Showing posts with label Science. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Science. Show all posts

15 April 2023

Italy’s first nuclear reactor opens

Facility based on pioneer Enrico Fermi’s historic Chicago-Pile series

The Ispra-1 reactor was the first nuclear reactor to be built on Italian soil
The Ispra-1 reactor was the first nuclear
reactor to be built on Italian soil
The first nuclear reactor to be built on Italian soil was inaugurated on this day in 1959 at Ispra, a small town on the eastern shore of Lago Maggiore.

The facility, which preceded the first generation of nuclear power plants serving the need for clean, reliable and plentiful electricity sources for industrial and domestic use, was built purely for research purposes.

It was opened four years ahead of the country’s first commercial nuclear plant, at Latina in Lazio.

The 5 megawatt Ispra-1 research reactor, as it was titled, was modelled on the latest version of the Chicago-Pile 5 series developed by Enrico Fermi, the Rome-born nuclear physicist who created the world’s first nuclear reactor, the Chicago-Pile 1, following his discovery that if uranium neutrons were emitted into fissioning uranium, they could split other uranium atoms, setting off a chain reaction that would release enormous amounts of energy.

The Ispra-1 reactor was built by Italy’s National Nuclear Research Council. It was officially transferred to the European Community in March 1961, becoming a Joint Research Centre (JRC) of the European Commission. 

It was used for studies and research on core physics, new materials for the construction of nuclear power reactors, as well as neutron fluxes and their interaction with living matter.

Until the 1960s, much of Italy’s electricity had been generated from renewable sources. Although the first power plant in continental Europe, opened in Milan in 1883, was carbon-fuelled, the country’s abundance of mountains and lakes enabled it to develop a huge hydroelectric power sector.

The Trino Vercellese nuclear plant was named after the Italian nuclear pioneer Enrico Fermi
The Trino Vercellese nuclear plant was named
after the Italian nuclear pioneer Enrico Fermi
Fossil fuels began to take over in the 1960s to meet the needs of a growing population but there was a common belief that nuclear energy could provide, within only a few years, safely and economically, all the power that Italy needed. 

By 1964, three nuclear power plants had been built, all approximately 50km (31 miles) from major cities. They were at Trino Vercellese, north of Turin, at Sessa Aurunca in Campania, north of Naples, and at Latina, south of Rome.

Yet after the electricity sector in Italy was nationalised in 1962, investment in nuclear stalled. It was not until 1978 that a fourth nuclear power station, at Caorso in Emilia-Romagna, was completed.  The 1973 world oil crisis had prompted another round of enthusiastic plans for the nuclear sector, but again they were ultimately downgraded.

The most significant setback of all followed the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, fallout from which affected parts of northern Italy and was blamed for a decline in birth rate in 1987. The Italian government organised a referendum to gauge public feeling about the future of nuclear power, the results of which led to a decision to close two plants and terminate work on another.

Another referendum in 2011 following a nuclear accident in Japan confirmed that public opinion had not shifted and a new company was created to take charge of decommissioning all nuclear sites in Italy, including the research facility at Ispra.

The Cattedrale di San Marco is an example of Latina's architecture
The Cattedrale di San Marco is an
example of Latina's architecture
Travel tip:

Latina, where one of Italy’s now-decommissioned nuclear power stations was opened in 1963, is a city built during the Fascist era of the 1920s and 1930s when Mussolini’s government fulfilled a pledge to drain the inhospitable, mosquito-ridden Pontine Marshes, visitors to which frequently became infected with malaria. Built on that reclaimed land, and originally called Littoria when it was established in 1932, its stands as a monument to the architectural style that typified the era, which combined some elements of classicism, with its preponderance of columns and arches, with the stark lines of 1920s and 30s rationalism. It has a large number of monuments and edifices, including a town hall with a tall clock tower and a cathedral, designed by architects such as Marcello Piacentini and Angiolo Mazzoni. Renamed Latina in 1946, it has grown into a substantial city with a population of 126,000, making it the second largest city in Lazio after Rome.

Ispra's coastal pathways are popular with visitors to the Lago Maggiore town
Ispra's coastal pathways are popular with
visitors to the Lago Maggiore town
Travel tip:

Ispra, which sits on the eastern shore of Lago Maggiore about 25km (16 miles) west of its provincial capital, Varese, is an area popular with walkers for its lakeside footpaths, including the poetically named passeggiata dell’amore, and with golfers for the Parco del Golfo della Quassa. The Joint Research Centre still exists, despite the decommissioning of the nuclear plant. It comprises the Institute for the Protection and the Security of the Citizen (IPSC), the Institute for Environment and Sustainability (IES) and the Institute for Health and Consumer Protection (IHCP). The site itself is an area of natural preservation, covering an area of 157 hectares (390 acres) of pine, birch, oak and chestnut trees.

Also on this day:

1446: The death of architect Filippo Brunelleschi

1452: The birth of Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci

1754: The death of mathematician Jacopo Riccati

1882: The birth of anti-Fascist politician Giovanni Amendola


9 March 2023

Andrew Viterbi – electrical engineer and businessman

The amazing life of 'the father of the mobile telephone'

Even at the age of 88, Viterbi remains actively involved in the scientific community
Even at the age of 88, Viterbi remains actively
involved in the scientific community
Andrew Viterbi, who invented the Viterbi algorithm and co-founded the American multinational corporation Qualcomm, was born Andrea Giacomo Viterbi on this day in 1935 in Bergamo in the Lombardy region of Italy.

The Viterbi algorithm is still used widely in cellular phones and other communication devices for error correcting codes as well as for speech recognition, DNA analysis and other applications. Viterbi also helped to develop the Code Division Multiple Access standard for cell phone networks.

He is recognised in Italy as ‘il padre del telefonino’ - the father of the mobile telephone.

Viterbi’s father, Achille, was director of Bergamo Hospital’s ophthalmology department, and his mother, Maria Luria, came from a prominent family in Piedmont and had a teaching degree. But after Mussolini introduced his new racial laws in Italy before the start of World War II, the couple, who were both Jewish, were deprived of their position and could no longer make a living to support their family.

