Famed physicist was also a fossil-hunting ‘rock star’
After his death, Riccardo Levi-Setti’s family joked that it was too bad his remains couldn’t be fossilized and returned to the earth he loved to dig.
That’s because Mr. Levi-Setti not only was a renowned physicist for six decades, recruited by Enrico Fermi to join the University of Chicago, he also was an acclaimed authority on trilobite fossils.
“He was, literally, a rock star,” said his son Emile.
As a teenager, he survived the Holocaust by hiding in the hills and forests around Genoa, Italy. In 1943, he spent Christmas week in a cave with 3-foot snowdrifts outside. He’d often hear machine-gun fire as Nazis hunted Jewish fugitives and other partisans.
When it was safe, he’d distract himself from his fears by searching the hills for fossils and crystals, according to his son.
Mr. Levi-Setti, who’d been in failing health, died Nov. 8 at the Montgomery Place retirement community in Hyde Park. He was 91.
His books on trilobites — ancient marine creatures he called “the butterflies of the sea” — can be found in fossil shops around the world.
“He was different from a lot of other fossil experts,” said Dave Douglass, who cofounded Dave’s “Down to Earth” Rock Shop in Evanston. “He was able to put it in words a layman could understand.”
When Mr. Levi-Setti would attend the Tucson Gem and Mineral Society Show, “People would mob him,” his son said.
Mr. Levi-Setti spoke of fossils with lyricism and wonder.
“Trilobites tell me of ancient marine shores teeming with budding life, when silence was only broken by the wind, the breaking of the waves, or by the thunder of storms and volcanoes,” he wrote in his 1975 book “Trilobites.” “I like to dig for trilobites. It is time travel and, at the same time, an addictive treasure hunt.”
Born Riccardo Levi in Milan, he became interested in fossils at 7. As he got older, he was tutored in physics.
In September 1943, while his family was on vacation in the countryside, the Germans took control of Italy, and the SS set up a communications center in the Levi’s Milan apartment. His family had converted to Catholicism in 1934, but friends alerted them the Nazis were looking for them.
Young Riccardo and his father Paolo, a decorated World War I veteran, hid in a farmhouse and in the mountains, with only a WWI pistol for protection. “If we have to go, might as well take somebody with us, rather than be taken,” Mr. Levi-Setti said in testimony he gave the USC Shoah Foundation.
His father, weary and ill from living in the woods, reunited with his wife Gilda in Milan, hiding in the home of a friend, Elisa Setti. After the war, to honor their friend’s heroism, the family added her name to theirs.
In 1952, he earned a doctorate in physics from the University of Pavia. Four years later, the famed physicist Fermi invited him to join the University of Chicago, according to his wife of 41 years, Nika Semkoff Levi-Setti. He would rise to be director of the school’s Enrico Fermi Institute.
A Fulbright scholarship paid his way to America. But it came with a booking on the Andrea Doria ocean liner, which would have delivered him to U. of C. after the start of school, his wife said. So his father put him on an earlier ship. He thus avoided the ill-fated voyage that ended with the Andrea Doria’s disastrous sinking after a collision at sea.
As a particle physicist, Mr. Levi-Setti created a proton microscope, discovered several subatomic particles and did pioneering work on “strange quarks,” said Henry Frisch, a U. of C. professor.
He enjoyed “doing trilobites to escape from physics,” he said in a 2003 interview with the University of Chicago magazine.
His Hyde Park home was filled with so many fossils, “We always joked it was in danger of sinking into the earth,” his son said.
He never forgot lessons learned from his furrier father. Frisch said that when his wife bought a variety of furs at Goodwill, they blindfolded Mr. Levi-Setti and asked him to identify each animal.
“He could tell us what each of them were just by feeling it,” Frisch said.
Mr. Levi-Setti is also survived by his son Matteo and two grandchildren. A service might be held in Chicago early next year, Emile Levi-Setti said.
Riccardo Levi-Setti studies one of his trilobite fossils. RICCARDO LEVI-SETTI | 1927-2018
Riccardo Levi-Setti (right) with radiochemist Anthony Turkevich and 1961 particle accelerator.