Favourite Thing: That one moment when you realize that a theory or a prediction you did matches perfectly what happens in reality.
Leonardo Sciascia Humanities High School (1999-2004), University of Messina (2004-2009), University of Pavia (2009-2012)
Master’s Degree in Materials Engineering, PhD in Physics
This is my first job
Computational scientist at RAL
Me and my work
I am part of a group of researchers working with computers: we run simulations to predict the ‘big’ qualities of new, and often odd, materials (like color, electrical conductivity, magnetism) starting from their ‘small’ structure – atoms and subatomic particles!
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!
What I'd do with the money
A workshop for students who are interested in it to learn how to write computer programs
Computer programming is one of the most useful things when you’re a scientist. It’s also easy for everyone who has a computer at home to do, free, satisfying, quick to learn, and fun! And it can help you with maths as well. I learned to code when I was 14 or so and I always enjoyed it. It can help you a lot to learn when studying abstract things like physics problems, it can be a way to make your computer work in a quicker or simpler way, or maybe to make your own games; and one day, if you enjoy it, it might even become your job.
That’s why I’d like to organize a short workshop for students who are interested in learning how to program – age doesn’t matter, it’s nothing hard really – to learn how to write their first programs and learn the basics. From then on, it’s all downhill anyway! I think programming not only is a useful tool for scientific research, but also helps building a good mindset when it comes down to understanding problems, breaking them down into smaller bits, and finding a solution. Which is basically the job of every scientist, ever.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Earnest, curious, stubborn.
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).
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 in at school?
Not with my studies. I did undergo a bit of bullying now and then, but nothing serious.
What was your favourite subject at school?
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
I still don’t feel like boasting… I have worked only for a few years after all. So I wouldn’t know, I’ve got a few things I am proud of but I don’t want them to go to my head.
What or who inspired you to become a scientist?
Nothing in particular, it just grew on me. I always loved reading and learning about how things worked.
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
See above – a comic book artist is what I would have liked!
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.
Here’s Harwell Campus, south of Oxford, where I work now. See the big, awesome, donut shaped building which looks like a starship but actually is a particle accelerator? Too bad, I don’t work there. I work in one of the buildings around it.
This is a small piece of SCARF, one of the supercomputers we use for our simulations. Each of these things holds hundreds of nodes, which hold in turns either 8 or 12 cores. That means that each ‘node’ is 2 to 3 times as powerful as a good personal computer – and we have thousands of those! Plus SCARF is just a small machine we use for tests, the real beasts are even bigger. We never need to go there in person though, we always upload or download our data through the internet.