Local Talent: Cannavo- From Shipbuilder To Quantam Theorist

You’ve probably never heard of Salvatore Cannavo. He hasn’t resided in Brooklyn, much less Bensonhurst, for at least 42 years.

Why should we care?

Well, he was born in a small town in Sicily named Castiglione in 1921.   He emigrated from Italy at age 2 with his mother, a seamstress and his father, a tailor. After briefly living in Manhattan’s Little Italy, they moved to Brooklyn.

He helped his family during the Depression by going to work in a shoe leather factory at age 12, playing guitar in Catskill resorts during the summer and building battleships in the Brooklyn Navy Yard after school.

Cannavo graduated from New Utrecht High School and Brooklyn College.

According to the Manhasset Press, Sal’s academic career took off during grad school:

Sal did graduate work in physics at Princeton University, where he studied under Albert Einstein, John von Neumann, and Wolfgang Pauli. During World War II, he and other graduate students suspended their studies to work in defense-related industries.
He worked briefly on the Manhattan Project, but quit on ethical grounds upon discovering that he was helping to develop the atom bomb. He also worked for Bell Aircraft on the design of fighter planes. After the war, Sal’s love of science and philosophy brought him back to graduate school, this time to New York University, where he earned his Ph.D. in the philosophy of science in 1955.
After doing research in physics at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Sal accepted teaching appointments at Michigan State University, Wesleyan University, the University of Florida, the University of Southern California and his alma mater, Brooklyn College, where he served on the faculty from 1956 to 1986. He also taught at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
During his 89 years, Sal saw and engaged with the great American story of the 20th and early 21st centuries and in many ways embodied the best of that story. His life was marked by idealism, a strong belief in social justice and fairness, an abhorrence of war, a faith in human reason and progress, and a powerful sense of personal moral integrity.

So, why should we care about Sal Cannavo? Sal passed away from cancer on May 25, 2011. He had led a full, remarkable life of 89 years. By itself, that might not be reason enough to care about him. Even though he walked the same streets we walk today, played in our parks and was a product of our public schools, that still might not be an adequate enough reason to care.

What do we care about? There was a report yesterday that Vinny MIGHT be leaving the Jersey Shore reality TV show. Several 20-something coworkers of mine were visibly upset.

So maybe that’s reason enough to care about Salvatore Cannavo. Because if we care, at least in passing, about a group of tanned steroid abusers, why not take the time to notice someone who was a more monumental example of discipline and human achievement than any beach bimbo bodybuilder could dream about?

I remember reading The Greatest Generation during college and scoffing at the notion that the young men and women of the World War II era could have been better than my own, that they could teach me anything. Now, I’m beginning to think they can and will teach us. And in return, we may learn more than we expected, not only about the past decades of a past century but about our own time.

As our economy shows little real improvement and our prospects for the future look less bright, maybe we should care about Sal Cannavo’s accomplishments, even if it’s just in order to examine his life and the example he set. Because frankly, the Jersey Shore model ain’t working.  


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