Nicola Poccia, founder of the “Superpuddles Lab” and head of the research group at the Leibniz Institute for Solid State and Materials Research, takes us on a journey through scientific culture, correlating “puddles” and high-temperature superconductors…
Chiara Bertini: What does culture mean for you? As a scientist, do you find the dialogue between art and science interesting?
Nicola Poccia: In order to develop synergies between art and science, it would certainly help if we recognised that science and art are both manifestations of our culture. However, this is often not the case, at least, not sufficiently enough in Italy when it comes to science. With regard to this, I recently happened to read an official document from the Italian government where the word culture was put in inverted commas when close to the word science. So I read it exactly like this: scientific “culture”.
This apparent detail has stuck with me. First of all, the inverted commas are clearly intended to underline the fact that culture is a different thing from science; for example, knowing the history of Rome, literature or the history of art is culture, but knowing something about matter, electronics or atoms is not. This may seem like a detail at first, but the implications of this assumption have profound ramifications. With the word culture not being legitimately associated with the word science, it follows that scientists can never legitimately be considered part of the intellectual community. Since scientists cannot be part of the cultural expression of a community, they cannot be an active part of the society in which they live and ultimately cannot express a credible political opinion.
During the last year, however, scientists in Italy have been, shall we say, the major players on the stage. What do you think?
The pervasive presence of scientists (virologists, immunologists, epidiemologists) in the mainstream media in Italy was unprecedented. According to some people, this should be reason enough to hope for a change in the way the role of science is perceived in our society. To be honest, I’m still pessimistic. Certainly, there has been a use of the scientists’ credentials, lured by the promise of sudden popularity. And moreover, in an emergency, to distribute daily substitutes of anti-anxiety drugs with their words. As the population’s anxiety about the pandemic has diminished, tolerance for scientists on television has, incidentally, also decreased. This plethora of interviews with scientists on subjects where there has not been, and still is, a lack of complete scientific consensus – such as in the fight against Covid and its consequences – for me is cause for reflection. I think that it hasn’t made the vast majority of the population accept that science is itself a form of our culture. On the contrary, the result that I think has been achieved is further confirmation, among the public, that scientific knowledge often remains the best problem-solving technique at our disposal. We’re still talking about just a humble technique, which has nothing to do with how we feel and certainly does not define who we are or what we can be. I think we all agree that past events have certainly not helped us to understand that knowing what a virus is can also teach us something about our humanity. No matter how much scientists try to prove that science and engaging in science are wonderful things on television, the perception that it is a technique and, as such, incapable of describing and tackling the highest needs of humanity remains.
You have travelled a lot for your work and you are currently based in Germany. Do you see any differences with Italy? What are you doing there?
In Germany, a woman scientist has led the country for years, making little girls now dream of becoming chancellor. It is no coincidence that science and culture in Germany are often regarded as interchangeable words. In Italy, unfortunately, we still have a lot to do regarding women’s working conditions and for what, as I said previously, concerns science. I’m now in the city of Dresden, a beautiful city with a sad and glorious history, perched on the great river called Elbe. After completing my degree and my PhD at the University of La Sapienza in Rome, I then lived in France, Holland, America and now Germany where, after about ten years of living away from home, I founded a laboratory and a research group a couple of years ago to which I gave a rather cryptic name: “Superpuddles Lab”. Puddles is the name I have given to some spontaneous correlations between particles that are observed in complex quantum matter. I’d like in fact to emphasise that the search for a word to define a natural phenomenon is, in itself, a search, similar that of a poet with a poem. The history of science would probably have taken a different course if Democritus had chosen another word instead of atom…
So what can you understand by looking at these “superpuddles”?
It seems that these “puddles” are shaped like puddles. In order to be absolutely clear, I want to mention that the prefix “super” comes from the fact that correlations between puddles produce quantum phenomena such as superconductivity, in other words, a conductivity for electrons that is nothing short of extraordinary. Superconductivity is, in fact, where the world of particles which is normally confined beyond our everyday experience emerges and appears in all its “counterintuitiveness” in a world as familiar to us as a piece of metal. Electrons in metal can begin to unite spontaneously and dance with each other without losing energy, thus forming a superconductor. In fact, a metal where the charge flows without friction is a superconductor, and it is this new material state that allows a humble piece of matter to be transformed into something never seen before – i.e. a quantum solid. The synchronisation of particles within a superconductor, however, takes place provided that the temperatures are very low, that is well below 250 degrees. But this is not always the case. Sometimes superconduction occurs at higher temperatures, for example at temperatures close to the boiling point of liquid nitrogen.
This is a nice visualisation of the electron dance, can you explain it…
There are some metals, some of the dirtiest, ugliest imaginable in nature, where electrons unite and dance not only without producing friction or loss of energy in heat, but also do so at temperatures where it is very rare for the quantum world to emerge and for reasons that are still unknown to scientists. And it is here that these puddles form and manifest themselves to us in complex, yet extremely beautiful structures. All this is accompanied by such an impressive disorder among the atoms that make up the metal, that everyone is left surprised by the fact that the most synchronised and coherent episodes of nature take place in exactly such disorder. For example, diamonds have atoms arranged in the most orderly way imaginable in nature. But: “From diamonds nothing is born, flowers come from manure”, it says in a famous song by Fabrizio De André. So high-temperature superconductors are materials that produce the most perfect synchronisation and coherence between electronic charges known to us. In short, a high-temperature superconductor is, in my opinion, like the manure De André talks about.
