Vera Rubin

October 16th: Angular

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One of my favourite thing about science is that when scientists discover something new, often more questions arise than the ones that get answered. It might sound depressing, but it quite exciting instead. It means that there is always something new to learn and understand. We are always, and always will be, learning.

Vera Rubin was observing and studying galaxies motion when she uncovered something new. She noticed that the speed at which spiral galaxies were rotating was not quite right. It was too fast for them to stay in galaxy form: the observed motion was faster than the predicted angular motion. They moved so quickly they should fly apart! Unless..

Unless there is more mass holding them together through gravity. A large amount of mass that we are not seeing. not emitting light, not emitting other types of radiation: Dark Matter.

Dark Matter sounds exotic and has brought curiosity to the field of astronomy and cosmology. Physical mysteries like this remind us that what we observed in nature so far is just dictated by what we can observe and as we progress and we develop more technique we might need to change all that we know to accommodate new observations.

Vera Rubin knew this amazing aspect of science, and she always fought for having access to the thrill of the discovery, even at times when it was not so easy for a woman to get access to labs and equipment. And thanks to her and her perseverance, we now are a little bit more aware of the many things that we still do not know.


If you wondering what’s going on here, I explained it on this blog post: Inking Science

Enrico Fermi

October 15th: Weak

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There are four forces that govern the Universe: Gravitation, that acts on mass/energy; Electromagnetic force, that bounds together atoms and molecules and dictates the law of light; Strong Interaction, that makes atomic nuclei and hadrons; Weak Interaction, that describes beta decay and the life of sub-atomic particles called left-handed fermions.

The last sentence might have given it away: one of the four fundamental forces of nature was theorised and described by Enrico Fermi.

Fermi left many contributions to theoretical physics: for example, he demonstrated self-sustained nuclear fission, he worked with Paul Dirac to define the statistic of electrons (and in general of fermions), he described the probability of quantum decay from an isolated quantum state to another (the Golden Rule).

But most importantly he changed the way we do physics. He was not only a theoretical physicist: he was practical and stayed comfortably behind a console. He gave the name to back-of-envelope calculations –sometimes called Fermi’s problem– quick estimations essential to applied physics and engineering to check that the dimensions for a specific application have the right units and fall in the expected bulk number.

More importantly for me, as an Italian, he reformed the way physics was studied in Italy. Physics in Italy became so important and relevant as it is today thanks to Fermi, Segre’, Amaldi, Majorana and all the other great minds of “via Panisperna”.

If you are not totally hooked on Fermi and his achievement, there is also the fact that half the sci-fi literature out there is based on Fermi’s Paradox, the contradiction between the high probability of extraterrestrial life and no encounter recorded to date. He made the math to demonstrate why it is weird that we haven’t yet met any other civilised forms of life out there. If you like sci-fi, maybe you should read a bit more Fermi.


If you wondering what’s going on here, I explained it on this blog post: Inking Science

Richard Feynman

October 14th: Clock

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Want to learn some physics? Go watch/read Richard Feynman’s Lectures.

Want to be inspired? Feynman’s Lectures.

Want to have some fun? Feynman’s Lectures.

Feynman is one of the most loved scientists of all times. And for good reasons. He was awarded the Nobel prize for Quantum Electrodynamics, he collaborated in the Manhattan project, he invented a new type of diagram to describe the behaviour of subatomic particles (one of which is called penguin diagram – I like penguins!). But at the same time, he would play the bongo, he would spend time pranking his colleagues by discovering their combination locks, he would deliver engaging lectures that have made the history of science communication.

There is a famous episode that in the most intimate and moving way can inform us about Feynman: the moment his wife died.

“Finally he heard a last small breath, and a nurse came and said that Arline was dead. He leaned over to kiss her and made a mental note of the surprising scent of her hair, surprising because it was the same as always.” Gleick, James writes in one of Feynman biography book.  “The nurse recorded the time of death, 9:21 P.M. He discovered, oddly, that the clock had halted at that moment—just the sort of mystical phenomenon that appealed to unscientific people.”

But he was a scientific mind. Shortly after he remembered that he had repaired that same clock several times, and it was pretty fragile because of that. The nurse must had stopped it when they picked it to check the time of death.

Even at the time of tragedy, he used reason and science to make sense of the world. Because science can make the world a more beautiful place!

“I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”


If you wondering what’s going on here, I explained it on this blog post: Inking Science

Tim Berners-Lee

October 13th: Guarded

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You are reading this blog page. This means you have opened a browser (or an app, these days) and you typed newoldscience.com or you clicked on a link someone shared; this action triggered your computer to send a request to find “newoldscience.com” on the web; domain name servers (DNS) will redirect your request in the right direction until it finds the WordPress server where newoldscience.com is stored. The server will send back packages with the contents of the webpage you were looking for, the header, the footer, etc. Once the packages are in, the browser will make sense of it according to protocols and reconstruct the hypertext you are seeing on screen.