They had planned to sail to the United States on 1 September, 1939, but after receiving a tip-off alerting them to possible danger, they secretly escaped two weeks early and were able to land safely in New York, where a member of their extended family already lived.   They then moved to Boston, where Andrea’s name was anglicised as Andrew after he was naturalised as an American.

Andrew Viterbi pictured in 2005 with his late wife, Erna, who assisted him in his philanthropic causes
Andrew Viterbi pictured in 2005 with his late wife,
Erna, who assisted him in his philanthropic causes
As Andrew Viterbi, he attended the Boston Latin School and entered Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1952 to study electrical engineering. After qualifying, he worked at Raytheon and then the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Pasadena, where he worked on telemetry for unmanned space missions and helped to develop the ‘phase-locked loop.’ At the same time, he was studying for a PhD in digital communications at the University of Southern California and graduated from there in 1963.

He was awarded academic positions at the University of California and, in 1967, he proposed the Viterbi algorithm to decode convolutionally encoded data, a ground breaking mathematical formula for eliminating signal interference. This allowed for effective cellular communication, digital satellite broadcast receivers, and deep space telemetry.

With Irwin Jacobs, Viterbi was the co-founder of Linkabit Corporation in 1968, and Qualcomm Inc in 1985, which became one of the most important communications companies worldwide. He became president of the venture capital company, The Viterbi Group in 2003, which invests in emerging businesses that are pioneering innovative technologies in the area of wireless communications.

Viterbi has received many awards for his invention of the Viterbi algorithm and a computer centre and an engineering school have been named after him. His algorithm paved the way for the widespread use of cellular technology, which changed the way people communicate worldwide.

In 2003 he was awarded an honorary degree in computer science by La Sapienza University of Rome and in 2007 an honorary degree in electrical engineering by the University in his native city of Bergamo. He has written two internationally respected books about digital communications and coding.

Viterbi in 1958 married Erna Finci, a Jewish refugee who had arrived in the United States from Sarajevo in the former Yugoslavia. Her family had been deported from an Italian occupied zone in Sarajevo to Parma in Italy, where they were interned. They were saved from being sent to an extermination camp by the residents of Gramignazzo di Sissa, the village when they were interned, and were looked after by a local family when the Germans advanced into Italy, who hid them in their vineyard. Other Italians helped them to walk across the Alps into Switzerland, where they stayed until after the war.

The couple had three children. Erna, who helped organise Viterbi’s multiple acts of philanthropy, died in 2015. Their charitable donations included $52 million to the University of Southern California, where the engineering school was renamed the Andrew and Erna Viterbi School of Engineering. 

Bergamo's Città Alta is protected by an imposing wall built by the Venetians
Bergamo's Città Alta is protected by an
imposing wall built by the Venetians
Travel tip:

Bergamo in Lombardy is a beautiful city with an upper and lower town that are separated by impressive fortifications. The magical upper town - the Città Alta - has gems of mediaeval and Renaissance architecture surrounded by the impressive 16th century walls, which were built by the Venetians who ruled at the time. Outside the walls, the elegant Città Bassa, which grew up on the plain below, has some buildings that date back to the 15th century as well as imposing architecture added in the 19th and 20th centuries. While the Città Alta is the draw for many tourists, the lower town also has art galleries, churches and theatres and a wealth of good restaurants and smart shops to enjoy.

The Rocca dei Terzi with its 89ft central tower
The Rocca dei Terzi with its
89ft central tower
Travel tip:

Gramignazzo, the village near Parma where Viterbi’s future wife, Erna, was saved with her family from being shipped to a Nazi extermination camp, is a frazione of the municipality of Sissa, in farming country on the south bank of the Po river in Emilia Romagna. Sissa has a restored castle, the Rocca dei Terzi, which dates back to the 11th century and is notable for a 27-metre (89ft) tower added in the 16th century. The village is host every November to a festival known as the Sapori del Maiale, celebrating products made from pork, including many varieties of sausage and salami as well as roast pork dishes such as porchetta, typically made of rolled loin or belly pork stuffed with herbs.

Also on this day:

1454: The death of explorer Amerigo Vespucci

1809: The birth of statesman and winemaker Bettino Ricasoli

1842: The premiere of Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco

1908: The founding of football club Internazionale

1948: The birth of politician Emma Bonino


24 May 2022

Alessandro Cruto - inventor

Produced light bulb hailed as better than Edison’s

Alessandro Cruto was always fascinated by science
Alessandro Cruto was always
fascinated by science
The inventor Alessandro Cruto, whose attempts to create artificial diamonds instead led him to develop a light bulb that outperformed that of his contemporary, Thomas Edison, was born on this day in 1847 in Piossasco, a village near Turin.

Younger than his American counterpart by just three months, Cruto hit upon his idea after attending a conference held by Galileo Ferraris, the pioneer of alternating current, where Edison’s attempts to find a suitable filament for incandescent light bulbs were discussed.

Cruto eventually opened a factory that eventually made up to 1,000 light bulbs per day but quit the company after seven years to return to his first love, inventing.

The son of a construction foreman, Cruto enrolled at the University of Turin to study architecture but was more interested in attending physics and chemistry lectures, eager to advance his knowledge. It was after attending one of these lectures that he hit upon the idea that he could produce artificial diamonds by crystallising carbon.

In 1872, he opened a small workshop in his home village. In the September of the following year, his experiments resulted in him creating a dense carbon material that was hard enough to scratch glass. But it did not resemble anything that could be recognised as a synthetic diamond.

An example of the light bulbs created by Cruto
An example of the light
bulbs created by Cruto
He continued to study this material for many years. In 1879, on his 32nd birthday, he attended the conference hosted by Ferraris and realised the graphite he had created might be a suitable material for an effective filament for an electric light bulb.

Cruto's process resulted in the deposition of graphite on thin platinum filaments in the presence of gaseous hydrocarbons. Subjected to high temperatures, this created thin filaments of super-pure graphite. 

