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Carried by History: Cesar Lattes, Nuclear Emulsions, and the Discovery of the Pi-meson


We analyze the role played by the Brazilian physicist Cesar Lattes (1924–2005) in the historical development of the nuclear emulsion technique and in the co-discovery of the pion. His works influenced and gave impetus to the development of experimental physics in Brazil, the foundation of a national center dedicated to physics research, the beginnings of Brazilian “Big Science,” and the inauguration of a long-lasting collaboration between Brazil and Japan in the field of comic ray physics.

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  1. Some additional historical contextualization is needed here: in many statements, Lattes said he believed this was the first time boron was added to photographic plates. In fact, H.J. Taylor and Maurice Goldhaber, working together in Cambridge (UK), had done this in the 1930s, but with the purpose of studying nuclear reactions involving the boron nucleus and neutrons, then recently discovered.

  2. Powell’s interest in literature in general and poetry in particular was well known by his colleagues. Many, including Occhialini and Lattes, regarded him as a master of the spoken word.

  3. In these experiments, fireballs were also discovered—high-energy events involving the production of many pions—a phenomenon that is not fully understood to this day.

  4. Lattes is also in a way linked to the emergence at CBPF of the Radioactivity and Trace Detection Laboratory—later the Nuclear Trace Laboratory—led by Hervásio de Carvalho, who became involved in nuclear emulsions probably during a course Lattes gave in 1947 in Rio de Janeiro at the Mineral Production Laboratory of the Department of Mineral Production, where Guimarães worked. This area of research used nuclear emulsions to study radioactivity and exposed them in accelerators. One of the laboratory’s specialties was doping emulsions with radioactive elements.

  5. The source of the following information is Ruth Lewin Sime: "Lattes was nominated in 1949 by Walter Hill of Uruguay, who also nominated Eugene Gardner that year, and he was nominated by James Holley Bartlett, Jr. of the US, who also nominated Occhialini and Powell that year. There is no record of either Hill or Bartlett making other nominations. Occhialini was nominated a total of 7 times: once in 1936, 4 times in 1949, twice in 1950. Powell received a total of 22 nominations, 8 in 1949, 14 in 1950. It would be interesting to see if Lattes and the others were nominated in the years after Powell’s prize [1950].” E-mail from Ruth Lewin Sime to C. Leite Vieira dated March 6, 2013. Karl Grandin, director of the Center for History of Science, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which safeguards the Nobel archives, has given information about the nominations for Lattes after 1950: “Lattes was nominated in 1952, 1953 and 1954 by L. Ruzicka (Zürich). And in 1952 he was also nominated together with W. Panofsky (Stanford) by Marcel Schein in Chicago.” E-mail from K. Grandin to C. Leite Vieira dated March 25, 2013.


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  15. Micheline Nussenzveig, Fernando de Souza-Barros and Cássio Leite Vieira, “Modéstia, ciência e sabedoria (interview with Cesar Lattes),” Ciência Hoje 19 (1995), 11.

  16. Nussenzveig, Souza-Barros and Vieira, “Interview with Cesar Lattes” (ref. 15), 11.

  17. C. M. G. Lattes, M. Schönberg and W. Schützer, “Classical Theory of Charged Point-Particles with Dipole Moments,” Anais da Academia Brasileira de Ciências 3(19) (1945), 193–245; C. M. G. Lattes and G. Wataghin, “Estatística de partículas e núcleons e sua relação com o problema de abundância dos elementos e seus isótopos,” Physics Repport USP 4(17) (1945), 269–269; “On the Abundance of Nuclei in the Universe,” Physical Review 69 (1946), 237–237.

  18. Leonardo Gariboldi, “Giuseppe Paolo Stanislao Occhialini (1907–1993)—A Cosmic Ray Hunter from Earth.” PhD diss,, Università degli Studi di Milano, 2004.

  19. Nussenzveig, Souza-Barros, and Vieira, “Interview with Cesar Lattes” (ref. 15), 13.

  20. Cristina Olivotto, “The Mediterranean Flights and the G-Stack Collaboration (1952–1955): a first example of European collaboration in particle physics,” M. Kokowski, ed., in Proceedings of the 2nd ICESHS (Cracow: ICESHS, 2006), 490–496.