Now, imagine that there are no browsers, there is no concept of hypertext, there are no servers or nodes or the web. But you still really want to share information. If you are Tim Berner-Lee, this would not stop you.

Tim Berners-Lee is the engineer famous for the invention of the World-Wide-Web at Cern in the early 90s. This meant that he invented hypertext, hyperlinks, the first browser (that cool enough was also an editor), the first server and the first protocols to have the computers in the network at Cern being able to communicate the large amount of data it was generated in the science facility.  The first web page address was http://info.cern.ch/hypertext/WWW/TheProject.html is a geeky history pearl.

His story teaches us so much. It highlights the importance of fundamental research: studying particles physics might not have a direct known application, but there is a sheer amount of innovation accompanying this field. It also emphasises that knowledge is made to be shared. Especially, it should be shared freely, moreover when it can change people’s life.

Sir Burner-Lee did not patent the WWW and only a few years after he published it, he founded the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The W3C is a non-profit foundation with the aim to create standards for the Web. In other words, W3C, guided by Tim Berners-Lee, is guarding the WWW and its coherence against the pulling mechanism of the market.


If you wondering what’s going on here, I explained it on this blog post: Inking Science

Charles Darwin

October 11: Cruel

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Survival of the fittest: the cruel rule essential to natural selection. It is funny, however, how much antipathy Darwin itself, father of this evolutionary theory, had toward cruelty. Animal cruelty the most.

Darwin studied lizards and birds in the Galapagos, but only by comparison or dissection of already deceased animals. Always trying to minimise the suffering of animals. Even while hunting, an activity in contrast with his love for living creature, he advocates for a fair fight and despised the use of steel traps.

Despite his private nature, it is no surprise then that he joined the public debate to speak up against vivisection, that used for “damned curiosity was a subject that made [him] sick with horror”. In the Descent of man he suggested that some animals have social sympathies, sort of a conscience, making them intellectually and emotionally more connected to human than it was though at the time. Especially his beloved companions, dogs. In the essay, he wrote, “everyone has heard of the dog suffering under vivisection, who licked the hand of the operator; this man, unless he had a heart of stone, must have felt remorse to the last hour of his life”. Showing his kind and loving nature.


If you wondering what’s going on here, I explained it on this blog post: Inking Science

Carl Sagan

October 12th: Whale

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Carl Sagan’s legacy is overwhelming.

He was a great physicist: he theorised about Venus’ atmospheric conditions and helped NASA’s Mariner expedition to confirm them.

He was a visionary astrobiologist: he researched the possibilities of extraterrestrial life, even producing amino acids by mixing chemicals and radiation.

He was an outstanding communicator: Cosmos, that he presented, was the most widely watched show on American TV. He won a Pulitzer for The Dragon of Eden. He taught people the importance of critical thinking forming generations of scientists and citizens.

But Sagan’s legacy extends outside planet earth, exactly 13,410,119,153 miles away from earth (at the time I type these words): this is the distance travelled by Voyager 1 in the 41 years since it was launched. Carl Sagan contributed in designing The Golden Record: a testimony of life on earth to reach the outer space, and hopefully other forms of intelligent life. The message contains the most diverse things: from a picture of people doing grocery shops to the sound of kisses and greetings in 55 different languages. But what is intelligent life? We only can imagine it as similar to our own. Thinking ahead and outside the box, Timothy Ferris -also participating in the recording of this golden disk- considered that maybe a whale song might make more sense to aliens than the human voice. Instead of using only a snippet of a whale song, he used the whole thing as a background to the voices of people from around the world. A perfect symphony of science, nature and humanity that Sagan helped to craft.


If you wondering what’s going on here, I explained it on this blog post: Inking Science

Carlo Rovelli

October 10: Flowing

I stop and do nothing. Nothing happens. I am thinking about nothing. I listen to the passing of time. This is time, familiar and intimate. We are taken by it. The rush of seconds, hours, years that hurls us towards life then drags us towards nothingness … We inhabit time as fish live in water. Our being is being in time. Its solemn music nurtures us, opens the world to us, troubles us, frightens and lulls us. The universe unfolds into the future, dragged by time, and exists according to the order of time. What could be more universal and obvious than this flowing?
Reality is often very different from what it seems. The Earth appears to be flat but is in fact spherical. The sun seems to revolve in the sky when it is really we who are spinning. Neither is time what it seems to be.

Carlo Rovelli, The order of time

Carlo Rovelli is one of the few brave souls in physics that have accepted the challenge to conjugate the quantum realm with relativity: his answer is gravity loops.

