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About Me

Biography

Gino SegrèI was born in Florence, Italy shortly before the onset of World War II. My parents, an Italian Jew and a German Catholic, wisely decided to leave Europe so we decamped for New York City, but in 1947 returned to our house in Florence, fortunately undamaged by the war. Eight years later my parents kissed me goodbye at the Santa Maria Novella train station and I went off to Harvard College. Four years after that, with a bachelor’s degree in physics, I moved down the Charles River for graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and after that went back to Europe for postdoctoral work at CERN, Geneva’s international accelerator laboratory. Two years in Berkeley during the exciting mid 1960s and the time had come to get a teaching position.

That brought me to the University of Pennsylvania in 1967 and I have stayed at Penn ever since with the occasional year off in e.g. Washington, Oxford and MIT. Now emeritus, during my tenure at Penn I pursued with enthusiasm and considerable pleasure a career as a high-energy elementary particle theorist with a side interest in astrophysics. Along the way I served my university in a number of ways, including a five-year stint as Chair of the physics department, traveled a good deal and collected various fellowships and awards from the Sloan Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Department of Energy.

But about fifteen years ago a long-term interest in history led me to begin robbing time from physics in order to begin doing some writing. There was another reason as well: after thirty years of specialized research, I wanted to try thinking about science in a broader context. And that is how I began my first book, a tale of temperature in all its broad ramifications.

Physics: The Family Business

I married a physicist’s daughter. My brother is a physicist as is one brother-in-law, an uncle, a nephew and several cousins. It’s not uncommon for children to follow in their parents’ footsteps while choosing a profession, whether that choice has been medicine, law or baseball so we shouldn’t be surprised if this happens with physics as well, even if it does seem like a more esoteric selection. There are even several cases of outrageous success in successive generations where parent and child have each managed to win the Physics Nobel Prize.

But even far more ordinary families can be full of physicists and mine is one of them. Some of us have been more and some less successful (the best I can do in the way of Nobel Prize winners is an uncle), but most of us seem to be glad to have made the choice. Perhaps we did so out of inertia, to use a physics term, but I think the main reason was seeing our seemingly satisfied relatives. In my own case, reading George Gamow’s books helped me make the decision. My father (not a physicist though an aficionado of the subject) also provided a push by saying that physics seemed to him to have what he regarded as a profession’s two greatest virtues. In his mind these were that you could tell right from wrong and you didn’t have to talk to anyone you didn’t want to speak with. He wasn’t entirely correct on either count, but that’s part of another story.

A Conversation With Gino Segre

In the Footsteps of His Uncle, Then His Father
By Claudia Dreifus

Published on August 14, 2007 in The New York Times

Gino Segre followed the family tradition of becoming a physicist, but then turned to writing science history for a broader audience.

Click here to read full interview.

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