In 1882, he attended the Electricity Expo at Munich, where his graphite filaments, which produced a strong, white light, outperformed Edison’s carbon-coated bamboo filaments, which gave off a rather less effective yellow light and burnt out more quickly. 

The following year, Cruto’s bulbs illuminated the centre of Piossasco, enabling his home village to claim to be the first in Italy to be illuminated by electricity, rather than by the dim gas lamps that until then were the sole source of light in Italy’s towns and cities once the sun had gone down.

After exhibiting again at the Turin Expo in 1884, he generated sufficient interest that he decided to produce bulbs on a commercial scale.

Cruto established a manufacturing plant in order to make light bulbs on a commercial scale
Cruto established a manufacturing plant in order
to make light bulbs on a commercial scale
A year later, having found a suitable site for a production facility a short distance from Piossasco at Alpignano, he opened his factory under the name of A Cruto and Company.

With limited financial backing, the odds against his company becoming the dominant player in the light bulb market even in Italy were long. With much more financial muscle, the Italian Edison Company was too big a competitor. Edison installed a thermo-electric power station in Milan and supplied the bulbs for all the properties it served.

Cruto remained at the helm of his business until 1889 and only when its output hit 1,000 light bulbs a day did he take a step back. In 1893, after some major disagreements with managers he had appointed in his place, he resigned in order to return to his workshop to focus on new inventions.

The factory was sold a number of times, went bankrupt and was eventually acquired by Philips in 1927.  The Cruto name remained in use for some years after Alessandro had ceased to be involved, with examples in existence that were manufactured as late as 1902.

Cruto spent the rest of his days dividing his time between his family and his workshop. He died in 1908, his important contribution to the development of artificial light largely forgotten.

The Church of San Vito dominates the parish of the same name in Piossasco
The Church of San Vito dominates the parish
of the same name in Piossasco
Travel tip:

Piossasco, where Alessandro Cruto was born and opened his first workshop, is a town not far from Turin, halfway between Turin and the beautiful and elegant town of Pinerolo, famous for being the ‘home’ of panettone and other enriched breads. A village when Cruto was growing up, it has expanded into a town of more than 18,000 people. Situated about 20km (12 miles) southwest of the Piedmont capital, Piossasco overlooks the beautiful Parco Naturale del Monte San Giorgio, and has some notable historic buildings such as the Castello Ai Nove Merli di Piossasco, which has medieval origins and occupies a panoramic position commanding sweeping views of the Pinerolese and Valsusa areas. The San Vito parish of Piossasco is notable for the church of the same name, which evolved from a former monastery and was largely built at the end of the 16th century with a Baroque facade added in the 19th century.

Turin is famous for its Savoy palaces,  including the 16th century Palazzo Reale
Turin is famous for its Savoy palaces, 
including the 16th century Palazzo Reale
Travel tip:

The city of Turin, once the capital of Italy and traditionally seat of the Savoy dynasty, is best known for its royal palaces but tends to be overlooked by visitors to Italy, especially new ones, who flock first to Rome, Florence, Venice and Milan. Yet as an elegant, stylish and sophisticated city, Turin has much to commend it, from its many historic cafés to 12 miles of arcaded streets and some of the finest restaurants in Piedmont. To enjoy Turin’s café culture, head for Via Po, Turin’s famous promenade linking Piazza Vittorio Veneto with Piazza Castello, or nearby Piazza San Carlo, one of the city’s main squares. In the 19th century, these cafès were popular with writers, artists, philosophers, musicians and politicians among others, who would meet to discuss the affairs of the day.

Also on this day:

1494: The birth of painter Jacopo Carucci da Pontormo

1671: The birth of Gian Gastone de' Medici, the seventh and last Grand Duke of Tuscany

1796: The birth of Charles Emmanuel IV, King of Sardinia

1949: The birth of film producer and football club owner Aurelio De Laurentiis

1981: The birth of celebrity chef Simone Rugiati


21 April 2022

Gino Strada - surgeon and charity founder

‘Maestro of humanity’ built hospitals for war victims

Gino Strada's charity has helped more than 11 million people worldwide
Gino Strada's charity has helped more
than 11 million people worldwide
The surgeon and founder of the medical and humanitarian charity Emergency, Gino Strada, was born on this day in 1948 in Sesto San Giovanni, a town that is now effectively a suburb of Milan.

Emergency has provided free healthcare to more than 11 million people in 19 different countries, including locations severely affected by conflict such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen.  It also operates in Eritrea, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Sudan, Cambodia, Serbia, Nicaragua and Sri Lanka.

The hospitals set up by the organisation - some designed with the help of Strada’s friend, the world-renowned architect Renzo Piano - are built to the highest standards, with the aim of providing world-class treatments and after-care. Strada, who was said himself to have performed more than 30,000 operations on direct or indirect victims of conflict, insisted that the hospitals in which his European volunteers worked had to be places where “you would be happy to have one of your family members treated”,

When Strada died in 2021, among the many tributes paid to him was one by the then president of the European parliament, David Sassoli, who described him as the ‘maestro of humanity’.

The son of a steelworker, Strada attended the Liceo Classico Giosuè Carducci, a high school specialising in science near Milano Centrale railway station. He then studied medicine and trauma surgery at the University of Milan, where he graduated in 1978, before training as a heart-lung transplant surgeon in the United States and South Africa.

The Emergency organisation's logo
The Emergency organisation's logo has become
a familiar sight in 19 countries since 1994
He returned to Italy to work at a hospital in Rho, to the northwest of Milan. A committed peace activist, he soon focussed his attention on trauma surgery and in particular the treatment of war victims.

In 1988, he began to work as a surgeon with the International Committee of the Red Cross in various conflict zones, including Pakistan, Ethiopia, Peru, Afghanistan, Thailand, Djibouti, Somalia and Bosnia.

He founded Emergency in 1994, along with his then-wife, Teresa, and with the support of colleagues. They provided their first medical services in Rwanda in the wake of the genocide there, when an 800,000 people were killed by Hutu extremists. 

Funded mainly through private donations, Emergency has cared for the civilian victims of land mines, improvised explosive devices, bombings, suicide attacks and of the diseases that flourish in communities without access to proper sanitation and medical services as a result of conflict.