Loop quantum gravity theory describes a universe where the space-time itself is quantised. Except that for some equations of quantum gravity, time is not needed at all.

We know already from relativity that time is nothing more than an additional axis in our system of reference, with nothing more special than the fact that events move toward higher entropy. Past, present and future can all be mixed depending from which point in space you are looking at a certain event. More convincing is the knowledge that at different altitudes on earth itself, time is different (there is even an app to calculate this).

Rovelli argues that time is not only confusing and messed up, but it doesn’t exist at all. It is a construct we had to invent due to our inability to look at the world with absolute precision in every details (e.g. because of uncertainty principle). It’s our way to give meaning and causality to events.

Of course, his is only a theory. With no experimental results supporting it. However, there is more to the story. The whole thing is complex hard-core physics, and yet his books on the topic appeal to everyone. He brought these topics to the general public. And the people loved them.

For Seven brief lessons on physics (the first book that got him really famous), the publisher originally printed only 3,000 copies – who is going to buy a book about post-newton physics after all? Within a year, they sold 300,000 in Italy only. Now it is translated in 42 languages and has sold more than a million copies worldwide.

Sometimes we don’t give enough credit to society and its craving for knowledge. Weather time is flowing or not, that’s not the point. What matters is giving a voice to Science.

A beautiful elegant voice that people can love and understand, like Carlo Rovelli had.


Bonus – talking of voices: the latest book by Carlo Rovelli is The order of Time. The audiobook version is read by Cumberbatch. Is it only me, or this should already be enough to jump on it?

Bonus for Italian readers: La mucca di Schroedinger (literally Schroedinger’s cow) is a division of DiRenzi Editore that shares information on scientific publications for the general public. In the past they were even doing books giveaway in exchange for reviews (that’s how I got ‘What is time? What is space?’ by Rovelli back in 2010). Not sure they still do this, but DiRenzi definitely is worth checking.


If you wondering what’s going on here, I explained it on this blog post: Inking Science

Andre Geim

October 9th: Precious

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If someone gives you a diamond proclaiming it symbolises how their love will last forever, be ready to reply: “Liar!”

The precious diamonds are a material made exclusively of carbon. There is another material with the same exact composition: graphite (i.e. the lead in pencils). The only difference is their atomic and crystal structure. While carbon atoms in diamonds are arranged in a tetrahedral structure, making diamonds the hardest natural material on earth, the atoms in graphite are organised in layers of regular hexagons easy to flake apart. Because graphite has more entropy than diamond –and everything in the Universe moves toward greater entropy– given enough time* diamonds will turn into graphite.

Now, I don’t want to say that love is ephemeral and would inevitably turn into something easy to flake and break apart. And even if I did, that is not necessary a bad thing. Andre Geim discovered a new material by breaking apart a single layer of graphite: graphene**. And he did it by using sticky tape on graphite and tearing it off.

Graphene is a fantastic material: being only one atom thick, it is a purely 2D crystal. As a consequence, electrons in graphene behave in weird ways – they “lose” their mass and move at very high speed feeling extremely low resistance in the material. The applications for graphene extend to many fields, from electronics to biosensors.

At the end of the day, even love might be better represented by graphene rather than diamonds: both behave in weird ways that we still have to fully understand and offer every day something new to discover.


Bonus: In the picture, Andre Geim is floating in space “swimming” frog style. Any idea why? 

* Enough time is 10-100s billions of years (or high temperature and few minutes), so, to be fair, diamonds are still pretty much forever and if someone gives them to you, maybe they really care and you should be happy about it.

** Graphene was already theorised and had even been measured before Geim and Novoselov produced it in 2004. However, before their discovery, it was only produced in small quantity and always needed additional materials as substrates. This prevented extensive study on graphene.

Hedy Lamarr

October 8th: Star

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Movie star Hedy Lamarr was regarded as the most beautiful woman in the world. But she was more than that. She was creative and curious. She invented an improved traffic stoplight, helped aviator Howard Hughes to speed aeroplanes by inspiring their design on fast fishes and birds, devised a dissolvable tablet to make carbonated water. Most importantly, she revolutionised the field of radio transmissions.

Hedy’s first husband explained to her how easy it was to block US torpedos radio signals. When she understood that the husband was selling weapons to Nazis, she ran away from him -disguised as a maid, the tale says– and moved to Hollywood to continue her career. There, she thought of the frequency-hopping signal -a signal switching between channels- to prevent US torpedoes being jammed by the Hitler’s military. She even invented a device capable of the technique, in order to prove its feasibility.

US Navy overlooked the technique at first. Since it was rediscovered, however, it has been fundamental not only for military scopes but also for more mundane ones, like modern Bluetooth technology.