  21. Martha Cecilia Bustamante, “Giuseppe Occhialini and the History of Cosmic-Ray Physics in the 1930s: From Florence to Cambridge,” in P. Redondi, G. Sironi, P. Tucci and G. Vegni, ed., The scientific legacy of Beppo Occhialini (Berlin: Springer, 2006), 35–49.

  22. Nussenzveig, Souza-Barros, and Vieira, “Interview with Cesar Lattes” (ref. 15), 13.

  23. Curriculum Vitae of Cesar Lattes. Original at Arquivo Central do Sistema de Arquivos, State University of Campinas, São Paulo State, Brazil.

  24. Cássio Leite Vieira, “Um mundo inteiramente novo se revelou: a técnica das emulsões nucleares.” PhD diss, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, 2009. Available at…/file; Silke Engler, “Zur Geschichte der fotografischen Methode im Kalten Krieg,” in Proceedings of the Annual Conference of the German Physical Society, Christian Forstner and Dieter Hoffmann, eds (forthcoming). We thank Dr. Engler for sending us her work before its publication.

  25. T. H. James, “Why Photography Wasn’t Invented Earlier,” in E. Ostroff, ed., Pioneers of PhotographyTheir Achievements in Science and Technology (Springfield, VA: SPSE, 1987), 12-17.

  26. Ostroff, Pioneers of Photography (ref. 25); Reese Jenkins, “Some interrelations of Science, Technology, and the Photographic Industry in the Nineteenth Century.” PhD diss, University of Wisconsin, 1966; Helmut Gernsheim and Alison Gernsheim, History of Photography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1955).

  27. T. H. James, “The Search to Understand Latent Image Formation,” in Ostroff, Pioneers of Photography (ref. 25), 47–58; T. H. James, ed., Theory of the Photographic Process (New York: MacMillan Publishing Co, 1977).

  28. Erwin Hiebert, “The State of Physics at the Turn of the Century,” in Mario Bunge and William L. Shea, eds., Rutherford and the Physics at the Turn of the Century (New York: Dawson and Science History Publications, 1979), 3–22.

  29. Vieira, “Um mundo inteiramente novo se revelou” (ref. 24).

  30. C. F. Powell, P. H. Fowler and D. H. Perkins, The Study of Elementary Particles by the Photographic Method: An Account of the Principal Techniques and Discoveries, Illustrated by an Atlas of Photomicrographs (London: Pergamon Press, 1959).

  31. Thomas Schönfeld, “Aportación al método fotográfico en la física nuclear: resultados importantes de la investigación de Marietta Blau en Viena (1925–1938),” in Brigitte Strohmaier and Roberst Rosner, ed., Marietta Blauestrellas de desintegraciónbiografía de pionera de la física de partículas (México City: Instituto Politécnico, 2006), 171–201.

  32. Vieira, “Um mundo inteiramente novo se revelou” (ref. 24), 99.

  33. Victor Franz Hess, “Unsolved Problems in Physics: Tasks for the Immediate Future in Cosmic Ray Studies,” Speech by Austrian physicist Victor Franz Hess on receiving the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1936. Available at Martha Cecilia Bustamante, “A descoberta dos raios cósmicos ou o problema da ionização do ar atmosférico,” Revista Brasileira de Ensino de Física, 35(2) (2013), 603, available at

  34. Photographic Emulsion Panels of the Nuclear Physics Sub-Committee, held at Shell Mex House, London, on Friday 14th February, 1947, at 2:30 pm. Photographic Emulsion Panels of the Nuclear Physics Sub-Committee, held at Shell Mex House, London, on Tuesday, 16th September, 1947, at 3:00 pm. Photographic Emulsion Panels of the Nuclear Physics Sub-Committee, held at Shell Mex House, London, on Wednesday 23rd June, 1947, at 2:00 pm. Photographic Emulsion Panels of the Nuclear Physics Sub-Committee, Report on meeting of the photographic emulsion panel, held on 21st November, 1947 (report signed by J. Rotblat). Photographic Emulsion Panels of the Nuclear Physics Sub-Committee, Minutes of the meeting of the photographic emulsion panel (held at 7th May, 1948, at Liverpool University. The authors wish to thank Dr. L Gariboldi for copies of the above documents.

