12 June 2024

12 June

Margherita Hack – astrophysicist

TV personality made science more popular

Writer and astrophysicist Margherita Hack was born on this day in 1922 in Florence.  She studied stars by analysing the different kinds of radiation they emitted and frequently appeared on television to explain new findings in astronomy and physics.  Hack, whose father, Roberto Hack, was of Swiss origin, graduated in physics from the University of Florence in 1945. She worked at the Brera Astronomical Observatory just outside Milan and then became a professor at the University of Trieste.  She spent more than 20 years as director of the observatory in Trieste, the first woman in Italy to hold such a position. Under her leadership, the observatory became one of the foremost research centres in Italy.  Hack wrote many scientific papers and books, winning awards for her research. Her television appearances helped make science more popular with ordinary people.  Hack was also known for her strong political views and for her criticisms of the Roman Catholic Church, which she believed had an unscientific outlook.  Hack was awarded the honour of Dame Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic in 2012 and the asteroid 8558 Hack, discovered in 1995, was named after her.  Read more…


Nick Gentile - mafioso

Sicilian mobster defied code of silence by publishing memoirs

The mafioso Nicola Gentile, known in the United States as Nick, who became notorious for publishing a book of memoirs that revealed the inner workings of the American Mafia as well as secrets of the Sicilian underworld, was born on this day in 1885 in Siculiana, a small town on the south coast of the Sicily, in the province of Agrigento.  Gentile’s book, Vita di Capomafia, which he wrote in conjunction with a journalist, was published in 1963 and provided much assistance to the American authorities in their fight against organised crime.   As a result Gentile was sentenced to death by the mafia council in Sicily for having broken the code of omertà, a vow of silence to which all mafiosi are expected to adhere to protect their criminal activities.  Siculiana, in fact, was a mafia stronghold, where the code was usually enforced with particular rigour.  Yet the mobsters from the city of Catania who were tasked with carrying out the sentence declined to do so, for reasons that have not been explained. In the event, Gentile died in Siculiana in 1966 of natural causes, having spent his last years as an old, sick man who appeared to have very little money and was kept alive by the kindness of neighbours.  Read more…


Edda “Edy” Campagnoli - model, TV star and businesswoman

Glamorous blonde who married top footballer

The model, television star and later businesswoman Edda “Edy” Campagnoli was born on this day in 1934 in Milan.  Campagnoli was a famous face in Italy in the 1950s. She became a celebrity as the glamorous assistant of popular presenter Mike Bongiorno on a prime time quiz show, and then married the AC Milan and Italy goalkeeper Lorenzo Buffon.  For a while, she and Buffon - a cousin of the grandfather of another famous Italian goalkeeper, World Cup-winner Gianluigi Buffon - were one of Italy’s most high-profile couples.  Campagnoli, blonde with blue eyes and a curvaceous figure, first attracted attention as a catwalk model in the city of her birth and it would be her looks that provided a passport to stardom. In 1954, the director Luchino Visconti decided she would be the perfect Venus in his interpretation of Gaspare Spontini’s opera La vestale, giving her the rare distinction of appearing on stage at Milan's great opera house, Teatro alla Scala, alongside the superstar soprano Maria Callas. A year later, she made her television debut in an afternoon show on the fledgling Rai network, where she was quickly spotted by the producers of Lascia o raddoppia?, a new quiz show.  Read more…


Charles Emmanuel II - Duke of Savoy

Ruler who was notorious for massacre of Protestant minority

Charles Emmanuel II, who was Duke of Savoy for almost his whole life, died on this day in 1675 in Turin.  His rule was notorious for his persecution of the Valdesi – a Christian Protestant movement widely known as the Waldenses that originated in 12th century France, whose base was on the Franco-Italian border.  In 1655, he launched an attack on the Valdesi that turned into a massacre so brutal that it sent shockwaves around Europe and prompted the English poet, John Milton, to write the sonnet On the Late Massacre in Piedmont.  The British political leader Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, proposed to send the British Navy if the massacre and subsequent attacks were not halted, and raised funds for helping the Waldensians.  More positively, Charles Emmanuel II was responsible for improving commerce and creating wealth in the Duchy. He was a driver in developing the port of Nice and building a road through the Alps towards France.  He also reformed the army so that it did not rely on mercenaries, forming five Piedmontese regiments and reviving the cavalry, as well as introducing a standardised uniform.  Read more…


Book of the Day: Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction, by James Binney

Astrophysics is the physics of the stars, and more widely the physics of the Universe. It enables us to understand the structure and evolution of planetary systems, stars, galaxies, interstellar gas, and the cosmos as a whole.  In Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction, the leading astrophysicist James Binney shows how the field of astrophysics has expanded rapidly in the past century, with vast quantities of data gathered by telescopes exploiting all parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, combined with the rapid advance of computing power, which has allowed increasingly effective mathematical modelling. He illustrates how the application of fundamental principles of physics - the consideration of energy and mass, and momentum - and the two pillars of relativity and quantum mechanics, has provided insights into phenomena ranging from rapidly spinning millisecond pulsars to the collision of giant spiral galaxies. This is a clear, rigorous introduction to astrophysics for those keen to cut their teeth on a conceptual treatment involving some mathematics.

James Binney is a British astrophysicist. He is a professor of physics at the University of Oxford and former head of the Sub-Department of Theoretical Physics as well as an Emeritus Fellow of Merton College. The author of more than 200 articles and several books, he has won multiple awards, including the 2023 Isaac Newton Medal.

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