Hedy Lamarr was a pretty face, sure! But she was also a smart brain. She definitely was a star in different aspects of her life. And ours.


If you are wondering what’s going on here, look at this post: Inking Science

Ettore Majorana

October 7th: Exhausted

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“There are several categories of scientists in the world; those of second or third rank do their best but never get very far. Then there is the first rank, those who make important discoveries, fundamental to scientific progress. But then there are the geniuses, like Galilei and Newton. Majorana was one of these.”
– Enrico Fermi 

Fermi pronounced those words when, after days of trying reaching Majorana on the phone, he had the feeling that he disappeared not to be found again.

Majorana was a genius and a mystery. He would write formulas on his cigarette case on the go, he would forget to publish his results unless pushed by his colleagues, he would be called the “great inquisitor” because of his critical comments.

When the spouses Joliot-Curie misinterpreted the results of the radiation of Berillio subjected to the alpha-radiation of Polonium, Majorana immediately commented “How stupid they are! They have discovered the neutral proton and they did not even notice!” – Despite Fermi trying to convince him to publish about the neutral proton hypothesis, he did not bother and a few weeks later Chadwick came to the same conclusion and published about the neutron, research that awarded him the Nobel Prize.

Majorana was doing Science for the sake of. He worked on nuclear exchange forces, intrinsic spins, fermions that are also their antimatter counterpart (Majorana fermions), neutrino’s mass, even quantum computing. And then, one day, he simply vanished. We know very little about it: he had suffered from mental exhaustion, isolated himself, left a note and then -puff- gone. Never to be found again. 

But his legacy continues to shape modern physics.


I have a personal anecdote about Majorana.

I was no normal high-schooler. When my peers were going to concerts and discos, I was attending Physics Prize Ceremonies. In September 2007, I was in Militello (CT, Italy) for the Ettore Majorana Prize, as it was awarded to Francesco Iachello, a theoretical physicist at Yale that was born in Francofonte, my hometown. I even got his autograph – I bet the first one he was ever asked for! Yep, I always treated scientist as superheroes/rockstars.

Immagine 428
A very young, very inspired, very happy me with Prof. Francesco Iachello – just after having got his autograph.

At the event, an actor read a text about Majorana. In the audience, we were given a poster with the text in the shape of an apple (to remind Fermi’s comparison of Majorana and Newton). Once home, I hang that poster just above my bed to be a continuous inspiration for my career.


If you are wondering what’s going on here, look at this post: Inking Science

Arthur Ashkin

October 6th: Drooling

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Did you know that you can push stuff with light? More than that, you can use light to trap objects and move them around. Ok, the stuff has to be small, micrometric small. And the light better be a laser. And you need a lens. But this is pretty much all you need to build what is called Optical Tweezers.

It sounds all pretty simple, but it was less than 50 years ago that for the first time someone used light to trap things for the very first time. A few days ago,  that “someone” was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics: Sir Arthur Ashkin.

If you don’t think that moving objects by using light is impressive enough, you will surely be amazed that scientists have used optical tweezers to study almost anything in biology: red blood cells, neurons, DNA strands, bacteria. You could build custom molecules as if they were LEGOs, or study drool and determine how to improve drug delivery by nanoparticles, or just play Tetris

And all of this, thanks to Sir Ashkin, the very first space pirate!


If you are wondering what’s going on here, look at this post: Inking Science

Rita Levi Montalcini

October 5th: Chicken

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Memories. Thoughts. The precious skills required to make a delicious frittata. All stored and processed in the brain. An intricate net of nerves growing around and interconnecting of which we know a lot and yet still too little.

What regulates nerves growth was only discovered in the 1950s when Rita Levi Montalcini identified the Nerve Growth Factor, the protein complex that regulates the growth and survival of neuron cells. For the study, she used a chicken. A chicken embryo to be precise. She cracked an egg opened, implanted a piece of a mice tumour in the chicken embryo and waited. Around the tumor, nerves started growing not only from the tumor cells but also in the chicken cells all around. The tumor was releasing a substance that would stimulate the growth of nerves – the nerve growth factor!

I hope you add this story to the memories you can recall the next time you will prepare your breakfast.


Talking of memories, the very first science divulgation book I have ever read was “Abbi il coraggio di conoscere” by Rita Levi Montalcini. The title is the Italian translation of Kant’s Sapere Aude, “Dare to be wise”, and the whole book is an ode to knowledge and to push oneself over their boundaries and self-imposed limitations. I would lie if I’d say this reading did not help to shape who I am.


If you are wondering what’s going on here, look at this post: Inking Science

Erwin Schroedinger

October 4th: Spell

The internet is populated with quirky geeky t-shirts. And great deal of them read “Physicist – noun, someone who solved a problem you didn’t know you had in a way you didn’t understand. See also wizard, magician.”

