Famed physi­cist was also a fos­sil-hunt­ing ‘rock star’

Chicago Sun-Times (Sunday) - - TOP NEWS - BY MAU­REEN O’DON­NELL, STAFF RE­PORTER mod­on­[email protected]­times.com | @sun­time­so­bits

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.

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