Illuminating the past: The Emilio Segrè Visual Archives
Points of View:
You can witness the legacy of a great physicist in theories printed in books, equations scribbled fervently on the chalkboard, and lectures recorded at universities. From Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity to the most recently confirmed Higgs boson—what were once shadowy ideas eventually become lauded discoveries.
But once theories and experimental methods become part of the physics canon, it's easy to ignore or forget who is behind them. How and where did these people develop their careers? Who and what inspired them on their roads to success? The men and women of physics all began somewhere. Before they led conferences, they attended them. Before they won awards, they took notes in classrooms. Behind the equations and accolades, it may be difficult to see the human beings who originated those ideas. Photography gives us a rare glimpse into the physicist’s life, illuminating his or her path to success.
Outdoors at University of Michigan, 1930; left to right are Maria Goeppert-Mayer, Joseph Mayer, Robert Atkinson, Paul Ehrenfest and Lars Onsager. The individuals were in Ann Arbor to participate in colloquia and discussions in the Physics Department's ‘Summer Symposium on Theoretical Physics.’ Prof. Ehrenfest, University of Leiden, was invited to give a special course titled Problems in Modern and Classical Physics. CREDIT: Photograph by Samuel Goudsmit, courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Goudsmit Collection
Photos of unguarded moments reveal the development of the scientist in unique ways. They knock away the pedestal and allow the viewer to see a glimpse of genuine life. Seeing Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein reclining next to each other gives us a glimpse of the process of intellectual collaboration—something that is not often described at length in a textbook, but no doubt is a component of why these two great physicists excelled in their fields.
Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein photographed in 1930, possibly at Paul Ehrenfest's home in Leiden, the Netherlands. William R. Whipple restored the original negative and print. CREDIT: Photograph by Paul Ehrenfest, courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives
Photos of Einstein on a sailboat, spectroscopist William F. Meggers watching a movie with his family, and acoustician Heinrich Kayser walking his dog remind us not to forget the whole human being behind the theory. At the Emilio Segrè Visual Archives we take care to preserve and expand a historical photo collection of scientists from the past and present.
A brief history of the archives
The Emilio Segrè Visual Archives (EVSA) forms part of the Niels Bohr Library & Archives, a division of the American Institute of Physics (AIP) in College Park, Maryland. The visual archives were created in 1989, shortly after the death of Emilio Segrè. The Italian-born nuclear and particle physicist discovered the elements technetium and astatine, and the antiproton, for which he shared the 1959 Nobel Prize in Physics.
Segrè was also both an avid photographer and historian of modern physics. Following his death, his widow, Rosa Segrè, donated his photo collection to our already large collection and provided endowment funds to help support the program. Today ESVA has more than 25 000 photos online.
The collection is comprised of 30 000 historical photographs, 25 000 of which have been cataloged and are featured on an online database. Holdings include images taken from the 1800s to the present day. Formats include Kodak stereo slides, Polaroid, negatives, slides, lithographs, engravings, illustrations, and other visual material. The collection is growing steadily thanks to donations from the physics community. The collection is supported by donations from the Friends of the Center for History of Physics as well as an endowment from Rosa Segrè.
Poor storage, warm temperatures, and high humidity all contribute to the possible damage of archival photos. At ESVA, all original photos and hard copies are retained in cold storage in nonacidic, archival, photo sleeves. With photos stored in non-acidic sleeves, at 62°F and 30–50% relative humidity (RH), original photos can be spared from further deterioration.
Original photos are also preserved through standard digital archiving practices. Thus far, approximately 25 000 images have been scanned at 300 pixels per inch (ppi) in a flatbed scanner. Once the image has been scanned, it is saved on the computer hard drive and on network servers. The image is then displayed online.
Emilio Segrè takes a picture in December 1969, not knowing that it would later form part of an archive named in his honor. CREDIT: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Segrè Collection
The archives invites users to search for images independently or to seek the assistance and knowledge of our staff. Researchers can find images by using the advanced or keyword searches on our website and are welcome to download the low-resolution (75 dpi) thumbnail images in our catalog for classroom and lecture use free of charge. High-resolution (300 dpi) images are available for a fee, and researchers are even allowed to publish ESVA images for a fee, providing that the intended use is educational and non-commercial. Users are encouraged to contact ESVA if they cannot locate what they’re looking for on our website, and the staff will do their best to search the archives for appropriate material.
Donating photos and other images
The Emilio Segrè Visual Archives relies on donations to build and strengthen its collection of photographs. We especially welcome images that document physical scientists in a human light, including snapshots of individuals at work, in social settings with colleagues or family, and participating in hobbies.
If you are considering donating digital files, please first contact ESVA staff, as there are specific image resolution guidelines we require to keep a sound balance between image quality and digital preservation standards.
Updated 8 January 2014: The caption of the first figure has been updated to reflect that the subjects were not students at the time and were visiting the University of Michigan for a summer colloquia program.
Savannah Gignac is the photo librarian at AIP's Niels Bohr Library & Archives. Before she joined AIP in 2013, she worked at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, as a project archivist in the the center's photography department.