March 15, 2001
Vol. 20 No. 12

current issue
archive / search

    Physicist Ugo Fano dies at 88

    Ugo Fano, Professor Emeritus in Physics and the James Franck Institute, whose pioneering contributions to the theory of atomic and radiation physics helped lead to the development of the gas laser and the use of radiation in medical diagnosis and therapy, died Tuesday, Feb. 13, in Chicago. He was 88.

    Fano dedicated much of his work to achieving a better understanding of the dynamics of atoms and molecules and the way they interact with light, electrons and each other. His influence in the field of physics is reflected in the number of phenomena that bear his name: the “Beutler-Fano Profile,” the “Fano-Lichten Mechanism,” the “Fano Effect,” and the “Fano-Factor.”

    “He was a foremost leader in theoretical atomic physics, and not just in the United States, but all over the world,” said Mitio Inokuti, a physicist at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois.

    Inokuti noted that Fano began his career working with Enrico Fermi at the University of Rome from 1934 to 1936. Fermi, a 1938 Nobel laureate in physics, led a group of scientists at the University to produce the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction in 1942.

    Fano maintained the tradition and style of Fermi physics, said Inokuti, who recently finished editing a special volume of the journal Physics Essays, which is dedicated to Fano’s work. “He was not very much interested in abstract programs. He was always close to experimental facts and he was a great interpreter of many experimental facts. That, he inherited from Enrico Fermi.”

    A prime example of Fano’s ability to analyze experimental data was the paper he wrote about the spectra––the distinctive electromagnetic radiation appearing at particular wavelengths––of the hydrogen molecule measured by Gerhard Herzberg, who would later receive the Nobel Prize in chemistry. Fano developed a novel theoretical description for hydrogen molecule spectra based on his analysis of another scientist’s pioneering work on atoms, said Anthony Starace (Ph.D., ’71), a professor of physics at the University of Nebraska.

    “Fano’s analysis of the vastly more complex molecular spectra was theoretically beautiful and gave predictions in perfect accord with experimental measurements,” Starace said. Fano and a former student, Ravi Rau (Ph.D., ’71), of Louisiana State University, subsequently developed the analysis into the book Atomic Collisions and Spectra, published in 1986.

    Fano came to the University in 1966 as a Professor in Physics and the James Franck Institute. He served as Chairman of the Physics Department from 1972 to 1974. He produced approximately 30 Ph.D. students, most of who currently serve as faculty members active in the field of atomic physics.

    Fano was born in Torino, Italy, on July 28, 1912. He earned his doctoral degree in mathematics from the University of Torino in 1934, then began working with Enrico Fermi. Fano returned to the University of Rome as a lecturer in 1938, but fled with his family to the United States in 1939 to escape fascist Italy. He worked at the Washington Biophysical Institute, the Carnegie Institution of Washington and the U.S. Army Ballistic Research Laboratory from 1939 to 1945, and at the National Bureau of Standards from 1946 to 1966.

    Fano received the Enrico Fermi Award in a White House ceremony in 1996. His many other awards include election as a foreign member to the Royal Society of London in 1995, and to the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei in 1993.

    Fano’s wife of 62 years, Camilla Lattes Fano, a retired teacher of the Laboratory Schools, survives him. Also surviving Fano are two daughters, Mary Fano Giacomoni, a secretary in the Department of Chemistry; and Virginia Fano Ghattas of Wellesley, Mass.; four grandchildren, John Anthony Giacomoni and Carlo Giacomoni, both of Urbana, Ill.; Tamara Ghattas, a second-year student at the University; and Peter Ghattas of Wellesley, Mass.; and a brother, Robert Fano, of Concord, Mass.

    A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday, May 5, in the Max Palevsky Cinema at Ida Noyes Hall, 1212 E. 59th St.