Strada worked in Italy at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic
Strada worked in Italy at the
height of the Covid-19 pandemic
The organisation also cared for Ebola patients in Sierra Leone and, in Khartoum, Sudan, children whose hearts were damaged by rheumatic fever.

Emergency also set up a hospital in Afghanistan's Panjshir Valley, followed by others in Kabul and Lashkar Gah. Rigorously neutral in all conflicts, Strada spent several periods living in Afghanistan, where he once negotiated with Taliban leader Mohammed Omar and the leaders of rival Northern Alliance to ensure the safety of Emergency patients on both sides of the conflict. 

Strada preferred Emergency to remain non-political, but he found it impossible at times to be neutral. He opposed Italy’s involvement in Kosovo in 1999 and was an outspoken critic of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. When Italy banned the manufacture, sale and export of anti-personnel landmines in 1997, it was in part due to a lobbying campaign by Emergency.

After decades taking on medical challenges in remote corners of the world, Strada found that the coronavirus pandemic created a demand for Emergency’s services in his native Italy, the first western country to be ravaged by the disease in 2020. The organisation provided medical care in the hardest-hit cities, as well as helping with delivering medicine and provisions for vulnerable people during lockdowns and handing out free food other essentials for Italians impacted by the economic consequences of the pandemic.

Widowed in 2009 when his wife, Teresa, died, Strada remarried in June 2021 to Simonetta Gola, Emergency's communications manager, but less than two months after the wedding he fell victim to a heart attack while on holiday in France and sadly passed away at the age of 73.

Although he had a history of heart trouble, his death came as a shock to many as he had shown no sign of slowing down.  His daughter by his first marriage, Cecilia, is a former president of Emergency. The current president is Rossella Miccio.

The suburb of Sesto San Giovanni in Milan
The suburb of Sesto San Giovanni in Milan has
transitioned from industrial to business centre
Travel tip:

Sesto San Giovanni, where Gino Strada was born, is the northernmost point on the Milan M1 metro line. In the 1920s it had a population of just over 15,000 but began to expand as an industrial centre, becoming the base for several large companies in the steel and motor industries but also the Campari drinks company.  The years after the Second World War saw a huge influx of migrants from other parts of Italy, attracted by the job possibilities. Today, the area is a busy suburb with more than 85,000 inhabitants. The current employers are more in the service sector, such as the telecommunications company, WIND.

The facade of Milano Centrale railway station
The facade of Milano Centrale railway station
was designed by Ulisse Stacchini in 1931
Travel tip:

Milano Centrale station, close to where Gino Strada went to high school, is one of Italy’s busiest rail hubs. It has 24 platforms and handles about 320,000 passengers per day, using approximately 500 trains. The station is an important stop on the north-south route between Bologna and Salerno and also has trains running daily to international destinations including Bern, Lugano, Geneva, Zürich, Paris, Vienna, Barcelona and Munich. It was designed by the architect Ulisse Stacchini, a champion of Liberty style Art Nouveau designs, who also designed the stadium that evolved into the city's iconic Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, joint home of Milan's two major football clubs, Internazionale and AC Milan.

Also on this day:

753 BC: The founding of the city of Rome

1574: The death of Tuscan leader Cosimo I de' Medici

1922: The death of castrato singer Alessandro Moreschi

1930: The birth of actress Silvana Mangano


6 April 2021

The L’Aquila Earthquake

Shock measuring 6.3 magnitude killed more than 300

Scenes of devastation confronted rescue workers after the quake
Scenes of devastation confronted
rescue workers after the quake
The central Italy region of Abruzzo suffered a major disaster on this day in 2009 when an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.3 caused extensive damage and considerable loss of life in the city of L’Aquila and surrounding villages.

The main shock struck at 3.32am, when many of the victims would have been asleep, although there had been two smaller tremors the day before in an area with a long history of seismic turbulence, giving rise to speculation that a major quake was imminent.

The epicentre was only a little outside L’Aquila, a city with a population of about 70,000, damaging up to 11,000 buildings in the 13th century city.  A total of 309 people lost their lives and such was the scale of devastation that up to 65,000 people were left homeless in the city and neighbouring villages.

It was the deadliest earthquake to hit Italy since the Irpinia quake in Campania killed almost 2,500 people in 1980.

The dead in L’Aquila, a university city, included 55 students killed when their halls of residence collapsed.  The 309 victims were of 11 different nationalities, including Italians.  The main shock was felt 92 km (57 miles) away in the Italian capital, Rome.

Many of L'Aquila's medieval buildings were badly damaged, including the Basilica of Saint Bernardino of Siena, the city’s largest Renaissance church, and the Basilica di Santa Maria di Collemaggio, while the dome of the 18th-century church of Anime Sante in Piazza Duomo collapsed. Porta Napoli, the oldest gate to the city, was completely destroyed.

A wrecked local government building near the centre of L'Aquila
A wrecked local government building
near the centre of L'Aquila
The collapse of the cupola of the 18th-century Baroque church of St Augustine - previously destroyed in a 1703 earthquake - damaged L'Aquila's state archives. 

But it was not only the city’s historical centre that suffered. Many of L'Aquila's modern buildings - even those thought to be earthquake-proof - were not able to withstand the shaking, including a dormitory at the University of L'Aquila that collapsed, and a new wing of the city’s main hospital, built only nine years earlier.  Shoddy construction was blamed, leaving the city much more vulnerable than it should have been, in the opinion of some experts.

Yet those held to account in the inquiries that followed were not building contractors but six scientists and a government official - members of a government commission for risk assessment - who were placed on trial for manslaughter on the grounds that they had not properly communicated the increased risk following the smaller tremors that preceded the 6 April quake. 

In October 2012,  a court found that the seven individuals were indeed guilty of manslaughter and each was handed a six-year prison sentence, although those convictions were overturned on appeal two years later.

The church of Anime Sante, the dome of which collapsed, undergoing reconstruction in 2011
The church of Anime Sante, the dome of which
collapsed, undergoing reconstruction in 2011
Of the vast number of residents left homeless, some 40,000 people were accommodated in tented camps and a further 10,000 were housed in hotels on the coast. 

