2 febbraio - 20 maggio


Maria Curatolo is a researcher at the Frascati National Laboratories of the INFN, she works on the ATLAS experiment, and is currently its National Group Leader.

In this interview we speak with Maria Curatolo about her life and work as a physicist.

Even though my secondary school was the Liceo Classico (with emphasis on humanities) I have always been interested in scientific subjects. When I finished school, the choice between architecture or a more scientific subject has been rather hard, but in the end I decided for Physics. I have been involved in different fields within Physics. I did my thesis in Elementary Particle Physics at the Frascati National Laboratories. It was hard to find a scholarship in Physics, but in the end I found one at the ENEA, at the Ionized Gas Laboratory, where I worked for several years on plasma physics. Then I got a position at the ENEA where for several years I was involved in the Safety and Radiation Protection Department. I collaborated in some experiments at CERN and in the CDF experiment in the US. But my main interest stayed with fundamental research and therefore after some time I requested to be transferred to the LNF where I could get involved in Elementary Particle Physics again. In the mean time my husband who is a physicist at the LNF and I had started a family, we have three children. When I was involved in the CDF experiment the whole family moved to the States. After some years we came back to Italy to start working on the experiment we are still involved in now, and which will start taking data soon at the Large Hadron Collider.

Q: How and why did you decide to study physics and which is the best memory of your life as a student?

As I said, I decided to study physics because of my interest in scientific subjects. I was interested in finding out about the laws that govern the physical world and in learning how to apply reason to describe and understand the phenomena around us. It was a fight between that interest and my artistic side, in the end I registered at the physics faculty. During my study I had moments when I felt that I finally understood things that before were incomprehensible to me. Those were the most pleasurable moments I remember. And they still happen to me, when I do research.

Q: Which difficulties did you have to face and what was the most exciting episode of your career?

It wasn’t easy in the beginning, but I did not loose heart. I have had several years of uncertain temporary contracts. It was difficult but it made me realize that this is what I really want to do most, to be a researcher. As long as you are determined and strong willed you can overcome many difficulties and reach your goal in the end.
The most exciting moment for me was when I was at Fermilab and saw the first beam collisions in the Tevatron.

Q: What are you working at presently?

Right now I am working on the ATLAS experiment at the LHC collider at CERN. The goal of this experiment is to explore the properties of matter and the phenomena which occur in conditions of frontier energy, which have never been explored before. The experimental device is an enormous set of detectors (with a diameter of approx. 26 meters and a length of 40 meters) based on the latest state of the art technology. The end of last year LHC started to function and the first beams have circulated successfully in the machine. After some days, however, there was an accident and the machine was stopped for repairs. We are now waiting for LHC to start functioning again, probably within this year, so we can finally have our first data. The experiments at LHC are led by international collaboration groups in which thousands of people work together. The Italians participate with 12 divisions and a National Laboratory - Frascati - of the INFN. At the moment I am the National Head of the Atlas experiment, which means that I coordinate the Italian Atlas community of 13 groups and over 200 physicists.

Q: Which do you believe will be the next discovery in physics?

The theorists have elaborated lots of theories, among which the Standard Model, which at this moment agrees with all the experimental data, but also many other models which push further than the Standard Model. The LHC experiments will verify these theories. With the new high energy levels of LHC it is possible that new phenomena occur and lead to a completely unexpected discovery. That to me would be the most exciting result because it would enlarge beyond expectations the boundaries of our scientific knowledge.

Q: In your opinion, which is the best discovery ever and who is your favorite scientist?

Physics is full of great discoveries. At this moment I am very involved in the connection between Elementary Particle Physics and Cosmology. My favorite scientists are Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi. However, there are other scientists of equal importance, for example the fathers of modern Physics like Newton and Galileo; they have all been very important.

Q: How important is the collaboration in scientific research, especially among researchers from different countries?

Collaboration is extremely important, not only for scientific reasons but also for social, economic and political reasons. Scientific progress benefits from the sharing of knowledge and ideas, and putting together economic resources enables science to enter upon huge scientific projects which one country alone could not dream of starting. International collaboration puts people in contact with other cultures which helps to create a climate of understanding and this helps countries in their relationships with other countries.

Q: How can a scientist be defined and how do talent, intuition and study influence his profession?

A scientist is someone who asks questions  about the physical world around us and who wants to learn and understand things, and to do this he applies rigorous and verifiable methods of investigation. Talent, intuition and study: they all are necessary. One of these may compensate lack in other areas. Talent is indispensable if you want to contribute significantly. Intuition is very important when dealing with unexpected phenomena. However, study is absolutely essential.

Q: What are your hobbies and passions and what book would you suggest us to read?

I am very interested in art, I love to go to exhibitions, talk to artists and try to understand the world of emotions which they experience and try to express with their work. I like reading, not only for my work but also books of literature; unfortunately I do not have much time. Books can enrich us by learning from the experiences of the author, and this indirect experience integrates our direct experience of life, which however is indispensable. The classical authors should all be read. Among the contemporaries I like Montalbano, created by Andrea Camilleri, and I appreciate Camilleri’s use of the Sicilian dialect which makes his novels more realistic. On the whole I quite like detective stories, for there is always something to discover. I also like popular scientific books since they contribute to spread  scientific knowledge beyond the tiny world of the experts. A book I would suggest you to read is “From the Big Bang to the Black Holes” by Stephen Hawking.

Q: How do you see the future of research in this period of global economic crisis?

Some countries, like the United States and many European countries, have reacted well because they have chosen to rely on research to find solutions to this difficult crisis situation, and therefore they have not cut on research. They have understood that with a relatively small investment an enormous potential can be created. Unfortunately, this is not happening in Italy, where research is not being adequately supported. Hopefully our politicians will understand that Italy must rely more on research to guarantee development and thus  the future of the country.

Q. Have you ever had to study something you did not like?

My work at the ENEA in the Radiation Protection and Safety  department did not completely cover my main interests. It has been a useful period however, during which I have learned a lot of things, and I even found the time to do experimental physics in that field.

Q. Have you noticed any difference between different work areas?

I have had different jobs, where I did different things, but I cannot say that there were any differences in behavior. Of course every work area has its own peculiarities due to the specific nature of the work. In some areas rules are stricter, whereas in others they are more informal. From my experience in the United States I can say that there is not much difference between the USA and Europe, even though the Americans on the whole are more pragmatic whereas the Europeans tend to spend more time initially in trying to gauge the problem in all aspects.  But this is only my impression, and in any case I have also noticed that in the long run both approaches yield the same results.