Have you always been interested in superconductivity? What kind of technological applications could superconductors lead to?
When I was studying at university, I was also interested in biophysics and, there too, I was impressed by how the most precise phenomena in nature, such as those of living matter, take place in extremely dense and disordered places like a cell. Could understanding the basic principles of high-temperature superconductivity one day tell us more about the basic principles of life? Perhaps this hypothesis is not too far-fetched, if we pause to recall the book entitled What is life? published in the last century by one of the founding fathers of quantum mechanics: Erwin Schröedinger.
Unfortunately, high-temperature superconductors have largely failed to provide us with the technological applications that were often dreamed of in the late 1980s when they were discovered. This is because it’s not easy to control such complex systems, with such a level of disorder. In the past semiconductor technologies have provided us with the modern electronics on which everything is based: from the Internet, social networks, lasers in stadiums or concerts to computers and mobile phones. To arrive at the quality of semiconductor systems we have today, it took more than fifty years of uninterrupted research to remove the many atomic impurities in silicon. At the time, the hope was to remove the disorder from these materials. Today, some major technology companies are studying the electronics of the future using superconductors. These materials, which have been known since the beginning of the 20th century, are now being used for the first prototypes of quantum computers, such as those made by Google or IBM, in medicine, such as in nuclear magnetic resonance machines, and will undoubtedly be used for space technology and space travel.
What are you working on now in the laboratory? What would you like to achieve?
In my laboratory we are preparing to build components and control the electronics in devices based on the organising principles of high-temperature superconductors. As I’ve already mentioned, these materials were discovered relatively recently, only thirty years ago. The hope is, therefore, that when the superconductor era ends, we can move on to the high-temperature superconductor era for the technologies of the future. Through this – a little risk, teamwork and adventure – we will perhaps be able to contribute further to the development of our culture and society
Nicola Poccia graduated and received his PhD in Physics from La Sapienza University of Rome in 2011. He was a Marie Curie Fellow at the University of Twente in the Netherlands and at the European Synchrotron in Grenoble, France. He then joined the Department of Physics at Harvard University in the US for his postgraduate studies. Since 2019, when he founded a lab called “Superpuddles Lab”, he has led a research group in Germany at the Leibniz Institute for Solid State and Materials Research, called IFW-Dresden for short. He is also the editor of a number of prestigious scientific journals with which he collaborates to improve the dissemination of scientific results. His interests lie in pioneer aspects of condensed matter physics, in particular the emerging properties in superconducting materials. He has developed state-of-the-art systems for the control, visualisation and integration of quantum complexity in superconductivity, using combinations of experimental approaches ranging from advanced microscopy using synchrotron radiation to nanofabrication and quantum transport. He is currently working with European companies specialising in the field of emerging quantum technologies.
The interview to Nicola Poccia by Chiara Bertini is part of GAME OVER.Loading, a project aimed at researching and studying new “cultural entities”, people, objects or research from different disciplines (physics, bio-robotics, AI, agriculture and medicine) and transporting them into the art world. This is a research project, but also a gesture that goes beyond simple interdisciplinary dialogue, becoming quite radical: a real “transplanting” of research areas aimed at preparing future c(o)ulture, where “creativity” equals “invention” and “invention” equals contributing to a transformation. A spark, a sign of a genetic mutation, a change of direction, a short circuit. A different energy that is also marks a change which is taking place and could constitute new lifeblood for the Culture system. This first phase is an investigative one aimed at visionaries, hybrid thinkers from various fields, including those from the cultural sector, who can express their views on current needs, each in relation to their own disciplinary field while generally respecting culture and society at large. Project team: Anita Calà Founder and Artistic Director of VILLAM | Elena Giulia Rossi, Editorial Director of Arshake | Giulia Pilieci: VILLAM Project Assistant and Press Office; Chiara Bertini: Curator, Coordinator of cultural projects and collaborator of GAME OVER – Future C(o)ulture | Valeria Coratella Project Assistant of GAME OVER – Future C(o)ulture.
All previous interviews and interventions: Interview to Primavera De Filippi by Elena Giulia Rossi (Arshake, January 21, 2021); interview by Azzurra Immediato to Leonardo Jaumann (Arshake, 28.01.2021); interview to Valentino Catricalà by Anita Calà and Elena Giulia Rossi (Arshake, 04.02.2021); multiple interview Stefano Cagol to Antonio Lampis, Sarah Rigotti, Tobias Rehberger, Michele Lanzinger, Stefano Cagol (Arshake, 11.02.2021); interview to Amerigo Mariotti by Azzurra Immediato (Arshake, 25.02.2021);Andrea Concas’s video intervention (Arshake, 18.02.2021); Interview to Peter Greenway by Stefano Cagol (Arshake, 04.03.2021), Intervento di Giulio Alvigini, Bye Bye Boomer, Game Over Art World (Arshake, 11.03.2021); Interview to Ken Goldberg by Elena Giulia Rossi (Arshake, 18.03.2021); Intervention of Eduardo Rossi, invited by Chiara Bertini (Arshake, 25.03.2021); interview to Anuar Arebi by Azzurra Immediato (Arshake, 31.03.2021); Interview to Giovanni Gardinale by Valeria Coratella (Arshake, 15.04.2021);Interview to Luca Gamberini (Arshake, 22.04.2021;Interview to Lorenzo Piombo (Arshake, 29.04.2021);Interview to Art is Open Source by Anita Calà (Arshake, 06.05.2021); Interview to Giuseppe Mariani by Azzurra Immediato (Arshake, 13.05.2021)