Montréal est grand comme un désordre universel
(Gaston Miron, La marche à l’amour)
My name is Matteo Duca and I am a “Postdoctoral research fellow” at the Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS) in the Grand Montréal area (mind the é, don’t forget that this is French-speaking Québec after all!).
I specialise in electrochemistry, a subfield of chemistry focussing on the two-way relationship between chemical reactions and electricity. In a sense, it is then not surprising that I have ended up on the banks of the Saint-Laurent river, where the father of electron transfer theory, Nobel Prize laureate Rudolph Marcus, was born in 1923.
More specifically, I carry out research on the catalysis by electricity (electrocatalysis) of reactions of the nitrogen and the carbon cycles and many more, in particular by making use of well-ordered metal surfaces 1. Beside this, I also work on the development and characterisation of silicon and graphite-based materials for Li-ion battery anodes, in partnership with local companies.
But all of this involves much more than “just” electrochemistry! One could say that experiments in our laboratories call for skills and knowledge ranging from the field of inorganic chemistry to materials science: this is a typical example of the blurred boundaries in today’s multidisciplinary chemical research.
(At this stage, if you desperately yearn to peep at my ‘academic profile’, please click here, or look it up on Google Scholar; instead, if you are passionately interested in bibliometric indices, just take a look elsewhere to satisfy your curiosity).
Apart from working in the laboratory, I enjoy strolling through Montréal’s streets and lanes, exploring the city’s multiple facets; my ‘field observations’ often carry over into my blog posts.
These urban rambles are a constant source of inspiration for my other passion, literature, and have resulted in an ongoing project: a collection of poetic factual accounts of life in Montréal. Otherwise, I mostly write poetry, or poetry disguised (more or less cleverly!) as prose, and, from time to time, I come up with stories to share in my blog posts.
By the way, you could now be wondering what life is really like in Montréal…well, just judge for yourselves!
The blog, and science communication
I launched this blog when I was a “Marie Curie Postdoctoral Research Fellow” at the Department of Chemistry of the University of Oxford. This means that my stint at Oxford was made possible by a fellowship, named after the Franco-Polish scientist and Nobel laureate, awarded by the European Commission as part of the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), and I still feel obliged to acknowledge the EC’s support. Curious readers can find out more about this programme by visiting this website. When I worked at Oxford, I used to take part in regular outreach activities within the “Alchemists” group of the Department of Chemistry, visiting schools to deliver workshops and to talk about chemistry research at Oxford, with a view to inspiring younger generations to consider a career in science.
In this respect I was fortunate enough to be a finalist of the 2016 Science Communication Competition organised by the Royal Society of Chemistry magazine, Chemistryworld with the support of industrial partners, which took place at a prestigious venue, London’s Royal Institution (click here to find out more).
Here in Montréal, I continue my engagement in outreach and science communication – chemistry beyond the glassware, as the tagline of the blog says! In 2017, I took part in a public performance on the periodic table, staged by Cœur des sciences (a centre for science outreach associated with Université du Québec à Montréal) as part of the celebrations of Montréal’s 375th anniversary. In these shows called Midis Ville-Marie, a scientist stepped on stage together with a comedian to interact with the public on a chosen scientific topic. It was excellent fun – and I enjoyed the challenge of doing outreach in French for the first time.
In addition, I have also done some outreach in Italian. I have written this article on lithium-ion batteries for the Montréal newspaper Corriere Italiano, and I have given public lectures at the Italian Institute of Culture on a series of topics, from the nitrogen cycle to chemistry and Primo Levi’s book The Periodic Table.
That said, I am done with the formalities, let’s talk about what really matters…
…It should not come as a surprise by now: I have always been torn between a powerful attraction to science and an unconscious drift towards the humanities; instead of developing a split personality, I realised that I had better learn to read and write in the language of matter, and so I became a chemist. Why chemistry? It was very appealing because it is the most “hybrid” science (someone else has used the term impure 2), the crossroads where hands-on experiments and theoretical rationalisation meet, often clashing. Even more importantly, chemistry matters because, as Linus Pauling said:
What can I say under the title ‘Chemistry and the World of Today’? My answer to this question is that I can say anything, discuss any feature of modern life, because every aspect of the world today—even politics and international relations—is affected by chemistry.