Prime minister Silvio Berlusconi pledged to rehouse all of the homeless and provide ample funds to rebuild the city, yet reconstruction work was slow, mired in political wrangling, bureaucracy and corruption.  The tented camps remained in place for far longer than planned and even 10 years on, some 2,000 families were still living in prefabricated, temporary accommodation.

Many of the damaged houses in the historic centre of the city are still unrepaired yet some residents moved back into them anyway. Parts of the centre are beginning to look as they did before the quake, after meticulously reconstruction of many historic buildings, although others remain clad in scaffolding and some areas still resemble buildings sites, with cranes towering above the rooftops. 

The Basilica di Santa Maria di Collemaggio,  with its distinctive pink and white facade
The Basilica di Santa Maria di Collemaggio, 
with its distinctive pink and white facade
Travel tip:

The capital of the Abruzzo region, L’Aquila was built in the 13th century on a hill within the valley of the Aterno river. Its construction was started by Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, and completed by his son, Conrad IV of Germany. It was destroyed by Conrad’s brother, Manfred in 1259, but rebuilt by Charles I of Anjou, who surrounded it with walls.  Many of the buildings that attracted visitors to the city before 2009 have been restored, including the 12th century Basilica di Santa Maria di Collemaggio, with its distinctive exterior of alternating pink and white stone blocks, and the 15th century Basilica of San Bernardino, which reopened in 2015 after six years of restoration work that cost around €40 million.

L'Aquila's elegant Piazza del Duomo, the heart of the city, as it looked in 2007
L'Aquila's elegant Piazza del Duomo, the heart
of the city, as it looked in 2007
Travel tip:

Apart from its religious buildings, L’Aquila is attractive for its maze of narrow streets, lined with Baroque and Renaissance buildings, and its elegant squares. As home to the University of L'Aquila, it has a lively atmosphere and many cultural attractions, including a symphony orchestra, a fine-arts academy, a state conservatory, a film institute and a repertory theatre. Situated in a valley in the Apennines in the shadow of the Gran Sasso massif, it is also close to a number of ski resorts. 

Also on this day:

1483: The birth of painter and architect Raphael

1901: The birth of social activist Pier Giorgio Frassati

1926: The birth of tenor and actor Sergio Franchi

1957: The birth of race-walking twins Maurizio and Giorgio Damilano

(Picture credits: rescuers by University College London; local government office by TheWiz83; church of Anime Sante and Piazza del Duomo by RaeBo; Basilica by Stemonitis; all via Wikimedia Commons)


16 May 2020

Maria Gaetana Agnesi – mathematician

Brilliant scholar gave her time and money to the poor

Maria Gaetana Agnesi learned seven languages by the age of 11
Maria Gaetana Agnesi learned
seven languages by the age of 11
Maria Gaetana Agnesi, the first woman to write a mathematics handbook, was born on this day in 1718 in Milan.

Maria became a mathematician, philosopher, theologian and humanitarian and was also the first woman to be appointed as a mathematics professor at a university.

She was one of at least 21 children born to Pietro Agnesi, a wealthy man whose family had made their money from silk production. Her mother was his first wife, Anna Fortunato Brivio, who was from a noble Milanese family.

Maria was soon recognised as a child prodigy, who could speak Italian and French by the time she was five and had learnt Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, German and Latin by the time she was 11.

When she became ill at the age of 12, it was thought to have been because of excessive studying and reading, but after she was prescribed vigorous dancing and horse riding to improve her health, she suffered convulsions and was then advised to moderate her activities.

By the time Maria was 14 she was studying ballistics and geometry. Her father regularly invited learned men to his house to listen to her read and to discuss philosophical questions with her.

The cover page of Agnesi's Instituzioni  analitiche ad uso della gioventu italiana
The cover page of Agnesi's Instituzioni
 analitiche ad uso della gioventu italiana
After Maria’s mother died, her father remarried twice and Maria was given the task of teaching all her siblings and half-siblings.

This stopped her from fulfilling her wish to enter a convent.  Instead, her father agreed to let her live away from society and devote herself to the study of mathematics.

In 1740 she began studying differential and integral calculus with esteemed Italian mathematician Ramiro Rampinelli.

By 1748 Maria had published her Instituzioni analitiche ad uso della gioventù italiana. She said this was to give a systematic illustration of the different results and theorems of infinitesimal calculus. The work was translated into French and English and Maria received letters and gifts from the Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa and Pope Benedict XIV.

In the book, Maria discusses a curve that had been studied earlier by the mathematician Luigi Guido Grandi. He had called the curve ‘versoria,’ the Latin word for a rope that turns a sail, because that is what it reminded him of.  This was mistranslated as the word ‘witch’ in the English version and so the curve became known as ‘The Witch of Agnesi’.

The bust of Maria Gaetana Agnesi at the Palazzo di Brera in Milan
The bust of  Agnesi at the
Palazzo di Brera in Milan
In 1750 Pope Benedict XIV appointed Maria to the chair of mathematics and natural philosophy and physics at Bologna University, although she never actually taught there. She was the second woman in the world to be granted a professorship at a university, Laura Bassi, an Italian physicist being the first.

After the death of her father in 1752, Maria finally had the chance to study theology. She then worked with the poor, sick and homeless, founding a home for the elderly in Milan, where she went to live.

In January 1799, Maria Gaetana Agnesi died at the age of 80. She was buried in a mass grave for the poor along with 15 other bodies.

An asteroid, 16765 Agnesi, a crater on Venus and a brandy are all named after her, as well as the mathematical curve, the Witch of Agnesi.

The Villa Agnesi Albertoni at Montevecchia in the province of Lecco, where Maria and her family spent the summer
The Villa Agnesi Albertoni at Montevecchia in the province
of Lecco, where Maria and her family spent the summer
Travel tip:

You can visit the Villa Agnesi Albertoni, where Maria and her family spent time during the summer, which is in Largo Maria Gaetana Agnesi at Montevecchia in the province of Lecco, about 30 kilometres (19 miles) northeast of Milan. The villa has been preserved in the rococo style in which it was built during the 17th century. Visitors can still see the ‘salotto’, where eminent visitors would discuss philosophy with Maria Gaetana Agnesi and hear one of her sisters, Maria Teresa Agnesi play her own compositions on the harpsichord.