  35. Don Perkins, “That Third Pion,” in CERN Courier, January 27, 2004, 5.

  36. C. M. G. Lattes, P. H. Folwer, and P. Cüer, “A Study of the Nuclear Transmutations of Light Elements by the Photographic Method,” Proceedings of the Physical Society of London, 59(5) (1947), 883–900.

  37. C. M. G. Lattes, “My Work in Meson Physics with Nuclear Emulsions,” in Laurie M. Brown and Lillian Hoddeson, ed., The Birth of Particle PhysicsBased on a Fermilab Symposium (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 307–310.

  38. Leonardo Gariboldi, “The Reconstruction of Giuseppe Occhialini’s Scientific Bibliography,” Atti del XXIII Congresso Nazionale di Storia della Fisica e dell’Astronomia, Bari, 5 a 7 giugno. Available at

  39. G. P. S. Occhialini and C. F. Powell, “Multiple Disintegration Process Produced by Cosmic Rays,” Nature 159 (1947), 93–94.

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  40. C. M. G. Lattes and G. P. S. Occhialini, “Determination of the Energy and Momentum of Fast Neutrons in Cosmic Rays,” Nature 159 (1947), 331–332.

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  41. C. F. Powell, Fragments of Autobiography (Bristol: University of Bristol, 1987).

  42. Letter from Peter Fowler (Bristol) to N. McWhirter (London) dated September 2, 1990. Held at Fowler Papers, Bristol University Special Collections DM 1946/J.55. Reproduced from Gariboldi, Paolo Stanislao Occhialini (19071993), (ref. 18), 126–128.

  43. “Discovery of the Pion—1947,” in CERN Courier, June 1997, available at

  44. Robert Marshak, Untitled (Interview in four sessions with Charles Weiner for the physics history project of the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics), 1970. Available at

  45. Jennifer Tucker, “The Historian, the Picture, and the Archive,” Isis 97 (2006), 111–120.

  46. D. Perkins, “The Discovery of the Pion in Bristol in 1947,” in Ciência e Sociedade (1997), No. 32—Originally published in the Proceedings of the International School of Physics ‘Enrico Fermi’. Course CXXXVII (Amsterdam: IOS Press, 1997), 1–11. Available at

  47. Perkins, “The Discovery of the Pion” (ref. 47).

  48. Nussenzveig, Souza-Barros and Vieira, “Interview with Cesar Lattes” (ref. 15), 14–15.

  49. Strohmaier and Rosner, “Marietta Blau” (ref. 32).

  50. Nussenzveig, Souza-Barros and Vieira, “Interview with Cesar Lattes” (ref. 15), 15.

  51. Cesar M. G. Lattes, Giuseppe P. S. Occhialini, Cecil F. Powell, “Observations on the Tracks of Slow Mesons in Photographic Emulsions—Part 1,” Nature 160 (1947a), 453–456, idem “Observations on the Tracks of Slow Mesons in Photographic Emulsions. Part 2—Origin of the Slow Mesons,” Nature 160 (1947b), 486–492.

  52. Our guess is based on the presence of Hooper and Schaarff at Bohr’s institute, where they worked on a book with him on cosmic rays. See Nussenzveig, Souza-Barros and Vieira, “Interview with Cesar Lattes” (ref. 15), 15.

  53. Ibid.. Lattes’s arrival is attested by the guest book of the Danish Physical Society.

  54. Lattes, “My Work in Meson Physics with Nuclear Emulsions” (ref. 38).

  55. Nussenzveig, Souza-Barros and Vieira, “Interview with Cesar Lattes” (ref. 15), 17.

  56. José Leite Lopes, “Cinquenta e cinco Anos de Física no Brasil: Evocações,” CBPF-CS-016/98. Available at

  57. Ana Maria Ribeiro de Andrade, Físicos, mésons e política: a dinâmica da ciência na sociedade (São Paulo/Rio de Janeiro: Hucitec/MAST, 1999).

