Erice, Science for Peace and the Madonna statue

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 L. Cifarelli    31-08-2020

Laura Fermi and Antonino Zichichi in Erice (1975).

The "Ettore Majorana" Foundation and Centre for Scientific Culture (EMFCSC) started in 1961 when Antonino Zichichi first discussed with John Bell and Patrick Blackett the problem of creating a bridge between university courses and research activities in advanced physics laboratories such as CERN. A year later, Bell, Blackett, Victor Weisskopf, Isidor Rabi and Zichichi formally established at CERN, in Geneva, the existence of the EMFCSC.

The Centre's first activity was the International School of Subnuclear Physics (ISSP) held in Erice, Sicily in 1963. Ever since, each year, this school has witnessed and celebrated significant advances in the field of subnuclear physics. Gathering in the magic and exclusive atmosphere of Erice's pre-medieval city, world-famous scientists and students, show their eagerness and willingness to share the latest knowledge directly from its authors.

The EMFCSC is named after one of the most outstanding Italian physicists. Born in Sicily in 1906, Ettore Majorana's breadth of vision and exceptional contributions to theoretical physics moved Enrico Fermi to the following statement: «There are many categories of scientists, people of second and third rank, who do their best, but do not go very far. There are also people of first-class rank, who make great discoveries, fundamental to the development of science. But then there are the geniuses, like Galilei and Newton. Well, Ettore Majorana was one of them».

Given the immediate and everlasting success of the Subnuclear Physics School, many other schools, covering all branches of science were established at the EMFCSC over the years. Today the EMFCSC embraces 134 schools, with 1912 courses which have been attended by 132,558 participants and lecturers (145 of which Nobel prize winners) coming from 932 universities and laboratories of 140 nations.

In addition, of high relevance was the foundation of the World Federation of Scientists (WFS) in Erice in 1973 by a group of eminent scientists led by Isidor Rabi and Antonino Zichichi. Many others have soon affiliated themselves with the WFS, among them Tsung Dao Lee, Laura Fermi, Eugene Wigner, Paul Dirac and Piotr Kapitza. The WFS is a non-profit organization which has grown to include more than 10,000 scientists. It promotes international collaboration in science and technology between scientists and researchers from all parts of the world – North, South, East and West. One of the WFS main achievements was the drawing up of the "Erice Statement", in 1982, by Dirac, Kapitza and Zichichi, that was endorsed in the same year by more than ten thousand scientists from one hundred and fifteen nations. The Erice Statement was directed towards the struggle against secret laboratories and, well before the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was strongly advocating for science without secrets and without borders. This statement, endorsed by 100,000 scientists the world over, clearly set out the ideals of the WFS, precisely along with the "Spirit of Erice".

Today the EMFCSC is housed in several restored monasteries in Erice (one of which was the residence of the Viceroy of Sicily during the 14th and 15th centuries) which provide an appropriate setting for high intellectual endeavour. These ancient buildings are named after great scientists and strong supporters of the EMFCSC. The San Francesco Monastery is now the "Eugene Wigner" Institute together with the the “Enrico Fermi” Lecture Hall. The San Domenico Monastery is now the "Patrick Blackett" Institute with the "Paul Dirac", "Robert Hofstadter" and "John von Neumann" Lecture Halls. The San Rocco Monastery is now the "Isidor Rabi" Institute with the "Richard Feynman" Lecture Hall, the "Piersanti Mattarella Tower of Thought" and the Directorate and main Secretariat of the Centre. There are also living quarters for people attending the schools at the EMFCSC (see a previous issue of SIF Prima Pagina).

All attendees have the chance during their stay at the EMFCSC to work and discuss in the "Madonna" computer room. This is an ample open space located at the Rabi Institute equipped with computer stations, which also hosted and preserved a beautiful marble statue called "Madonna della Pace" (Our Lady of Peace), created in 1571 by Antonio Gagini. This statue was originally placed in the Erice Church of San Pietro and temporarily moved to the nearby Monastery of San Rocco – now Rabi Institute – in the 1930s. It is precisely in this church, in the early times of the EMFCSC when it had not yet settled in all its current premises, that Laura Fermi delivered her lectures, as shown in the above photograph. Afterwards, the church has gone through a lengthy restoration, with a series of ups and downs.

In 2020 Zichichi expressed his desire to pay homage to John Paul II – who in 1993 visited the EMFCSC – by relocating the statue of the Madonna della Pace to the Church of San Pietro on the occasion of the centenary of his birth. The ceremony took place on June 29th (feast of Saints Peter and Paul). «During his visit – recalled Zichichi – Pope John Paul II had paused and meditated right in front of the statue of the Madonna. He was an extraordinary exponent of the alliance between science and faith, the only pontiff to have visited Erice. And this ceremony to return such a wonderful and symbolic statue back to the high altar of the Church of San Pietro was very significant and in accordance with the science for peace spirit of the EMFCSC».

The Centre is closed this year due to the COVID-19 emergency, however the activities of the EMFCSC will be resumed by 2021.

Homepage: The statue of the Madonna della Pace, by Antonio Gagini (1571), at the EMFCSC.