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A Brazilian adventure


Wataghin in a Brazilian Air Force plane with a device for measuring cosmic rays at a high altitude, in 1940IFUSP

The effort to create the University of São Paulo (USP), in 1934, brought French, German and Italian professors, and even a Portuguese one, to Brazil. Teodoro Ramos, an engineer from the São Paulo Polytechnic School, went to Europe to invite docents who, according to the critic and essayist Antonio Candido, instituted the modern notion of scientific research and intellectual research in Brazil. Of all the foreigners that helped to set up USP, the most successful one, perhaps, was Gleb Wataghin, born Ukrainian but naturalized Italian, a son of Russians parents whose work here was recognized abroad just a few years after he began his physics research in Brazil.

“On one occasion, my wife Amelia and I were at a congress on the history of physics in Italy when the American science historian Lewis Pyenson approached us with the following question: ‘How did Wataghin work that miracle in São Paulo in the 1930s?’” recounts Ernst Hamburger, from the Institute of Physics (IF) at USP. Sílvio Salinas, also from IF, tells a similar story regarding the physicist Freeman Dyson, in the mid 1980s.

“At a colloquium in Pittsburgh, Dyson mentioned the ‘Brazilian adventure’ of Wataghin: in unlikely circumstances, in a place with no tradition of physics teaching and research, he managed within just a few years to publish Brazilian articles in Physical Review,” Salinas recounts. The work was conducted jointly with the students that he had trained.


Wataghin in 1971, in front of the institute named after him: a Unicamp tribute to the scientistSIARQ / UNICAMP

Wataghin initiated two lines of research. In the experimental one, the people who worked alongside him were Marcello Damy de Souza Santos, Paulus Aulus Pompeia and Yolande Monteux; in the theoretical one, Mario Schenberg, Paulo Saraiva de Toledo and Abraão de Morais. Subsequently, César Lattes, Sonia Ashauer, Walter Schutzer, Jayme Tiomno, Roberto Salmeron, Paulo Leal Ferreira and Oscar Sala joined them.

For Henrique Fleming, from IF, who met Wataghin in 1967 in Turin, the early days of the physics course were exceptional. “I don’t know if it’s possible to find more than a dozen examples like that one in the history of physics,” he says. “And the main character on this stage was Wataghin, the most extraordinary person I’ve ever met.”

Gleb Wataghin (1899-1986) was born in Birsula, Ukraine, and studied in Kiev. In 1920, his family was in Turin, having fled the communist revolution. It was here that he graduated in physics and mathematics. In 1929, he began teaching at the University of Turin. When he went to Italy, Teodoro Ramos’s first choice for the physics chair was Enrico Fermi, who, however, suggested the young professor. Fascism, difficulty being appointed to a senior position and the attractive salary convinced Wataghin to come to Brazil.

In São Paulo, he apparently met the right people. His students came from good secondary schools, were eager to learn and curious about these foreigners who did everything differently from the old Portuguese traditions. Wataghin encouraged his students to go abroad to work with physicists such as Fermi, Paul Dirac, Arthur Compton, William Bragg, Eugene Wigner, John Wheeler, R.G. Herb and Cecil Powell. This effort bore fruit. As from the 1940s, a number of physics institutions sprung up: the Brazilian Center for Physics Research, the Institute of Theoretical Physics, which is now part of the Paulista State University, and the Technological Institute of Aeronautics, among others.


In the 1970s, at his home in Turin: a key figure for Brazilian physicsFAMILY ARCHIVES

The Institute of Physics of the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) started in 1966, headed by Damy, who got Lattes to join it. In 1972, the institute was renamed after Gleb Wataghin – who was then a visiting professor at Unicamp – and Rogério Cezar de Cerqueira Leite became its head.

During World War II, the Italian government wanted its professors to return to the country. Wataghin knew that this might be dangerous for him, as he was neither a fascist nor a native Italian. “He stayed here until 1949, when he went back to head the Institute of Physics of Turin,” explains his granddaughter Lucia Wataghin, a professor of Italian language and literature at USP. The daughter of André, one of Gleb’s two children, Lucia says her grandfather never forgot Brazil.