In 2009 Corriere della Sera called him "one of the 20 Italians who are changing Italy". Yet Federico Calzolari, born in 1970, seems nothing like a professor. ICT manager of a top organisation like Normale di Pisa and member of one of the experiments that led to the discovery of the Higgs Boson at CERN in Geneva, Calzolari - who continues to call himself a "technician" - is one of the 14 top Italian scientists invited by the Lombardy Region to act as jurors of the new "Lombardy Is Research" award assigned to Professor Giacomo Rizzolatti.
Calzolari, how was your passion for computer science born?
"In my last two years as a university student. It was 1992, email addresses started to spread among university students and at the Department of Physics we found ourselves having to deal with that strange machine that was the computer. After graduation, physicists were highly demanded by companies for computer applications so I began working with software for businesses, then banks and later telecommunications systems. Paradoxically I returned to the world of research with the boom of the new economy, when the salaries for IT managers were staggering. CNR in Pisa called me, proposing that I leave the safe world for one that was quite uncertain, but more fun. At first I said no, then I changed my mind. And in fact this gave me something priceless, the ability to wake up every day with the curiosity to find out what new things I might discover by the end of the day. Of course the research has its down times, but for me it has the added value of working for the common good, for the younger generations, not to mention the increased quality of my life thanks to the curiosity that this work can stimulate. This doesn't change the fact that doing research in Italy is extremely complex. So much so that I chose a road that is not exactly that of the scientist but rather a technician in charge of the Computer Infrastructure of the Normale for which I manage the network, servers and data centres, from cooling to electricity".
Physics and computers, a perfect match?
"Computers have become indispensable, for simulations on the one hand and for data acquisition on the other, because they make it possible to record billions of measurements in times that are maybe a millionth of a second. To understand how to build an object - for example the particle accelerator at CERN - and whether to finance its project, you have to know if you have a chance to carry it out. So you build a computational simulator of the object, you simulate the event you want to produce and you build a detector, based on the simulations, with room for improvement in order to go and find what you still don't know. The computer is crucial for considering all the variables in this process, with combinations that grow exponentially. To build a car, for example, we can choose a hundred parameters that consider all the possible combinations and variations. In physics the 'game' is the same but involves more powerful engines".
The health of research and innovation in Italy?
"We must make a distinction. We have very capable scientists, among the best in the world, and they are helped by Italian genius, i.e., our ability to resolve complex situations and therefore to move outside of established tracks, finding alternative solutions. But we have no funding. President Maronici noted how the Lombardy Region wants to invest 3% of its GDP in research, while the national average is unfortunately still at 1.4%. Which of course means that some regions are located at the opposite end and maybe not spending more than 0.6%. The other Italian problem, in my opinion, is the fact that research is only done at public expense. This also has a positive aspect, i.e., the ability to also fund basic research that no company would have much interest in subsidising. In this manner, however, you lose the contribution of private companies, which in our country can boast many excellent products but they are unable to invest in research even though they would like to. Except for a few giants, the costs are simply too high without any incentives and tax deductions. One must remember that for every discovery made there are at least 9-10 unsuccessful solutions studied by research teams for years. It's true that the very fact of having excluded these solutions is progress, and so each path has its own dignity. But getting back to the problem of costs, especially in physics experiments last for years and can 'tie up' researchers for an entire career".
Looking at the discovery of the Higgs Boson: what was it like to be part of this page in the history of physics?
"It is a good example of what I was saying: I was lucky enough to get involved in the CMS experiment at CERN immediately before the data was collected, its official 'launch'. But the experiment was designed, engineered and implemented with more than 15 years of work, among others by Lorenzo Foà, then deputy director of the Scuola Normale. And we're just at the beginning, there are still a lot of data to be acquired and fields to investigate. I got there almost by accident: after two years at CNR, as a computational physicist it seemed to me that the research possibilities in Italy were inaccessible to an ordinary mortal like myself, so I decided to return to the private sector, but a friend who worked at CERN told me that they had been looking for a computer scientist for six months at the National Institute of Nuclear Physics in Pisa. So I found myself inside the CMS experiment, a huge collaboration - with ATLAS, one of the two experiments that in 2012 led to the discovery of the Higgs Boson. At CERN alone there are 3,000 people involved in each of the two experiments, very heterogeneous between them. You could say that it's one of the few places where the very different mentalities of engineers and physicists, the various specialisations of physicists - particle, solid state, of matter - and computer scientists coexist, the latter "useful" for filtering and analysing the huge amount of data produced (about one hundred petabytes per year). It was a truly fantastic experience, recognised by the Nobel jury the following year, for the first time postponing the verdict as it was undecided on whether to recognise just the physicists Higgs and Englert or also CMS and ATLAS, which demonstrated what they had theorised in 1964".
How can research be advanced in Italy? What kind of message can an award like "Lombardy Is Research" send?
"The state should have the courage to invest in research, perhaps even through facilitating individuals who will invest some resources, knowing that these are long-term investments. The Higgs boson, which is a discovery worthy of a Nobel prize, for the moment has no applications. But remember, in the beginning even X-rays seemed to have no practical use. Many consumer products started from scientific discoveries. Those who govern should justify spending that does not yield immediate results, and a lack of sensitivity to the future of coming generations is an Italian defect, even at the level of public opinion. So even if the government had this courage, you would still have to educate the public about what science is and the purpose served by research. In this sense, an award like the one established by the Lombardy Region can be very useful, even for the attention of the call to the impact on the quality of life of the region's citizens".
Do we need to educate the public on how to distinguish between science and pseudo-scientific therapies, those easy solutions that we have seen become so popular in recent years?
"I think that the problem is more wide ranging. The subject is fake news that can touch some nerves of public opinion: a desire to heal certain diseases, something that is particularly close to one's heart, or the desire to play an important role in disseminating some news. The doctor is forced to affirm some unpleasant or disappointing truths: if the success rate of curing a certain type of cancer is 20% and someone else promises 100% then word of mouth is triggered, leading to a snowball effect. If this 'promise' is then reported by the media and circulated online it becomes plausible, indeed true in all respects to those who want to believe it. The internet now has absolute authoritativeness, a level that once was attributed to newspapers or television".
Was it difficult to work in a jury with people having very different skill sets?
"For me it was an awesome and beautiful experience. Professor Roberto Cingolani defined the task of our committee as choosing the champion of different sports. In fact today the life sciences represent a mixture of disciplines, from biology to medicine to computer science and technology: nanorobots for surgeries are medicine or engineering? And computer simulations of biological processes? In the academic world these would be wholly distinct sectors, but as a jury we could appreciate the richness of a cross-cutting approach. Moreover, today a complex study encompasses so many skills that you would have to be omniscient to master them all".
Do you agree with the choice of Rizzolatti?
"He is definitely a world-renowned scientist, his discovery was an important step to help us really understand how our brain works. And it seems to me in line with the trend of medical research over the past 30 years, increasingly focused on identifying not only the effects but also the underlying causes of some mechanisms. I also believe that Rizzolatti's discovery of mirror neurons, a mechanism by which human beings are able to learn by imitation and that seems to be the foundation for skills like communication and language, could have important repercussions in the field of Artificial Intelligence and robotics. In fact, for a robot, just like a child, it is more easy to understand through the observation of a gesture than through words, which have to be processed and often interpreted to acquire their true meaning".