Explanation Hans Christian Ørstedt Philipp Reis Alessandro Volta Enrico Fermi Mario Corbino
Ettore Majorana Luigi Galvani Marija Aleksaite-Gimbutiene Carl Auer von Welsbach


Orso Mario Corbino - Liceo Michele Amari Giarre
1876 - 1937

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Orso Mario CORBINO exerted a great influence on the development of modern physics in Italy. He was born in Augusta in Sicily on 30th April 1876 to a modest family. His mother’s parents were well-off, having some land, but the family was also a large one with a lot of sons and as a result of this the girls had only a little dowry for their marriages.

Also Orso Mario’s family was large with 4 sons and 3 daughters. The young Orso Mario, the second-born in the family, soon showed his talent and when he was only 9 his name was passed to the local bishop for being a very promising boy. The bishop soon offered him a position in the seminary hoping he would become a good priest. However the boy only stayed two years in the seminary. At 11 he realised he had no vocation to the priesthood and with his mothers support he managed to leave the seminary.

In order to complete the child’s education the Corbino’s sent him to study as a churchman, having no other good teachers available. Later he went to Catania where he attended a lyceum and finished his studies in only 2 years. As a matter of fact he met Mr Stracciati, the Physics teacher, who allowed him to follow the course for the last-grade students and to use the equipment he was in charge with. Corbino would later admit a special affection and attention to his teacher but never explained why.

Leaving the high school Corbino enrolled to the University of Catania where he studied for only one year, as a friend of his convinced him to move to Palermo University, where, he said, he would find a better school. In Palermo Corbino completed his Physics studies under the supervision of Damiano Macaluso, a learned physicist who had written a largely-appreciated text on thermo-dynamics after Clausius. Professor Macaluso acknowledged at once Corbino’s talent,, invited him to his house and offered him his friendship.

He took his degree in 1896 when he was just 20. He spent those years after his degree teaching at a high school in southern Italy, at Catanzaro where his elder brother worked as a Carabinieri officer. After a couple of months he went back to Palermo where he kept his job as a teacher at a high school for 5 years. Still in Palermo he could have free access to Macaluso’s laboratory where, using the small equipment at his disposal, he could go on in his research in whatever time he could spare from his teaching.

A couple of years later ,in 1898, together with Macaluso, he discovered the anomalous rotating effect of sodium vapours in a magnetic field, known today as Macaluso-Corbino effect. Corbino soon explained the phenomenon and its relationship with the Zeeman effect and this gave him an immediate international reputation.

In the following years he produced important papers on magneto-optics and was well known in Italy and abroad for his great mastery on this subject. It was clear to all that Corbino was one of the great hopes of Italian science. In 1904 Prof. Richi from Bologna University showed him high esteem and friendship and from then on his career was rapid and brilliant. Meanwhile he got married with a young girl from Palermo. He won two competitions to be a University teacher, one in Electro-technics and the other in Physics. Having to choose he decided for Physics and he became Professor at Messina.

A few days before the terrible earthquake which entirely destroyed Messina in 1908, causing thousands and thousands of deaths, he had been invited to Rome by the senator Prof. Blaserna, director of the Institute of Physics. The disaster interrupted the communication and his friends were afraid he had died in the quake. Luckily the Corbino’s were safe, and unexpectedly one day he knocked at the Institute door to start his new job.

It was at that time that he continued his research on magneto-optics, on the specific heat of high- temperature metals, on the Hall effect and other galvano- and thermo-magnetic phenomena. He was among the first scientists to acknowledge the importance of the cathode-ray oscillograph as an instrument of research and used it brilliantly several times although it was still a primitive device.

During World War I he dealt with military matters. He studied the vapour pressure of nitro-glycerine with great risk to his life, and then he devoted his efforts to improve x-ray equipment and, mostly its power supply. At the end of the war lots of public and private companies paid for Corbino’s services as a consultant or as an administrator. In 1920 he was appointed senator of the Kingdom on the Prime Minister’s proposal and in 1921 he joined the government as Minister for Education. In 1923 he was appointed Minister for the National Economy directly by Mussolini, although he had not joined, nor he would later, the National Fascist Party.

Corbino was gifted with a terrific scientific intelligence which impressed anyone talking with him. That impression would later be shared by Fermi and the new generation physicists. He could manage to answer every question with speed and precision, he understood quickly the crucial elements of a given problem, both human and everyday life or a scientific one. Around 1920 he was the only person in Italy to be up-dated and to appreciate the latest developments in physics of those years. He was a brilliant speaker with a personal and flourished style where it was easily perceived that he was of Sicilian origin. His wit was accompanied by a hearty temperament and an inclination to academic manoeuvres. He was particularly good at arranging staff promotions or transfers and it actually worked with them. He was shrewd and cunning but what distinguished him most from the university entourage was the nobility of his goals and the firmness of his judgement.

In spite of his great achievements he still had the regret that his talent couldn’t reach betters results in science, comparable to his expectations and ability. His life circumstances, after all, were too hard at the beginning to allow a full development to his potential ability.