IMAGE:  April 2003  GRAPHIC:  University of Chicago Magazine
APRIL 2003
Volume 95, Issue 4
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Unexpected Expertise  
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Survival of the Richest
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Clouding the Issues

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Unexpected Expertise

Dan Dry


Riccardo Levi-Setti — Trilobites

He began “doing trilobites to escape from physics,” Riccardo Levi-Setti confesses, “but physics came back.” Professor emeritus of physics and former director of the University’s Enrico Fermi Institute, Levi-Setti is author of Trilobites (Chicago, 1975, 1993), often considered the book on the Paleozoic marine anthropods known as “butterflies of the sea.”

IMAGE:  Riccardo Levi-Setti

Like butterflies trilobites can be divided into a center and two side lobes (hence the name). They resemble modern insects in other ways as well. An optics expert whose development of a scanning ion microprobe (the UC–SIM) has transformed how researchers in fields from ceramics to cytogenetics look at micro particles, Levi-Setti has used scanning electron microscopy to examine the visual apparatus of trilobites, finding striking resemblances to the compound eyes of modern insects. “Trilobites,” he writes with professional tongue in cheek, “had solved a very elegant physical problem and apparently knew about Fermat’s principle, Abbé’s sine law, Snell’s laws of refraction and the optics of birefringent crystals.”

Born in Milan, Levi-Setti encountered his first trilobite shortly after he came to Chicago in 1956, in a quarry west of the city. He now has uncovered “thousands” of the fossils (while most are less than two inches long, some can reach two-and-a-half feet) but says that he collects for the experience: “I like the process of digging them out. It’s a kind of treasure hunt. You start with a chisel and blunt force.”

IMAGE:  Riccardo Levi-Setti

The delicacy of the fossil record means that blunt force quickly yields to painstaking preparation. Citing Michelangelo’s explanation of a sculpture—“I saw the angel in the marble, and I chiseled until I set it free!”—Levi-Setti says, “The true shape is really in the rock and you have to be careful not to break it.” Still, preparing specimens, which he does in a basement workshop, “is very relaxing for me. I think about papers that I have to write and write them in my mind.”

Normally March would find him trilobite hunting in Morocco, but this year war kept him home. A Holocaust survivor who was part of the Italian resistance movement, Levi-Setti finds solace in geologic time. “It’s nice to think of life,” he says, “when man was not around.”


Select an expert:

Riccardo Levi-Setti - Trilobites

Richard Epstein - Parking and Property

Mary Anne Case - Toilet Inequities

Roman Weil - Vintage Wine

Robert Grant - Sunken Submarines

David Galenson - Poetic Values

John Milton - Poise and Noise



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