Rita Levi-Montalcini, artist of science

portrait by orticanoodles - source: deviantart | flickr
Rita Levi-Montalcini was born on the 22nd april 1909 at Turin, Italy. In 1938 she came in Belgium because of the italian racial laws. After the war, she came back in Italy, at Asti, where she prepared a little laboratory in order to study the nervous system of chickens. In 1947, with her friend Renato Dulbecco, went in USA where she worked until 1977. In 1986 she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine with her pupil Stanley Cohen
for their discoveries of growth factors.
About the potential of the NGF, she wrote in her Nobel Lecture:
For instance, whenever cell death of specific neuronal populations may be linked to a decreased local availability of neurotrophic factors, such as NGF, its exogenous supply or stimulation of its endogenous production via pharmacological agents may offer a promising approach to presently incurable diseases.
About the role of the women in science, she said:
Humanity is made ​​up of men and women must be represented by both sexes.
Of course, I must admit that I yelled to see my name linked to Fidia. But I thought it was the price to pay, I don't care about anything to get some help for research. If we prevent the industry to help the laboratory, we die.
She had aprecise opinion on the relationship between young people and technology:
Today, compared to yesterday, young people benefit from an extraordinary breadth of information, and the price is the hypnotic effect exerted by television screens disaccustoming them to reason (in addition robbing them of time to devote to the study, sports and games that stimulate their creative capacity). They create for them a definite reality that inhibits their ability to "invent the world" and destroys the charm of the unknown.
In this sense she was an example for all of us:
I lost a little the eyesight, much the hearing. At the conferences I don't see the projections and don't hear so good. But I think more now than when I was twenty. The body does what it wants. I am not the body, I am the mind.
She passed away on the 30th december 2012 at Rome, Italy.
I've never been able to keep a log. Everything in me is imagination, intuition. Nothing is scientific.
I am not a scientist, I'm an artist of science.

Levi-Montalcini R. (1987). The nerve growth factor: Thirty-five years later, Bioscience Reports, 7 (9) 681-699. DOI: (pdf)
Quotes by Rita Levi-Montalcini (italian)
Biographies on Wikipedia: italian | english
An interview with Tullio Regge (italian)

Mickey Mouse at the CERN

The most famous laboratory of the year is certanly the CERN thanks to the discovery of a new boson that it seems equal to the boson predicted by Peter Higgs et al.
CERN was established in 1952 and formed in 1954. Currently the experiments are carried with the LHC (Large Hadron Collider), but the previous accelerator ring was LEP, Large Electron-Positron Collider, that was used from 1989 to 2000. In particular in 1985 Alessandro Bencivenni, an italian disney writer, went at CERN and, inspired by the announced LEP, he wrote a story setted at the swiss laboratory, Mickey Mouse and the nuclear accelerator (Topolino e l'acceleratore nucleare), never published in english, so I decided to translate the cartoons about the explanation of the device and the experiment.
The popularizer is Atomo Bleep-Bleep, a charachter created by Romano Scarpa in Mickey Mouse and the Delta Dimension (first italian edition: 1959; first english edition: 1981 in Great Britain). I hope to write something about Atomo Bleep-Bleep, Doctor Einmug and the Delta Dimension in a future post, but for now I hope you can enjoy with this extract from the story, drawned by Massimo De Vita (I must remember that copyright is Disney):

Genetics, evolution and Turing's patterns

I've just written a post about the theory of patterns in nature started by Alan Turing, and I describe the reaction-diffusion system: in the system there are an activator and an inhibitor molecule of morphogenesis. The dynamics between activator and inhibitor generates tha patterns and we can describe it with the following mathematica relation: $u_t = d \Delta u + f (\gamma, u)$ where $u$ is the position of the gene, $u_t$ the diffusion speed, $d$, $\gamma$ real constants.
It's really interesting observe that recently the Turing model about patterns was applied also to the study of the evolution of genes, in particular to study the generation of digit patterning.
The story start from the Hox genes:
Hox genes are a group of related genes that control the body plan of the embryo along the anterior-posterior (head-tail) axis. After the embryonic segments have formed, the Hox proteins determine the type of segment structures (e.g. legs, antennae, and wings in fruit flies or the different vertebrate ribs in humans) that will form on a given segment. Hox proteins thus confer segmental identity, but do not form the actual segments themselves.
So the team try to mute some of the Hox genes in order to see if the number of digits decrease, but they surprisingly observed that they can add more and more digits in their mutant mouses (they arrived at 14 digits!). And they can explain this behavour with the reaction-diffusion model: in the following picture you can see the experimental results (the first three rows) and the computer simulation that used Turing's model:

Physics' Cabinets

Translation from M. Leone, A. Paoletti, N. Robotti (2009). La Fisica nei "Gabinetti di Fisica" dell'Ottocento: il caso dell'Università di Genova Il Giornale di Fisica, 50 (3), 135-154 : 10.1393/gdf/i2009-10106-9 (pdf)
Origins and development of Physics' Cabinets in Italy
From the seventeenth century, with the birth of Experimental Physics, new scientific instruments made their appearance. These instruments differed radically from the vast majority of antique instruments, because the latter had essentially practical purposes, such as navigation or surveying. Tools such as thermometers, barometers, vacuum pumps and so on, were instead true "physical machines" in order to enable the observation of natural phenomena and demonstration of physical laws according to the experimental method. Gradually, between the end of the seventeenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth century, the "physical machines" found a specific site of collection, often called "Physics' Cabinet".
The end of the seventeenth century also marks the debut of a new way of teaching physics in academia, and in particular, as first happened at the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, London, Leiden, the demonstration with physical machines. Among the most skilled demonstrators we can remember the figure of the abbot Jean-Antoine Nollet, whose treatise Leçons de physique expérimentale (published in Paris between 1743 and 1748) has more than 350 experiments. Very often the physical machines were designed for entertainment of the cultured nobility of the time, and sometimes the devices were also found in the houses of wealthy people and principles. Considerable fame had some private Physics' Cabinets as one of Tsar Peter the Great, Lord Cowper in Florence and Laura Bassi in Bologna, all active in the mid-seventeenth century. Equally significant was the Physics' Cabinet of King Ferdinand II of Bourbon in Naples, active in the following century.
In the universities physical machines were first owned by the same teacher in experimental physics that often made "private lessons" that is paid by the university and lectured by professor often in "his own house". These "machines" were later purchased by universities themselves and flowed, along with donations from private collections, in the Physics' Cabinets, generally established by resolution of the universities. Between the eighteenth and nineteenth century were born in Italy many important Physics' Cabinets. One of the first was that of Turin, whose origins probably date back to 1721. Other important Cabinets were built in Padua (with John Poleni's Theatre of Experimental Philosophy, dating back to 1740), Bologna (the development of which, dating back to 1745, was contributed by Pope Benedict XIV with important donations), Rome (Physical theater of Wisdom, 1748), Perugia (founded by Luca Antonio Pellicciari in 1759), Pavia (1771), Modena (dating from 1772, the date on which Francis III was officially called Fra Mariano Morini of Parma to teach the "General Physics"), Genoa (1784), Naples (Physics' Cabinet of King Ferdinand II of Bourbon, 1813), Urbino (1832).
Special funds were allocated also for the purpose of payment of the "machinist", a skilled craftsman assigned to the maintenance of the "machines" and who performed physically the demonstrative experiences as explained by the "Professor". This character, "often a man of science, he was a skilled craftsman, able also to create new equipment at the request of the teacher. The machinist also had the task of improving and adapting instruments bought by Italian, French, English, German builders or being legacies. Sometimes the same professor was manufacturer and inventor of instruments or he followed closely the realization."
Although the academic Cabinets of Physics were born from the needs of teaching and studing, also the discolsure of the new experimental science was considered important. For example, in Rome, during the pontificate of Pius VI (1775-1799), the teaching of physics was regulated, stating also that during the holiday period, for fifteen days, the professor had to keep at the Physical theater many public lectures with experiments carried out by the machinist.

