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Talent and energy

An experimental physics pioneer in Brazil, Marcello Damy set up the country's first nuclear reactor

Archives of USP’s Physics Institute Damy at 25, conducting an experiment at the Morro Velho mine, in 1939Archives of USP’s Physics Institute

Physicist Marcello Damy de Souza Santos lived to the age of 95 and always got a great deal of praise for the work he conducted in the course of his long career. One element, however, shadowed him even before he entered the São Paulo Polytechnic School, in 1933, one year before the creation of the University of São Paulo (USP): competence. Damy had a knack for mending radios in the city of Campinas, where he was born, or in São Paulo, to which he relocated with his parents at the age of 17. He had an even greater knack for building complicated machines, such as a cosmic ray detector, or setting up a particle accelerator or a nuclear reactor. He was also competent in the lecture hall, having taught students such as César Lattes, Oscar Sala and José Goldemberg, and as a manager, according to his collaborators. Damy died on November 29, 2009 from a stroke and multiple organ failure.

“Besides his acknowledged capabilities as an experimental physicist, Marcello Damy created important research centers at several institutions,”  says physicist Sérgio Mascarenhas, the coordinator of the Advanced Studies Institute at USP in São Carlos. “He researched and taught his entire life and was an experimental physics pioneer in Brazil,” states his former student, Amélia Império Hamburger, from the USP Physics Institute, an author of several works on the history of physics.

Along with Paulus Aulus Pompeia, Damy migrated from electrical engineering to physics, drawn by new knowledge and the enthusiasm of the Russian-born Gleb Wataghin, a naturalized Italian who was one of the foreign professors in USP’s early days. This was also the case of Mario Schenberg, who migrated from mathematics to physics. “In the 1930’s, the professors taught physics like this: they studied the lesson the day before to teach to the students on the following day. The knowledge difference between the professor and the students was all of 24 hours,”  he told us in his interview with Pesquisa FAPESP (March 2003 issue). “When we began taking the courses taught by Wataghin and Luigi Fantappié in mathematics, a whole new world was unveiled,”  he said in another interview, this time to Amélia Hamburger and Carmen Weingrill, in 1992, for the Science Channel of the Ministry of Science and Technology.

After graduating in 1936, he started doing work on cosmic rays (read more about this on page 8), the same line of research as his professor. In 1938, Giuseppe Occhialini came from Italy, at Wataghin’s invitation. That same year, Damy went to England for a traineeship at Cambridge University’s Cavendish Laboratory, where he worked with the Nobel Prize laureate William Lawrence Bragg and started building a high-resolution piece of electronic equipment to study penetrating cosmic rays. However, as World War II became imminent, he was obliged to come back, in 1939. This is when he brought along with him the detector he had produced at the Cavendish Laboratory and which enabled him and Pompeia, under the guidance of  Wataghin, to discover the penetrating showers. The first experiments were conducted in São Paulo city’s Nove de Julho tunnel, which was being built at the time. They were confirmed in other places, such as the Morro Velho gold mine in Minas Gerais state. The article was published in Physical Review in 1940.

During the war, the Navy asked the researchers for help, to develop something capable of warning Brazilian ships about enemy submarines. Damy and Pompeia then built the first Brazilian sonar. In the post-war period, from 1945 to 1951, Damy set up the betatron at USP. This was Latin America’s first particle accelerator, purchased in Canada. Subsequently, he also worked on the creation of artificial quartz, which became important for industry.

In the 1950’s, he was on the commission that studied the ideal model of nuclear reactors for Brazil. “When Joaquim da Costa Ribeiro was the director of what was then the National Research Council, CNPq’s old name, I asked why Damy had been chosen to install the nuclear reactor,”  Mascarenhas tells us. “Costa Ribeiro told me that he was the only one who had both the scientific and managerial competence for this mission.”  Damy installed a pool reactor in 1956 at the Atomic Energy Institute, created and headed by himself, and now called Ipen (Energy and Nuclear Research Institute). “There was a lot of enthusiasm back then,!  recalls the chemist Alcídio Abrão, from Ipen. “Damy enjoyed teaching and it was common for him to spend the night working with the team.”

Later, Damy headed CNEN, the National Commission for Nuclear Energy, but he was fired immediately after the 1964 military coup. Starting in 1968, at Zeferino Vaz’s invitation, he started to work toward setting up the Physics Institute of the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), which would come to be named after Gleb Wataghin. Damy was its first director. He drew César Lattes and Sérgio Porto to it, among other prestigious physicists. Generously, Lattes regarded Damy as being the great Brazilian physicist.

When he left Unicamp in 1971, Damy started teaching at PUC-SP (the São Paulo Catholic University) and on Ipen’s postgraduate course. “Until only a short time before he had this stroke, he still received collaborators to exchange ideas and to help in so far as he was able,”  says the pianist and painter Lucia Toledo de Souza Santos, his wife of 61 years. In Damy’s memory, Mascarenhas has donated R$5 thousand to SBPC, the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science, creating a fund that is to provide young scientists with the Marcello Damy prize.