Vera Rubin

October 16th: Angular


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


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


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


You are reading this blog page. This means you have opened a browser (or an app, these days) and you typed or you clicked on a link someone shared; this action triggered your computer to send a request to find “” on the web; domain name servers (DNS) will redirect your request in the right direction until it finds the WordPress server where 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 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


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


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


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


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


“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


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


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