The Physics' Cabinets and the congresses of Italian scientists
The activity of the Physics' Cabinets, particularly in the Nineteenth Century, however, was not limited to the demonstration of the laws of physics or the repetition of measures that are particularly significant for educational or informational purposes. An important, but until now largely neglected by historical analysis, was the research in physics that was being developed in them. Significant witness of this are the scientific contributions presented during the twelve Congress of Italian Scientists, held annually between 1839 and 1847 (respectively in Pisa, Turin, Florence, Padua, Lucca, Milan, Naples, Genoa, Venice), and later in 1862 (Siena), in 1863 (in Palermo) and in 1875 (in Rome), and in which the experimental results, achieved for the most part in the various Physics' Cabinets located in Italy, were announced.
The Physics' Cabinets, also, as rightly held to be instrumentally and scientifically well-equipped facilities, played a decisive role in the actual performance of these Congress of Italian Scientists. At that time, it was so great the interest and attention to the experimental aspect of physics that before the communication of some new experimental discovery, it was customary that the Presidents of the Chambers of Physics asked to a commission specially appointed, or to the same alleged discoverer, to repeat the experiment in public that was the basis of this discovery. This could be done thanks to the local Physics' Cabine, which provided the necessary equipment.

The secret origins of the Moon

Our satellite, the Moon, is really fascinating, not only for artists and poets, but also for scientists. For example the first, precise description of the Moon was made by Galileo Galilei in the Sidereus Nuncius:
One of the problems that the astronomy try to resolve about the Moon is its origins: for example in the beginning of the Twentieth Century it was developed the Earth-Moon Theory, that was reviewed by LeRoy Hughbanks(8):
"The moon," says Prof. Percival Lowell, "did not originate as a separate body, but had its birth in a rib of earth." Doctor Lowell is an ardent sup- porter of "the earth-moon theory," and his views and deductions are frankly stated in his two last scientific works, "Mars as the Abode of Life" and "Evolution of Worlds," both of which are publications of the Macmillan Company, New York.
In the discussion has a really great importance George Darwin with his works about the tidal friction(6) and the viscous spheroids(5):
Following Sir George Darwin, the Moon would have been detached from the Earth because to a solar tide. The attraction of the Sun acted on the covering of lighter rock (granite) as on a fluid, lifting one hand and tearing it to our planet. The waters that covering the entire Earth were largely sucked down by the abyss that had opened by the escape of the Moon (i.e. the Pacific Ocean), leaving uncovered the remaining granite, which fragmented and wrinckled itself into the continents. Without the Moon, the evolution of the life on the Earth, although it had been, would have been very different.(2)
Another good description of the earth-moon theory was given by Andrew Patterson:
In brief, the theory is that when the earth had cooled, from its molten condition sufficiently to have a crust of solidified matter something like thirty miles thick over its entire surface, it was revolving so rapidly that gravitational attraction and centrifugal force practically balanced each other. For some reason, perhaps some vast and sudden cataclysm, a large portion of this crust was thrown off the earth, and by tidal action was forced gradually outward in a spiral path. In order to form the moon, a mass of this crust about thirty miles thick and of area nearly equal to the combined areas of the present oceans on the earth must have been thrown off. It is supposed that this immense amount of crust was largely taken from the present basin of the Pacific, and that the remaining parts of the earth's crust, while it still floated on a liquid interior, split along an irregular line into two pieces which floated apart, and the gap between these two parts was later filled with the waters of the Atlantic.(7)
But following Gerstenkorn(11) we could arrive to a variation of this picture:
Following H. Gerstenkorn's calculations(11), developed by H. Alfven(9, 10), Earth's continents would be fragments of the Moon fell on our planet. The Moon in origin would also be a planet gravitating around the Sun, until such time as the proximity to the Earth derailed her from its orbit. Captured by Earth's gravity, the Moon came up more and more, tightening its orbit around us. At one point, the mutual attraction began to deform the surface of the two celestial bodies, raising high waves which were detached fragments whirling in space between Earth and Moon, especially fragments of lunar matter that fell on Earth. Later, under the influence of our tides, the Moon was pushed away to reach its present orbit. But part of the lunar mass, perhaps half, was left on Earth, forming the continents.(3)

The practical value of science

I have endeavored to state the higher and more abstract arguments by which the study of physical science may be shown to be indislensable to the complete training of the human mind, but I do not wish it to be supposed that because I may be devoted to more or less abstract and unpractical pursuits I am insensible to the weight which ought to be attached to that which has been said to be the English conception of Paradise - namely, ' gettinig on'. Now the value of a knowledge of physical scienice as a means of getting on, is indubitable. There are hardly any of our trades, except the merely hukcstering ones, in which some knowledge of science may not be directly profitable to the pursuer of that occupation. An Industry attains higher stages of its development as its processes become more complicated and refined, and the sciences are dragged in, one by one, to take their share in the fray.

Thomas Huxley, Science vol.1 n.1 (1880)