While the degree course in Physics was established in Cagliari in the twenties of the last century, a course in Experimental Physics was already present in the curriculum of the Royal University of Cagliari inaugurated in 1764 following the restructuring and expansion carried out by Carlo Emanuele III.
Initially the course appeared as a fundamental subject of the Degree Course in Philosophy and Arts and in that period a physics cabinet was founded “among the scientific establishments to aid the studies”.
The Cabinet was entrusted to Father Giovanni Antonio Cossu of the Servants of Mary and as an initial endowment it had eight cases of instruments from Turin. On a national level, the Faculty of Sciences, established by royal decree in 1860, was divided into four classes: Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and Natural History. But in Cagliari, until the establishment of the degree course in Physics in 1924-25, there was only one course in Experimental Physics for the first single two-year period in the Faculty of Sciences and a similar course for Medicine. There were also courses in Chemical Physics and Mineralogy, covered in a discontinuous manner.
Antonio Pacinotti was appointed professor of Experimental Physics and Director of the associated Physics Cabinet of the Royal University by decree of March 30, 1873 and remained Professor in Cagliari until December 31, 1881. Pacinotti's activity in Cagliari is documented on the site:
where the reconstructions of Pacinotti's machines are presented.
Born in Pisa in 1841, admitted to the University in 1856, at the age of 17 Pacinotti designed a magnetoelectric machine in 1858, that is, a device for producing electric current, reversible, which could therefore also be used as a motor.
However, the brilliant inventor neglected to patent his device, which was copied and patented in France. Reason why Pacinotti's life passed between complaints and claims, even if his scientific priority was never questioned. He continued to deal with his invention at various times. Even in the Physics Cabinet of Cagliari, despite many difficulties, due to the limited means at his disposal, he built a specimen of his magneto-electric machine (currently exhibited in the Physics Museum of Sardinia at the Physics Department), thanks to its strength inventiveness and with the help of the preparatory technician Giuseppe Dessì, the same one who subsequently joined Giovanni Gugliemo for many years, who was director of the Physics Cabinet for 37 years (1891-1928) until the arrival of Rita Brunetti.
The Cagliari period was initially experienced by Pacinotti as an exile, as he himself admitted in a letter to the Rector Patrizio Gennari but over the years he adapted so well that he hesitated for a long time when in 1881 he was offered the opportunity to return to Pisa to succeed his father as holder of the Chair of Technological Physics.
In making Pacinotti assume that attitude, both the fact that he could now have a satisfactorily equipped workshop in Cagliari and his meeting Maria Grazia Sequi-Salazar, whom he later married in the Cathedral of Cagliari in 1882, had a decisive influence. also projects for the construction of a meteorological observatory to be installed on the Elephant Tower, conducted research on electrostatics on the phenomenon of vaporization and on the permanence of water and other liquids and built a Bunsen photometer for the inspection of the intensity of lights of the Public Administration.
Rita Brunetti and the birth of Nuclear Physics
In 1928 Rita Brunetti arrived in Cagliari. A prominent figure in the Italian scientific panorama of the early decades of the twentieth century, Rita Brunetti was the first woman to hold a chair of Physics (in Ferrara) and to direct a Physics institute in Italy: that of Cagliari precisely, of which she was headed from 1928 to 1936. Born in Milan, external student in mathematics at the Scuola Normale in Pisa, graduated in Physics in Pisa in 1913 with Occhialini, she then moved to Florence under the guidance of Garbasso and came into contact with physicists of the reach of Fermi, Carrara, Rasetti, Persico. From 1926 to 1928 he was an extraordinary professor in Ferrara, but he taught and worked in Bologna, where he was a student of Bruno Rossi.
From 1928 to 1936 she headed the Physics Institute of Cagliari, where she also held courses in Experimental Physics and Higher Physics.
In 1936, taking with her faithful collaborator Zaira Ollano and her brilliant student, Mario Ladu, Brunetti left for Pavia where she taught and directed the Institute until her early death in 1942.
Brunetti carried out an important restructuring of the physics laboratories to make them suitable for research in the then leading sectors: radiation physics and nascent nuclear physics. In this the scholar transformed "the modest rooms into decent laboratories" suitable for "teaching and research in many fields of Physics, including the very modern one of Nuclear Physics at the time".
In the Cagliari period she worked on the optical properties of rare earth ions in solution (there was still no precise spectroscopic classification of these elements) and she studied the paramagnetism of the ions of the transition groups of the periodic table.
Also important for Cagliari was its impact on teaching, which was profoundly renewed and updated: the lessons of the Higher Physics course were collected in a book that had great success and diffusion: "The atom and its radiations" published by Zanichelli in 1932.
It is evidence of the author's didactic effort, and the topics covered in the course covered the state of knowledge of the time regarding the structure of the atom and the emission and absorption processes that take place in it. The principles used for the interpretation of the phenomena described and the experimental data exhibited are typical of very modern wave physics and quantum physics.
Thanks to her teachings and to the tools she made available (such as the Raman spectrograph and the Geiger counter), the students were able to carry out thesis on topics researched by the teacher and of great relevance.
Some of the research groups still operating in the Physics department of Cagliari, such as that of experimental spectroscopists and that of nuclear physics, can ultimately be traced back to the school of Rita Brunetti.
Raffaele Raul Gatto and Theoretical Physics
At the end of the 1950s, a new Chair in the field of Physics was established in Cagliari: the Chair of Theoretical Physics.
The competition saw the winner Raffaele Raoul Gatto (born in Catania in 1930) and a graduate of the Scuola Normale of Pisa.
In the years he spent in Cagliari, Gatto formed a group of young theoretical physicists who then followed him to Florence in 1962.
Guido Altarelli and Gabriele Veneziano must be remembered among his best-known students. A few years later the Chair of Theoretical Physics was won by Bernardino Bosco (from the University of Turin) who gave a strong impetus to the study of Nuclear Physics. Bosco remained in Cagliari until 1970, to then fill the chair of Theoretical Physics at the University of Florence.
Among the professors of Theoretical Physics of the following years we remember Pietro Menotti and Enzo Marinari.