  58. John L. Heilbron, Robert W. Seidel, Bruce R. Wheaton, “Lawrence and His Laboratory—A Historian’s View of the Lawrence years” (Berkeley: LBNL,1981). Available at

  59. Lattes, “My Work in Meson Physics with Nuclear Emulsions” (ref. 38) and “War Hero” (obituary for Eugene Gardner), Time December 11, 1950. Berylliosis stiffens the lungs, making breathing difficult.

  60. New York Times, “Artificial Cosmic Rays”. March 11, 1948, 26.


  62. Also: “Meanwhile Congress took nuclear research from military control and gave it to the civilian Atomic Energy Commission. Lawrence had lobbied the AEC to support the construction of even bigger accelerators, convincing them the results would be worth the huge expense. But the Berkeley team faced competition from a collection of scientists in the northeastern states. In 1947, they founded the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island in New York and asked the AEC for their own accelerator. After several rounds of proposals and counter proposals, the AEC agreed to support new proton synchrotrons at both labs. Brookhaven would build quickly to reach 3 BeV (a BeV, now called a GeV, is a billion electric volts). Berkeley aimed to construct a 6 BeV machine with a 10,000 ton magnet, the “Bevatron.”

  63. Letter from Cesar Lattes to José Leite Lopes. Lattes_CX01_File 01_10(1–2). AC/SIARQ/UNICAMP. We wish to thank archivist Telma Murari for the kindness she showed us in Campinas.

  64. Peter L. Galison, Image and Logic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).

  65. Ana Maria Ribeiro de Andrade, “Físicos, mésons e política” (ref. 58) and Carlos Alberto dos Santos, “O sincrocíclotron do CNPq: da concepção ao abandono”, Revista Brasileira de Ensino de Física 35 (2013), 1607–1620. Available at

  66. Alfredo Marques de Oliveira, “Em memória de Cesar Lattes,” CBPF-CS-004/05. Available at

  67. Cássio Leite Vieira and Antonio A.P. Videira, “O papel das emulsões nucleares na institucionalização da pesquisa em física experimental no Brasil,” Revista Brasileira de Ensino de Física, 33 (2011), 2603–2607. Available at

  68. Statement given by Cesar Lattes to Maria de Lourdes Fávero and Ana Elisa Gerbasi da Silva (1990), Proedes Archives/UFRJ, unpublished. We thank Dr. Maria de Lourdes Fávero for assigning us a copy of this interview. See also the personal statement by Edison Shibuya to Antonio A. P. Videira, Campinas, May 12, 2012, and José Hamilton Ribeiro. “Cesar Lattes, Gênio ou Louco,” Brasil Século 21(3) (2012), 48–55.

  69. Serge Korff, “High Altitude Laboratories,” Physics Today 2(11) (1950), 17–23.

  70. Ana Maria Ribeiro de Andrade, “Os Raios Cósmicos entre a ciência e as relações internacionais”, in Ciência, Política e Relações Internacionais, Marcos Chor Maio, ed., (Rio de Janeiro: FIOCRUZ/Edições UNESCO, 2005), 215–242.

  71. Letter from Guido Beck to José Leite Lopes. Leite Lopes, “Guido Beck in Rio de Janeiro” (ref. 10), 18. Also available at

  72. Juan G. Roederer, “Early Cosmic Ray Research in Argentina,” Physics Today 65(1) (2003), 32–37.

  73. Laboratório Brasileiro de Pesquisas Cósmicas nos Andes, Diário de Notícias (Rio de Janeiro), February 21, 1952, 1.

  74. Fernando de Souza Barros, “O CBPF e o Laboratório de Chacaltaya”, in Amós Troper, Antonio A. P. Videira and Cássio L. Vieira, eds., Os 60 anos do CBPF e a Gênese do CNPq (Rio de Janeiro: CBPF, 2010), 165–180.

  75. Milla Baldo-Ceolin “The Discreet Charm of the Nuclear Emulsion Era,” Annual Review of Nuclear and Particle 52, (2002), 1–21.