Except physics had nothing to do with magic. It is much more powerful. Every physicist knows, for example, that Schroedinger is the most powerful spell in nature. Given the right components, it can be used, and it has, to solve almost every problem.

And while applying it to solve problems does not involve any wizardry, only an inspired soul like Erwin Schroedinger could come up with that almost out of thin air. To the point that even Feynman once declared:

Where did we get that [Schrödinger’s equation] from? It’s not possible to derive it from anything you know. It came out of the mind of Schrödinger.


If you are wondering what’s going on here, look at this post: Inking Science

Samantha Cristoforetti

October 3rd: Roasted

Inked drawing of Samantha Cristoforetti drinking coffee in space

Every Italian knows the importance of well-roasted beans to make the perfect coffee. Samantha Cristoforetti is no different. Except she takes her espresso in space.

She has been often renamed as a woman of records: the first Italian woman in space, the longest uninterrupted flight for a European astronaut, the first to brew an espresso in space! That charming taste of Science!


If you are wondering what’s going on here, look at this post: Inking Science

Neil Armstrong

October 2nd: Tranquil

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 B.A. “Contact light.”

N.A. “Shutdown.”

B.A. “Okay. Engine stop”

C.D. “We copy you down, Eagle.”

N.A. “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

C.D. “Roger, Tranquility. We copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.”

This is the transcript of Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Charles Duke on July 20th, 1969. Humanity had landed on the moon. It almost feels paradoxical that one of the most exciting events in the history of mankind happened in a place called “Mare Tranquillitatis”. And definitely, Armstrong was not tranquil, with a heart rate in the 100-150 beats per minute range.

Only a few hours after, he would be the first man to walk on the moon. I could not write it in better words than he did:

N.A. “That’s one small step for [a] man; one giant leap for mankind.”


If you are wondering what’s going on here, look at this post: Inking Science

Marie Skłodowska Curie

October 1st: Poisonous

Ink drawing of Marie Curie

Marie Skłodowska Curie was a fighter. During the course of her life: she struggled with depression just after high school; attended a clandestine institution for higher education because women were not allowed at regular institutions; she gave up education to sustain her sister studies; once she had enough fundings to move to Paris to study, she would faint from hunger because of the little resources left. All the while keep educating herself. She graduated in Physics, and she continued to get a second degree. Even when her career started blooming with her first studies with Pierre Curie, she was denied a job in Poland when she wanted to go back to her own country. In Paris, she and Pierre discovered and compiled a list of elements that emit radiation, like Polonium and Radium. They coined the word “radioactivity” and she was the first woman to be awarded the Nobel prize. Despite the recognition, she still had to fight xenophoby and accusations while in France.

The Curie’s lab was no more than a shed repurposed for their studies when they started. With no ventilation and no safety equipment. They had no idea of the poisonous effect of radiation. While Pierre died years before on a road accident, Marie died from aplastic anaemia, very likely due to her exposure to radiation.

Marie Curie was a fighter. And an example. A real superhero. She put her education and the pursuit of knowledge above everything else. Every time I feel low, every time I forget why I am doing science at all, every time the failures and the neverending challenges seem unbearable, I think of Madame Curie. I think how much she believed that science can help make a better world. So much that she displaced every odds life put in front of her path. And I draw inspiration to keep going and make it through a poisonous time.


When I decided on the theme for this year Inktober, I had absolutely no doubt that I wanted to start by paying my homage to Marie Curie.

I was awarded a Marie Curie scholarship to do my PhD and I am thankful to scientists that, like she had done, have fought battles to make it easier for people like me to study and build a life in the search of the unknown. I am also a proud vice-chair for the Marie Curie Alumni Association, and I hope I am doing my small share to continue fighting the battles that are left and make it easier for other researchers to follow their dreams.


If you are wondering what’s going on here, I have a little explanation on this post!

Inking science

The people that know me in real life, also know that I have many –way too many– hobbies.

This is a big problem because I often get very excited about a new idea, plan every detail, start the project, only to dreadfully remain stranded half way when a new idea from a different hobby of mine comes around. And the cycle repeats.

One of those hobbies is drawing. When for the first time, I stuck to something from start to end, it was thanks to a drawing challenge: Inktober. During Inktober, artists make a drawing in ink every day in October and share it with the world.

For those of you who could not be giving a fork about my drawings, bear with me. I do have some science to talk about too. For this year Inktober, I decided that every day I will be inking the drawing of a real scientist I admire.

In the coming days, you can expect some hopefully-decent drawings in ink of scientists and why I picked them. Not enough of a challenge you say?

