Prof. Emeritus Riccardo Levi-Setti, a pioneering physicist and Holocaust survivor whose wide-ranging interests spanned cosmic rays to microscopy to trilobite fossils, died Nov. 8 in Chicago at age 91.
Referred to as a “Renaissance man” by his colleagues, Levi-Setti was active in exploring subatomic particles called strange quarks before pioneering new techniques in taking scientific images that revealed details about everything from superconductors to bones and kidneys.
“He was a brilliant and broad leader, making important contributions from particle physics to evolution,” said Angela Olinto, dean of the Division of the Physical Sciences at the University of Chicago. “What’s more, he was a wonderfully curious and open-minded person.”
He was also a world-renowned expert and collector of trilobites, tiny ancient marine creatures which he called the “butterflies of the sea.” Levi-Setti discovered thousands of the fossils on expeditions from Newfoundland to the Czech Republic. “It is time travel, and, at the same time, an addictive treasure hunt,” Levi-Setti wrote in Trilobites, his seminal 1975 work on the subject.
A Holocaust survivor who fought for the Italian resistance at the age of 16, Levi-Setti was recruited to University by Nobel laureate Enrico Fermi, who fled Italy before World War II to help lead the first nuclear reaction at UChicago. Levi-Setti was on the UChicago faculty for six decades and directed the interdisciplinary research institute that bears Fermi's name.
He was born Riccardo Levi on July 11, 1927 in Milan to Paolo and Gilda Levi, a decorated lieutenant colonel in the Italian army of World War I and a Venetian aristocrat. When Italy fell to the Nazis in 1943 and the SS took over the family apartment in Milan, his parents were both hidden by family friend Elisa Setti. Riccardo was secreted into the mountains, where he hid in barns or caves to avoid the Gestapo but often slipped away to search for fossils.
These years in hiding informed the rest of his life, his family said. After the war, he and his brother Franco legally added the name Setti to theirs, in honor of all Mrs. Setti had done to save their parents.
He received his doctorate in physics from the University of Pavia in 1949. He was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to travel to the U.S. (Due to his father’s insistence on an earlier ticket, he narrowly avoided a berth on the SS Andrea Doria, which was fated to sink in one of the 20th century’s worst maritime disasters.)