EducationLeonardo Sciascia Humanities High School (1999-2004), University of Messina (2004-2009), University of Pavia (2009-2012)
QualificationsMaster’s Degree in Materials Engineering, PhD in Physics
Work HistoryThis is my first job
Current JobComputational scientist at RAL
Favourite thing to do in my job: That one moment when you realize that a theory or a prediction you did matches perfectly what happens in reality.
My Work: I work with computers to simulate atoms and subatomic particles. We use that to investigate the smallest structure of many things, from pharmaceuticals to archaeological artefacts.
Everything is made up of atoms, and atoms are made up of particles: protons, neutrons and electrons. But how do such basic components – there are less than an hundred different atom species in nature, and only three particles that make up all of them! – give rise to such an incredible variety of different materials, ranging from hard, cold metal, to brittle, transparent glass, to wood, cloth, paper, or even our own bodies? The answer always lies in the way those few atoms are arranged and combined on sizes that are too small to be seen with any normal microscope (we’re talking billionths of a meter here). At those sizes odd things happen, and in order to understand how atoms arrange themselves and how they move you need a bizarre set of laws, those of Quantum Mechanics. These laws are mathematically very complicated, and doing some good old math by hand is not going to solve the problem they pose.
That’s where the work of the group of scientists I am part of comes in. We use computers to run these calculations for us and deduce the properties of materials from their atomic structures. At a microscopic level, diamond and a pencil’s lead are both carbon atoms – and if you looked at how those carbon atoms are arranged, you wouldn’t see much difference. But with computers we could tell that one’s going to be black and soft and the other a shiny gemstone even without actually seeing the real thing! Of course this is not very interesting – we already know that much – but when studying new molecules and materials it can be very helpful. We can imagine new substances which have never been produced in reality, or take a closer look at stuff we already know something about, telling us not only “what” happens, but also “why” it happens that way.
My Typical Day: Nothing too exciting here – I spend most of the time sitting at a computer!
My work is very theoretical – it’s more about trying to understand the results of experiments other people do, for example, than doing those experiments myself. For this reason, my typical day of work is not too exciting – I get up, take the bus, spend the day in front of a computer in my office, and go back home. I have been in the lab during some of my past research though, so I know my way around it, and if needed I still work a bit with experiments. Most of the time, however, it’s all about writing computer code or running mathematical calculations – there is a lot of science going on, but not much movement!
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Earnest, curious, stubborn.
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
Nothing in particular, it just grew on me. I always loved reading and learning about how things worked.
What was your favourite subject at school?
What did you want to be after you left school?
A scientist or a comic book writer. Well, guess I couldn’t really be BOTH.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Not with my studies. I did undergo a bit of bullying now and then, but nothing serious.
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
See above – a comic book artist is what I would have liked!
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Hard pick… but I think it has to be David Bowie. “Life on Mars” is just that good.
What's your favourite food?
I’m Italian, so lasagna, of course.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
One night long running around masked at the carnival of Venice (it ended up with me and my friends sleeping on a train at 5 am by the way).
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
Abundant clean energy, interstellar travel, and to be the one who discovers them both!
Tell us a joke.
“A joke”. That was easy.