Look at this:

Inktober 2018 prompt list

This is the official Inktober prompt list. Every drawing can take inspiration from the word assigned to that day. I decided to pick the scientists based on this prompt list. Now you also know something else about me: I must hate myself to some degree. You try associating “drooling” to a scientist and not have a headache by the end of the day!

See ya tomorrow, for the first word of this crazy challenge: “Poisonous”.


You can check my drawings from Inktober 2017 on my Instagram (need some scrolling down to October 2017), buy some merch on Redbubble and some original prints on Etsy (50% discount with coupon WORDPRESS18 during October).

Be warned: there is no science involved but only rad sci-fi birds and badass steampunk cats. Yes, I am doing some shameless promotion. But I am really proud of this work! Let me have this win.

Glitch

I am running. Where? I don’t know. From what? I don’t know.

Think.

I am wearing a suit. Not a jogging suit. One of those suit with a tie. There is a card bouncing on my breast. A University logo. And a name. “Prof. John Williamson – Physics department”.
My hands are covered in wrinkles. I must be 60, or more. Alzheimer? Seems plausible. I turn back: no one is following. The streets are empty, and I don’t recognise them. Once again one of those glitches.

I am in an auditorium, I feel happy like I have achieved something. Around me, there are a lot of young people dressed in a cape. I am one of them, and I am holding a book: “The collapse of the wave function and the problem of conscience. PhD dissertation ”

The only conscious memories I have is me running and these glitches. But it feels like I have always been running.
I notice now that I have a bag. While I am compelled to keep running, I try to open it and look inside. There are papers. I drop a few, but I finally manage to grab one to look at. It is an academic paper, again something about quantum physics and my name is among the authors.

I am in a kitchen now, I smell bacon and eggs. An old lady kisses me and goes to the door ‘See you tonight, hon’. She must have been beautiful when she was younger.

The wind wakes me up. I am tired and yet I cannot stop running. It is getting more difficult to breathe. I have to think fast if I don’t want to die. Quantum physics feels familiar, something I should know everything about.

I am in a conference room, wearing the suit – the one I am wearing while I am running. The face of Alfred Nobel on a medallion on the wall. I am walking toward the microphone for my speech.

I know the absurdity of the quantum realm. I know the implications of the math, and at the same time, I know that there is no possibility to confirm any of these theories. We only know the measurements, we know that the equations allow us to built lasers and transistors, but we cannot observe what happens before the wave function collapses. Our conscience can only perceive its own reality and can stop the insanity of the superposition of infinite states by recognising our existence. I proved that. But in my reality, I am running.

The seats in front of me are all occupied. In the front row, there is a girl. She is sitting next to the old lady that calls me ‘hon’. She looks like her younger version, but even more beautiful. I feel this warmth filling my chest. She smiles. Everything I have done, I have done it for her.
– “Prof. Williamson” – someone next to me, maybe a journalist, starts asking – “If I understood your theory, there are infinite realities of you right now, but only one is the most likely for the wave function to collapse, and for your conscience to recognise it as your only reality…”

I am crying. I feel the tears wetting my cheeks while I cannot stop this damned run. I want to feel the love of a daughter I have and never met at the same time. I want to live your stupid life, Prof. Williamson! Mine. I cry because I know that I will never stop running and that I always have been. If only you would answer differently, fool! If only I would have said no.

– “..Therefore, is there a chance, despite how small, of a universe in which you are always… Well, I don’t know.. Let’s say, running?”
– “Absolutely.”
– “And you will never know because your conscience only exists where the wave function has collapsed..”
– “Yes, that’s correct!”
– “Aren’t you afraid I just made you conscient about your other self?”
I laugh. Everyone in the auditorium is laughing.

I am running. Where? From what? Think.


I don’t usually write stories. But this one is about quantum mechanics, and if I wouldn’t have, no one would. Actually, full disclosure: some else told a story like this, and I was deeply inspired.. but it wasn’t about me and I have shaped a new version of it.. in my own physics language.

I started this short story in November, with the aim to participate in the awesome Quantum Stories contest. Then I forgot and didn’t finish it, and honestly, I would have not been able to compete with the stories uploaded there.

So, if you want to read a great short story, I strongly recommend Run by Scott Hamill. And if you look for good stories about quantum mechanics, make sure to go check the ones shortlisted for the Quantum Stories contest and vote for your favourite. You can thank me later 😉

Rock Chicken Rock!

The Last Jedi is on the big screens, Christmas carols are all around the streets, kids have already looked secretly at their presents.. and while the festive atmosphere fills the air, I am writing my PhD thesis.