The famous Archiginnasio, the  university's anatomical theatre
The famous Archiginnasio, the
university's anatomical theatre
Travel tip:

Bologna University, where Maria Gaetana Agnesi was the first woman to be appointed as a mathematics professor, was founded in 1088, making it the oldest university in the world. It attracted popes and kings as well as students of the calibre of Dante, Copernicus and Boccaccio. You can still visit one of the original university buildings in the centre of Bologna, the former anatomy theatre, the Archiginnasio, in Piazza Galvani. It is open Monday to Saturday from 9 am to 1 pm, admission free.

Also on this day:

1915: The birth of film director Mario Monicelli

1945: The birth of business tycoon Massimo Moratti

1974: The birth of singer-songwriter Laura Pausini


12 October 2019

Ascanio Sobrero - chemist

Professor who discovered nitroglycerine

Ascanio Sobrero discovered nitroglycerine during an experiment in his laboratory at Turin University
Ascanio Sobrero discovered nitroglycerine during
an experiment in his laboratory at Turin University
The chemist Ascanio Sobrero, who discovered of the volatile compound that became known as nitroglycerine, was born on this day in 1812 in Casale Monferrato in Piedmont.

Nitroglycerine has a pharmaceutical use as a vasodilator, improving blood flow in the treatment of angina, but it is more widely known as the key ingredient in explosives such as dynamite and gelignite.

Its commercial potential was exploited not by Sobrero but by Alfred Nobel, the Swedish businessman and philanthropist who gave his name to the annually awarded Nobel Prizes.

Sobrero, aware of how much damage it could cause, had actually warned against nitroglycerine being used outside the laboratory.

Little is known about Sobrero’s early life, apart from his being born in Casale Monferrato, a town about 60km (37 miles) east of Turin.

He studied medicine in Turin and Paris and then chemistry at the University of Giessen in Germany, earning his doctorate in 1832. In 1845 he returned to the University of Turin, becoming a professor there.

Alfred Nobel, pictured at around the time he met Sobrero in Paris in 1850
Alfred Nobel, pictured at around the time he met
Sobrero in Paris in 1850
Sobrero had acquired some knowledge of explosives from the French chemist Théophile-Jules Pelouze, who had taught at the University of Turin while he was a student.

Around 1846 or 1847, during research, Sobrero experimented by adding glycerol to a mixture of concentrated nitric and sulfuric acids. The result was a colorless, oily liquid with a sweet, burning taste.

When he tried heating a drop in a test tube, it exploded. The fragments of glass scarred Sobrero’s face and hands. The liquid’s volatility frightened Sobrero so much that he told no one about it for more than a year. After he did finally announce his discovery, which he called pyroglycerine, he wrote to fellow chemists warning against its use, expanding on his misgivings in academic journals.

Nobel, whose family owned an armaments business in St Petersburg, had been, like Sobrero, a student at the University of Turin, albeit somewhat later.  They happened to meet in Paris in 1850.  On learning about Sobrero’s discovery, Nobel became interested in finding a way to control nitroglycerine’s explosive qualities.

It took him many years to achieve that ambition and there were mishaps along the way, not least in 1864, after the family had returned to Sweden from Russia, when an explosion at their factory in Heleneborg, Stockholm, killed five people, including Nobel's younger brother Emil. Undaunted, Nobel continued his work and in 1867 he obtained a patent as the inventor of dynamite. He went on to invent gelignite and ballistite, a predecessor of cordite.

The Nobel family business was still producing dynamite to Alfred's patented formula in the 1930s
The Nobel family business was still producing dynamite
to Alfred's patented formula in the 1930s
The inventions made Nobel’s fortune. He unfailingly acknowledged Sobrero as the man who had discovered nitroglycerine, although Sobrero sometimes claimed he was not given sufficient recognition.

At other times, by contrast, he gave the impression he would rather Nobel did not mention his name at all.  He was on record as saying: “When I think of all the victims killed during nitroglycerine explosions, and the terrible havoc that has been wreaked, which in all probability will continue to occur in the future, I am almost ashamed to admit to be its discoverer.”

Sobrero died in Turin in 1888, at the age of 75.  He is buried at the cemetery of Cavallermaggiore, about 40km (25 miles) south of Turin.

Piazza Mazzini in Casale Monferrato, which is named after the revolutionary hero Giuseppe Mazzini
Piazza Mazzini in Casale Monferrato, which is named
after the revolutionary hero Giuseppe Mazzini
Travel tip:

Situated on the south bank of the Po river, Casale Monferrato is a town of some 36,000 inhabitants based on a former Roman city, later turned into a major citadel by the Gonzaga family. The historic centre is itself centred on Piazza Mazzini, the site of the Roman forum. The square is dominated by an 1843 equestrian statue by Abbondio Sangiorgio of King Charles Albert of Piedmont-Sardinia.  To the east of the square is the Lombard Romanesque cathedral of Sant'Evasio, founded in 742 and rebuilt in the early 12th century, occupying the site of a Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter.  See also the castle on Piazza Castello, a fortress that probably dates from 1000, built to a quadrilateral plan with corner towers and a moat.

An internal quadrangle at the University of Turin, where Sobrero was a student and later a professor
An internal quadrangle at the University of Turin, where
Sobrero was a student and later a professor
Travel tip:

The University of Turin, where Sobrero studied and taught, is one of the oldest universities in Europe, founded in 1406 by Prince Ludovico di Savoia. It consistently ranks among the top five universities in Italy and is an important centre for research. The university departments are spread around 13 facilities, with the main university buildings in Via Giuseppe Verdi, close to Turin’s famous Mole Antonelliana.