  76. Olivotto, “The Mediterranean Flights” (ref. 20).

  77. Ibid.

  78. Ibid.

  79. Personal statement given by Edison Shibuya to Antonio A. P. Videira in Campinas on May 22, 2012.

  80. Cesar M. G. Lates, Yochi Fujimoto and Shun-iti Hasegawa, “Hadronic Interactions of High Energy Cosmic-Ray Observed by Emulsion Chambers,” Physics Reports 65 (1980), 151–229.

  81. Giulio Bigazzi and Jorge C. Hadler Neto, “Cesar Lattes: a Pioneer of Fission Track Dating”, in Alfredo Marques, ed., Cesar Lattes 70 AnosA Nova Física Brasileira (Rio de Janeiro: Centro Brasileiro de Pesquisas Físicas, 1994), 124–150.

  82. Alexei B. Kojevnikov, Stalin’s Great Science: The Times and Adventures of Soviet Physicists (London: Imperial College Press, 2004), 300.

  83. Concerning the choice of the best site to exposure the plates, Perkins many years later wrote: “I had asked [in 1946] G. P. [Thomson] about the possibility of very high mountain exposures, specifically at Chacaltaya in Bolivia. He told in no uncertain terms that he was not providing support for research students to go half way round the world. I should just get a map of Europe and find an alp!” Donald H. Perkins, “Some notes on the historical development of nuclear emulsions,” unpublished manuscript sent to one of us (CLV).

  84. Peter Galison and Bruce Hevly, eds., in Big ScienceThe Growth of Large-Scale Research (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992).

  85. Statement given by Cesar Lattes to Ana Maria Ribeiro de Andrade in Ana Maria Ribeiro de Andrade and Érika Werneck, “Mésons, prótons, era uma vez acelerador” (DVD, Rio de Janeiro, MAST, 1996).

  86. José Leite Lopes, “Cesar Lattes, O Centro Brasileiro de Pesquisas Físicas e a Nova Física no Brasil,” in Alfredo Marques, ed., Cesar Lattes 70 AnosA Nova Física Brasileira (Rio de Janeiro: Centro Brasileiro de Pesquisas Físicas, 1994), 70–87, letter mentioned on page 79.

  87. Amélia I. Hamburger, “Cesar Lattes, físico brasileiro,” Revista USP 66 (2005), 132–138.

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The authors express their gratitude for funding from FAPERJ (Process E–26/111.441/2011) and logistical support from the Documentation and Information Department of the Brazilian Center for Physics Research (Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation). We also acknowledge the support given by Telma Murari from SIARQ/UNICAMP. The authors thank Edison Shibuya, Ruth Lewin Sime, Karl Grandin, director of the Center for the History of Science at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Donald H. Perkins, Konrad Szczesniak, and Joe Olmi. This article is part of a project entitled “O Laboratório de Física Cósmica de Chacaltaya—Tentativa brasileira de Big Science?” (E–26/111.441/2011—APQ1), financed by Faperj (Fundação Carlos Chagas Filho de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado do Rio de Janeiro). One of us (AAPV) would like to thank the financial support of CPNq.

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Correspondence to Cássio Leite Vieira.

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Cássio Leite Vieira is the International Editor of Ciencia Hoje magazine, published by the Ciencia Hoje Institute in Rio de Janeiro. He has a PhD in History of Science from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (2009) and has been carrying out research on the history of nuclear emulsion technique and on the history of physics in Brazil.

Antonio Augusto Passos Videira is Associate Professor of Philosophy of Science at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, has a PhD in Epistemology and History of Science from the Université Paris VII (1992), is Researcher of the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), and is a Collaborator at the Brazilian Center for Physics Research, in Rio de Janeiro.

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Vieira, C.L., Videira, A.A.P. Carried by History: Cesar Lattes, Nuclear Emulsions, and the Discovery of the Pi-meson. Phys. Perspect. 16, 3–36 (2014).

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  • Cesar Lattes
  • Gleb Wataghin
  • Giuseppe Occhialini
  • Cecil F. Powell
  • Eugene Gardner
  • nuclear emulsion technique
  • mesons
  • Mount Chacaltaya
  • history of elementary particle physics
  • history of physics in Brazil