In the search for the best dissertation title, I have shortlisted:

  1. What Bobafett and a chick have in common?
  2. How to use The Force to study biology?
  3. Pietrisycamollaviadelrechiotemexity

Only number 3 is true and scientifically accurate, but also quite depressing (translated from Sunny Baudelaire’s language to English, it sound something like “I must admit I don’t have the faintest idea of what is going on” – according to Lemony Snicket). Therefore I have to choose between the first two options. Seeking for your help in my difficult task, I better explain a little bit more.

Continue reading “Rock Chicken Rock!”

The Author… unveiled

Who am I? Not the philosophical way… but more, what do I do everyday? You can discover part of my days by following the very unregular update of my LEARN posts.

But I never answered the annoying question, what is my research about? Some hints here and there.. but not a great deal of details

Since younger me was more motivated than the empty shell currently writing this blog, I let her telling you… (there is also a more “mature” version of it.. less swearing, compensated by some sexual innuendo)

Continue reading “The Author… unveiled”

Let’s kick the Quantum Beat

As a newbie in the field of biophysics, I had to take some course in biology. In my case, the course, luckily, was addressed to physicists, and one of the suggested reading was Schroedinger’s “What is life?”. I did not know that Schroedinger wrote about this topic and, of course, I was curious and puzzled. I wanted to read it, and if you want to find a book nowadays, you usually type amazon.com and look for it. The problem with this approach is that Amazon, though really helpful, is sneaky and starts this evil suggestions thing in which I usually get trapped. This time the trap was more than well placed. Among the suggested readings, there was this: Life on the Edge: the Coming of Age of Quantum Biology. 

Now, if there is something you need to know about me is that the mere word Quantum must trigger something in my mind and you immediately have my fully devoted attention.

“I would like to have 200 gr of brown bread, please.”

“Classic or Quantum?”

“…”

“Would you like to have the Classic brown bread or the Quantum one, then?”

“Give me 5 kg of the quantum one!”

And it may works to let me buy things. So my mind turned blank about Schroedinger’s one (now in my wishlist) and I bought Life on the Edge instead.

Continue reading “Let’s kick the Quantum Beat”

New Resolution(s)

New year resolutions is not really my thing. But in the last year, I did so many things that are not my things, that I can actually try this one as well.

But first, what about a quick recap of the last year?

It all started, like any other year does, at 00:00:01 of the 1st of January. For me, the first second of 2015 had place on an overcrowded Princes Street in Edinburgh for what is known to be one of the best New Year Eve party in Europe, which -just to confuse tourists- is called Hogmanay instead of New Year Eve party. The end of the party, involving hugs from strangers, double fireworks show, R. Burns sonnet singing, signed the end of the holiday season and the start of one of the toughest year I have experienced since puberty.

For the first time in my life, I had to really ask myself “What am I doing with my life?”

Is this what I want? Am I happy?

Now, if I was a philosopher, those would have been just some simple mind exercises, but I am researcher, which makes those questions much more insidious.  The past year, I had to deal with overload stress, with failures, with missed achievements, with delayed deadlines. All things that – I am sure – any researcher is used to.. but for me, this was the first time to seriously deal with these issues. And the worst was the feeling that I was not having fun any more doing my job.

The smartest of you may have noticed that I used the past. Yes, things have changed. Many things have helped, and surprisingly none of them is related to getting results.

The most helpful things have been knowing that I am not alone. Other researchers in the same program I am were sharing the same feelings, and that helped me to realise that it may have been a phase I needed to pass.  Some useful readings are about depression and stress in academia and about the imposter syndrome.

But the most important thing that has changed my mood is the understanding that I am not who I am because of the job I am doing. I have always pictured myself as an academic, but what if I will be not? This option was terrifying for me, feeling like I could disappoint the expectations of everyone I know. The moment I figure out that my life is plenty of many other things, everything started to get in the right perspective. I have awesome old date friends, and I have made new gorgeous friends thanks to this PhD project. Trying to rediscover who I am, I dusted some of my hobbies, like drawing and painting. I went sailing. I took off as many weekends I could to meet friends and travel around a bit. My partner and I started to live together, bought a house and we’ll get married.

And guess what? I started to have fun again! Being released by the pressure of disappointing others and the nightmare of failure, I was free again to spend afternoons in the lab with a free mind. And it was fun! It is fun! After this epiphany, it was easy to go back and start to appreciate the achievements I have done and the things this phd offered me so far, like a period abroad for a collaboration (meeting awesome people!), a very long list of acquired skills from chemistry to cell culture, from computing to engineering, out reach opportunities to share science enthusiasm.

At December 31st of 2015, I still don’t have a publication ready to go, I still have to collect data and I am sure there are so many more experiments that will fail. But now all of this is part of the fun.

cropped-blogMy 2015 felt like staring at 8-bit picture from too close. You can see the single pixels, but you cannot pick the whole figure. 

