Living a full life with a scientist

By one of those strange coincidences that seem to happen to all of us as we pass through the middle of the journey of our life, I recently came across an unusual book Moments in the Life of a Scientist by Bruno Rossi, an eminent former professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge, 1990, Cambridge University Press).

Sep 1st, 2004

By one of those strange coincidences that seem to happen to all of us as we pass through the middle of the journey of our life, I recently came across an unusual book Moments in the Life of a Scientist by Bruno Rossi, an eminent former professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge, 1990, Cambridge University Press). I must admit that I had never heard of Professor Rossi until I began studying contemporary Italian literature in Cambridge with his widow, Nora Rossi. Although Signora Rossi—as she prefers to be called, using the formal style of Italian—is reluctant to discuss the life of her husband, she reveals the major contributions that she made to Professor Rossi's life in the course of a long and rewarding career in a coda to the book.

Just before the start of World War II, the young Bruno and Nora Rossi were living in the venerable university town of Padua, Germany. As the German invasion forces moved south, the Rossis managed to obtain passports and escape to Copenhagen, Denmark, where they met with Danish atomic physicist Niels Bohr. From there, they traveled on to Manchester, England, and the laboratories of Patrick M. S. Blackett, another leading physicist. However, the news from Germany became worse and worse. The Rossis became convinced that their safety would be more ensured if they moved across the Atlantic, which they did in 1939 on the French ocean liner Libertè.

As leading U.S. scientists got the word that momentous events were about to take place in New Mexico, many of the best and brightest atomic scientists from around the world wanted to be part of those events and to join the teams led by Enrico Fermi, Robert Oppenheimer, and others. The Rossis moved first to New York and then to the University of Chicago before heading to Denver in a ramshackle bus fitted with instruments for detecting cosmic rays, the lifelong research field of Professor Rossi. In the chapter she contributed to her husband's book, Signora Rossi details the pleasures and perils of research in the high Colorado mountains.

For a time, Signora Rossi became an unpaid lab assistant to her husband, cleaning equipment and soldering minuscule wires into delicate detectors. She notes wryly, "I was asked to sit and count the tic-tac of the Geiger counters and only then did I accept for the first time the existence of cosmic rays." She admits she thought cosmic rays were strictly the invention of her husband and other scientists. She also discovered that water boils at 80° in the Colorado mountains, making the production of pasta almost impossible, a near disaster for a newly married Italian wife.

Although the Rossis were reluctant to go to Los Alamos, Signora Rossi, with her well-developed artistic sensibility, was bowled over by the constantly changing colorful New Mexico desert landscape. She was also entranced by the native Indians. "For me, worried about living in the exclusive environment of super-scientists, getting to know the Indian population was a very special experience," she notes. Despite the looming threat of the atomic bomb, Signora Rossi describes life in Los Alamos as an almost idyllic experience, without the usual, intense scientific rivalry that is characteristic of university research centers. She attributes much of this to Oppenheimer's intelligence and organizational abilities.

After World War II ended, Bruno Rossi accepted a professorship at MIT where he was to remain until his death in 1990. Reflecting on those years, Signora Rossi says, "I think back sometimes to all those years gone by so fast. Was I a scientist's wife, or instead just a wife, a mother, a grandmother or maybe even simpler, an immigrant woman?"

As Bruno Rossi quotes in the words of the great Italian poet Dante Alighieri in The Inferno (Canto 26, 119), "You were born not to live as brutes, but to follow virtue and knowledge." The Rossis have indeed followed virtue and knowledge.

Jeffrey Bairstow
Contributing Editor
jnbairstow@verizon.net

More in Research