22 August 2019

Bruno Pontecorvo - nuclear physicist

Defection to Soviet Union sparked unsolved mystery 

Bruno Pontecorvo hailed from a family of talented individuals
Bruno Pontecorvo hailed from a family
of talented individuals
Bruno Pontecorvo, a nuclear physicist whose defection to the Soviet Union in 1950 led to  suspicions of espionage after he had worked on research programmes in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, was born on this day in 1913 in Marina di Pisa.

One of eight children born to Massimo Pontecorvo - a Jewish textile manufacturer who owned three factories - Bruno was from a family rich in intellectual talent. One of his brothers was the film director Gillo Pontecorvo, another the geneticist Guido Pontecorvo.

After high school, he enrolled at the University of Pisa to study engineering, but after two years switched to physics in 1931. He received a doctorate to study at the University of Rome La Sapienza, where Enrico Fermi had gathered together a group of promising young scientists, whom he dubbed “the Via Panisperna boys” after the name of the street where the Institute of Physics  was then situated.

Fermi described the 18-year-old Pontecorvo as one of the brightest young men he had met and invited Pontecorvo to work with him on his experiments bombarding atomic nuclei with slow neutrons.

Everything changed, however, after Benito Mussolini’s Fascist government passed a series of race laws, one of which excluded Jews from participating in higher education.

Enrico Fermi (above) rated Pontecorvo as one of his brightest young scientists
Enrico Fermi (above) rated Pontecorvo
as one of his brightest young scientists
Pontecorvo fled to Paris to work at the laboratory of Frédéric Joliot-Curie. During this period, influenced by his cousin, Emilio Sereni, he became a supporter of the ideals of communism and married Marianne Nordblom, a Swedish woman working in Paris as a nanny.

When Paris was invaded by the Germans in 1940, he became unsettled again.  He could not return to Italy and instead travelled to the United States, where Fermi had also gone. His new wife accompanied him.

In 1943 Pontecorvo joined the Anglo-Canadian nuclear research team at Chalk River, Ontario. There he worked on the design of the world’s first nuclear reactor using heavy water as a neutron moderator.

Despite earlier being seen as “undesirable”, in 1948 he was granted British citizenship. He joined the Atomic Energy Authority research station at Harwell, Berkshire, where classified research was being conducted.

Once Mussolini had been toppled, Pontecorvo had felt comfortable to begin taking holidays in Italy but during on such trip, in 1950, instead of returning to London, he and Marianne and their three children flew to Stockholm in Sweden and then on to Helsinki in Finland, at which point they disappeared.

Pontecorvo worked in France, the United States and the United Kingdom before his defection in 1950
Pontecorvo worked in France, the United States and
the United Kingdom before his defection in 1950
Ten months earlier, one of Pontecorvo’s colleagues at Harwell, Klaus Fuchs, confessed to spying for the Soviet Union - be was blamed by the US for Russia's development of nuclear weapons - and there was speculation that Pontecorvo had followed suit.

Pontecorvo’s relatives, including his sister, Anna, who lived in London, were at a loss to explain his disappearance, insisting he had given no indication that he was planning to fly from Rome to Stockholm.

Nothing was heard of him until 1955, when Pontecorvo appeared at a press conference in Moscow to promote the peaceful use of nuclear power. He denied ever having worked on nuclear weapons research.

Nonetheless, amid speculation that he and Fuchs and others had seriously endangered the West, he was stripped of his British passport. It has never been established why he left so abruptly and there is no concrete evidence that he was ever a spy. An alternative theory is that, because of his links with Fuchs - although they were not close friends - he was under surveillance by agents from America's FBI and feared for his safety if he remained in the West.

He would remain in the Soviet Union for the rest of his life, mainly at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research (JINR) in Dubna, outside Moscow.

Pontecorvo received numerous awards for his work in Russia, including the Lenin Prize (1963) and the Order of Lenin (1983). After his death,  the JINR founded the annual Bruno Pontecorvo Prize to honour work done in particle physics. 

In accordance with his wishes, half of Pontecorvo's ashes were buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, and another half in Dubna.

The yacht harbour at Marina di Pisa, the town where the Pontecorvo family grew up
The yacht harbour at Marina di Pisa, the town where
the Pontecorvo family grew up
Travel tip:

Pisa used to be one of Italy’s major maritime powers, rivalling Genoa and Venice, until silt deposits from the Arno river gradually changed the landscape and ultimately cut the city off from the sea in the 15th century. Nowadays, almost 15km (9 miles) inland, it is a university city renowned for its art and architectural treasures, notably the Campo dei Miracoli, formerly known as Piazza del Duomo, located at the northwestern end of the city, which contains the cathedral (Duomo), baptistery and famously the tilting campanile known as the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  Marina di Pisa is situated where the Arno now meets the sea.  A popular seaside resort with a mix of sand and pebble beaches, it is home to the modern Port of Pisa yacht harbour.

The Via Panisperna (right) looking towards the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore from the junction with Via Cesare Balbo
The Via Panisperna (right) looking towards the Basilica di Santa
Maria Maggiore from the junction with Via Cesare Balbo
Travel tip:

The Via Panisperna is a Roman street that runs from Largo Angelicum, close to Trajan’s Forum and the Villa Aldobrandini in the direction of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. It forms part of the Rione Monti Roma district. It follows a straight, undulating path and crosses three of Rome’s seven hills - the Quirinale, the Viminale and the Esquilino.  The street is thought to take it name from the practice of the nearby convent of the Order of the Poor Clares for distributing “pane e perna” - bread and ham - among the local poor. The Church of San Lorenzo in Panisperna can reputedly trace its history to the reign of Emperor Constantine I in the early fourth century, only 100 years after the martyrdom of St Lawrence.

More reading:

Enrico Fermi - the Roman scientist who produced the world's first nuclear reactor

The first woman to head up Europe's major nuclear research body

Why Gillo Pontecorvo's most famous film was banned in France

Also on this day:

1599: The death of influential composer Luca Marenzio

1849: Austria launches world's first 'air raid' against Venice

1914: The death of Bishop Giacomo Radini-Tedeschi


25 April 2019

Giovanni Caselli - inventor

Priest and physicist who created world’s first ‘fax' machine

Although Caselli was ordained as a priest in 1836 he devoted his life to the study of science
Although Caselli was ordained as a priest in
1836 he devoted his life to the study of science
Giovanni Caselli, a physics professor who invented the pantelegraph, the forerunner of the modern fax machine, was born on this day in 1815 in Siena.