But by the end of the year, I was able to step back and to understand those strange square confusing scaring unclear shapes for what they are. Pixels in a bigger frame, where the picture is loading. Sometime the download speed goes back to the old-day 56k, but sooner or later you can grab the whole thing.

Now that I have everything, 8-bit starts to look a bit out of focus for my taste. This is why, for this year, instead of an extensive list of my good intentions I have just one big goal:

a new better resolution!

 

 

Getting things done!

Ok, I admit it. The title is kind of ironic! Given that I haven’t written anything in a long time I am not the most appropriate person to talk about commitment. And I will also try to explain you why, and “justify” myself.

It seems like my way of dealing with ToDOs is quite peculiar, and most likely extremely wrong. Usually what people do is following things in as straight as possible line. If one has a deadline approaching, he/she will try to work on that in a steady way and submit the result in time.

Dedication for people
Dedication spent by people versus time, when deadlines are approaching.

As you can see in the graph above, ideally one should have a steady increase in the effort or dedication  spent in one project and reserve some time for correction and refinement. If the deadline is shorter, the increase should be steeper in order to achieve that (provided that both projects require the same total amount of dedication – same area under the curve).

Now, let’s have a look at how I do it:

Dedication myself
In blue the dedication spent ideally on projects; in red the dedication I spent on projects versus time.

Clearly the process is not optimised. I assumed, for simplicity, that also for myself the amount of dedication and workload for a project is the same as the ideal case (same area under the curve). In my case, though, you can appreciate more interesting features, from some useless sparkles about later projects, over very abrupt edges to the most shameful delayed submission.

So I asked myself: Why is this happening, and how to avoid it?

Continue reading “Getting things done!”

Once upon a time in a lab…

awesome (ˈɔːsəm ) , adjective

  1. Extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring awe: the awesome power of the atomic bomb
  2. informal Extremely good; excellent: the band is truly awesome!

This is the definition of awesome from the Oxford Online Dictionary. I have my own:

awesome (ˈɔːsəm ) , adjective

  1. Containing at least three of the following: a good friend, geekery, beer, beautiful landscapes, bits of science, books.

Now it happened that I have spent the last weekend hiking in the Black Forest in Germany, talking about science and Tolkien’s books with a great friend. And of course beer to refresh ourselves after the walking. A most awesome weekend!

PANO_20150411_113212
A panorama view of Baden-Baden and the Black Forest from the Hohenbaden castle ruins.

All started in the Black Forest. The name, according to Lonely Planet, comes from “its dark, slightly sinister canopy of evergreens: this is where Hansel and Gretel encountered the wicked witch.” Although we did not know about it, we ended up with our theory on little creatures living the forest and the inhabitants of the nearby cities bringing gifts to keep the souls of the forest happy.

Continue reading “Once upon a time in a lab…”

Susy is expecting more swinging dreams…

South-Western Germany. Perfect location to reach Geneva. And Geneva, with CERN, in 2015 is basically physicists’ Mecca.

Although I am not a particle physicist, when I finished my high school in humanities, my love for neutrinos was the reason to start this new adventure in the world of science. Ever since, I have been fascinated by particle physics, making material science (my actual field of study) almost jealous. My secret love for tiny particles is why, about three years ago, I was standing over-excited in front on my laptop waiting for one of the biggest announcement of recent times: the first evidences for the Higgs boson. It was a historical moment, the Woodstock of physics.

The Higgs boson represents the excitation of the Higgs field, thought to be responsible for the mass of fundamental particles. The Standard Model, the big puzzle in which all discovered particles fitted ever since, at first sight did not predict any mass for any of those. The introduction of the Higgs field seems to solve the mystery, associating to a particle a mass proportional to the strength of the interaction with the field. The evidence of a particle of mass ~125 GeV by the two detectors CMS and ATLAS at CERN, confirmed the presence of the field and earned Higgs and Englert a deserved Nobel Prize. Happily ever after. The end.

The end?

Continue reading “Susy is expecting more swinging dreams…”

skyline

Travelling, geek science way

skyline
Moon-Venus-Mars Skyline – Image Credit & Copyright: Jay Ouellet

This morning I woke up staring at the skyline of Quebec city on my phone. A nice reminder of why I am doing this job.

Science is closely related to travelling, and be staring at beautiful landscapes. If you are a scientist, you probably know about those moments in which none of your experiments is working as you would like and you ask yourself why you did not follow your mother’s suggestion to study medicine or law to count on a stable carrier. And then you look at the window and a deer is peacefully wondering in the garden of the dormitory you are staying in a small cosy city in Belgium. And inevitably, you smile. Travelling! Travelling, and getting to know new research groups, sometime is what you need to remind you that all the studies you have done are worthwhile.

Continue reading “Travelling, geek science way”