Professor in Advanced Physics at the University of Rome "La Sapienza" and a keen scholar of terrestrial physics. An interest shared by his much higher rated colleague Enrico Fermi. The relationships between the two are strained, as Laura Capon Fermi also narrates (with some discretion) in her autobiographical book "Atoms in the family." And even worse are those between Lo Surdo and Emilio Segrè, whose harsh reviews were well known and feared.

Lo Surdo is described as a stiff and formal man, authoritarian and paternalistic. A grumpy and difficult character, probably also as a consequence of the personal tragedy that had struck him, when he lost his family and girlfriend in the earthquake of Messina, during which he managed instead to escape death. His scientific knowledge as well was often being mocked by his more brilliant and younger fellows. Yet Edoardo Amaldi (albeit he had been a member, as it is known, of the group of Panisperna street) would later highlight his scientific merits. Lo Surdo was in fact an eclectic scholar, who during his life got involved in seismology and meteorology, spectroscopy and electronics, microwaves and radiation. Who, however, only ever published his works on Italian magazines, as was indeed the case for most of our scientists at that time.

Lo Surdo reached the height of his glory when, studying the effect of an electric field on the emission spectrum of a gas, obtained, through different techniques, the same result as the German Johannes Stark, who, for this finding, was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1919. So much so that the phenomenon is also known (at least in Italy) as the Stark-Lo Surdo effect. And during World War I he had worked on secret military projects, particularly on the so-called "listening" to the sound of submerged submarines using techniques developed by the Americans.

But it was in the management of ING and as head of the Institute of Physics in Rome (where he succeeded in 1937 to Orso Mario Corbino, the "protector" of the Fermi's group) that Antonino Lo Surdo gave his best, making the most of their scientists and activities. Although linked to fascism and a zealous executor of the racial laws, Lo Surdo supported and funded the research on cosmic rays by Gilberto Bernardini which represented the background of the famous experiments by Conversi, Pancini and Piccioni, in many ways considered as the birth of particle physics. And this despite some idiotic and surreal accusations of "Jewish studies" expressed with regard to these experiments by intellectuals and newspapers linked to the regime.

During the war, Lo Surdo was committed to motivate ING personnel in the pursuit of their studies and research, so that there was a real mobilization to keep on the activity of the seismic stations despite the damages suffered as a result of military actions and the Allied bombing (such as those that hit the University of Rome and the Geophysical Observatory of Trieste). Divided between Rome and Pavia, the ING geophysics network was thus able to survive the war. Moreover, Lo Surdo had initially tried (unsuccessfully) to obtain an exemption from conscription for his scientific and technical staff, managing anyway to wring exemptions, leaves and repatriations in their favour. For these reasons also, after the fall of fascism, he would not suffer from any real form of academic reprisal, except for a temporary suspension from the "Accademia dei Lincei".

In 1945, ING is detached from the CNR (National Research Council). Lo Surdo continues to manage the Institute, which he attends constantly and punctually, (where, however, he still engenders little sympathy) until 1949, when he dies for a stroke shortly after returning to Rome from Messina. He was 69 years old.

An anecdote. In the rich and meticulous reconstruction by Foresta Martin and Calcara, accompanied moreover by numerous photographs, three pages are devoted to the story of the "death ray" that - according to some witnesses, including  Rachele Mussolini - was developed by Marconi: microwave beams focused on the objective and capable of neutralizing moving engines or even of eliminating enemy troops. A story with no scientific evidence, which, however, last July was brought to the fore by Il Giornale and a couple of years ago was included in a cartoon of Martin Mystère, the "detective of the impossible."

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