Caselli developed a prototype pantelegraph, which was capable of transmitting handwriting and images over long distances via wire telegraph lines, in 1856, some 20 years ahead of the patenting of Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone in the United States. It entered commercial service in France in 1865.

The technology was patented in Europe and the United States in the 1860s, when it was also trialled in Great Britain and Russia, but ultimately in proved too unreliable to achieve universal acceptance and virtually disappeared from popular use until midway through the 20th century.

Caselli spent his early years in Florence studying physics, science, history and religion and was ordained as a priest in the Catholic Church when he was 21.

In 1841 he was appointed tutor to the sons of Count Marquis Sanvitale of Modena in Parma, where he spent eight years before his time there was abruptly ended by expulsion from the city as a result of his participation in an uprising against the ruling House of Austria-Este.

A model of Caselli's device can be seen at the Leonardo da Vinci museum in Milan
A model of Caselli's device can be seen
at the Leonardo da Vinci museum in Milan 
He returned to Florence in 1849, when he became a professor of physics at the University of Florence.  It was at this time that he began to study electrochemistry, electromagnetism, electricity and magnetism. He also launched a journal with the intention of explaining the science of physics in layman's terms.

Alexander Bain and Frederick Bakewell were two other physicists working on similar technology at the same time as Caselli but were unable to achieve the necessary synchronization between the transmitting and receiving parts so they would work together correctly. Caselli, though, built in a regulating clock that made the sending and receiving mechanisms work together.

In Caselli’s device, an image was made using non-conductive ink on tin foil, over which a stylus passed, lightly touching the foil, which conducted electricity where there was no ink and not where there was ink, causing circuit breaks that matched the image.

The signals were then sent along a long distance telegraph line to a receiver, where an electrical stylus reproduced the image line-by-line using blue dye ink on white paper.

In 1856, Caselli presented his prototype to Leopold II, Grand Duke of Tuscany, who was impressed enough to give Caselli some financial support, before he moved to Paris to introduce his invention to Napoleon III.

A 'fax' message that was transmitted between Paris and Lyon using Caselli's pantelegraph in 1862
A 'fax' message that was transmitted between Paris and
Lyon using Caselli's pantelegraph in 1862
Napoleon embraced the technology with great enthusiasm, and between 1857 and 1861 Caselli worked on perfecting his pantelegraph, sometimes known as the Autotelegraph or Universal Telegraph, with the French mechanical engineer Léon Foucault.

After seeing a demonstration of Caselli's improved pantelegraph in 1860, Napoleon gave Caselli the chance to test in within the French national telegraph network, providing him with financial backing. Among the successful tests was one between Paris and Amiens, over a distance of 140km (87 miles) of a document bearing the signature of the composer Gioachino Rossini. 

After a further successful test between Paris and Marseille, commercial operations started in 1865, first between Paris and Lyon line, extending to Marseille in 1867.

After patenting his device in Europe in 1861 the United States in 1863, and receiving the Legion d’Honneur from Napoleon in recognition for his work, Caselli oversaw trials in England and Russia, where Tsar Alexander II used the system to send documents between his palaces in Saint Petersburg and Moscow between 1861 and 1865.

In the first year of operation, Caselli’s pantelegraph transmitted almost 5,000 'faxes'.

Yet Caselli could not develop the technology quickly enough for reliability issues to be solved and eventually interest in it began to decline to the extent that he effectively abandoned it and returned to Florence, where he died in 1891 at the age of 76.

Although in the 1920s, the AT & T Corporation developed a way to transmit images using radio signals, it was not until 1964 that the Xerox Corporation introduced the first commercial fax machine of the kind recognisable today.

Many of Caselli’s patents, letters and proofs of teleautographic transmission are kept at the municipal library of Siena. Others can be found in the archives of the Museo Galileo in Florence.

The shell-shaped Piazza del Campo in Siena is regarded as one of the finest medieval squares in Europe
The shell-shaped Piazza del Campo in Siena is regarded
as one of the finest medieval squares in Europe
Travel tip: 

Siena, where Caselli was born, is famous for its shell-shaped Piazza del Campo, established in the 13th century as an open marketplace on a sloping site between the three communities that eventually merged to form Siena. It is regarded as one of Europe's finest medieval squares. The red brick paving, put down in 1349, fans out from the centre in nine sections. It has become well known as the scene of the historic horse race, the Palio di Siena.  Siena also has a beautiful Duomo - the Cathedral of St Mary of the Assumption - which was designed and completed between 1215 and 1263, its façade built in Tuscan Romanesque style using polychrome marble.

Piazza San Marco in Florence, a short distance from the centre of the city, is the home of the University of Florence
Piazza San Marco in Florence, a short distance from the centre
of the city, is the home of the University of Florence
Travel tip:

The University of Florence, the headquarters of which is in Piazza San Marco in the centre of the city, can trace its roots to the Studium Generale, which was established by the Florentine Republic in 1321. The Studium was recognized by Pope Clement VI in 1349, and included Italy’s first faculty of theology. The Studium became an imperial university in 1364, but was moved to Pisa in 1473 when Lorenzo the Magnificent gained control of Florence. Charles VIII moved it back from 1497–1515, but it was moved to Pisa again when the Medici family returned to power.  The modern university dates from 1859, when a group of institutions formed the Istituto di Studi Pratici e di Perfezionamento, which a year later was recognized as a full-fledged university, and renamed as the University of Florence in 1923.

More reading:

Antonio Meucci - the 'true' inventor of the telephone

Innocenzo Manzetti, the inventor who may have produced the first prototype telephone

The Italian physicist who pioneered the alternating current (AC) system

Also on this day:

Festa della Liberazione

1472: The death of Renaissance polymath Leon Battista Alberti

1973: The death of World War One flying ace Ferruccio Ranza