Let’s turn to my biography, and start from the end (Ὕστερον πρότερον, as one of my former supervisor, well-versed in Classical languages, would say!). I am now a postdoctoral researcher and, as such, I am among the number of more or less young scientists stuck in the bottleneck of the academic cursus honorum (the Latin equivalent of today’s track record), seeking to secure a tenure or a researcher position. In other (once more ancient) words: “Our name is legion, because we are many”. Too many, some argue.
I still spend most of the time in the laboratory, although the share of time I devote to project management, supervision and (a bit of) administrative duties has definitely increased. This should not come as a surprise, because “principal investigators”, or “group leaders”, are increasingly more and more akin to corporate managers, almost fully devoted to proposal writing, research management and administration. What is the place of blogging in all of this? Well, it depends. In my opinion, blogging, as long as it is done “responsibly”, is just another powerful tool for communicating science (and not just our own science). One should always take the time to sit down, think and write, and one should do so drop by drop, without flooding the blogosphere with torrential blogging or self-promoting blabber. Science communication, or more generally the discourse on science, must be the way in which scientists take up their role as intellectuals and contribute to the cultural debate. Not only does science “provide solutions” to mankind’s problems: this is a very restricted view of the role that science should play in society, it is just one side of the coin. Chemists should engage in the public debate as intellectuels spécifiques (Michel Foucault3), approaching this debate from their own specific worldview as shaped by the daily practice of chemistry, because, quoting Annibale Carracci’s remark about painters (“noi altri dipintori habbiamo a parlare con le mani“) chemists must “speak with their hands” in the first place. Using their knowledge of the science of matter and change, chemists can and should talk about broader societal issues, following Pauling’s remark (see above) that “every aspect of the world today is affected by chemistry”. (By the way, more on the general scope of this blog can be found in my first post).
Back to “about me”, I have been travelling quite a long way to pursue my career so far, approximately 12000 km: I have been riding my trustworthy folding bike on the roads of the Netherlands (Leiden), France (Paris), United Kingdom (Oxford) and finally Canada (Montréal). Cycling is an apt metaphor for life, you will fall unless you keep pedalling. After such a long ride, the bicycle often wants mending (so does life, and more often than we expect) and here I am carrying out a quick test called…cyclic voltammetry4.
As an undergraduate student I attended the University of Milan (Università degli Studi di Milano) for five years. I used to commute by train from my village to the metropolis. During the long train journey, I would revise for exams, or just satisfy my intellectual curiosity by reading, studying, writing, and musing. As I grow older, sometimes I wallow in nostalgia for my time as a university student, and I find myself wondering: was this the best way of spending my early twenties? The jury is still out, but anyway it is always easy to be wise after the event. I delved into chemistry and I used to keep company with that special someone: all of this has contributed to making me who I am now.
Rewinding my life back to the beginning, I will finally talk about Bergamo (Italy), the city where I hail from and where I attended the technical school for chemistry “G. Natta”. Why such an important focus on the local scale, on this small, “provincial” city? Well, as someone said, “the universal is the local without walls”5…and this is an apt quote for a fortress city like Bergamo, a walled outpost of the Most Serene Republic of Venice on the foothills of the Alps.
Bergamo’s inhabitants are often portrayed as practical-minded, no-nonsense, hardworking, and bit stingy. That said, and I do not deny that at least the cliché of the hard worker is partly true6, one should bear in mind that there are many natives of Bergamo who (have) excelled in the arts or sciences: a dozen or so of fine painters and artists (Giovanni Battista Moroni being the most renowned worldwide); a film director (Ermanno Olmi); a brilliant engineer and inventor (Andrew James Viterbi), whose algorithm laid the foundations for modern wireless communications, and a 19th century composer (Gaetano Donizetti). Well, you’re right, no great writers or poets (although Torquato Tasso could technically count as yet another notable native of Bergamo through his family’s lineage). There is indeed a long-lasting tradition of literary works in the local dialect, and here is an often-cited line describing the natives of Bergamo by Giacinto Gambirasio:
“Caràter de la rassa bergamasca: fiama de rar; sóta la sènder, brasca”
“Seldom is our fire a sudden flash, but glowing embers under the ash” (my own very free translation).
Bergamo, where it all began in 1983, and where I would like to stop.
What’s past is prologue.
I had better err on the side of caution: I would like to re-acknowledge the European Commission for supporting my research at Oxford (so not this blog itself…) with a “Marie Curie” fellowship.
Let me acknowledge just a few of the many people that have helped me in my journey so far: my parents and my family, Oscar, Silvia, Monica and other classmates, teachers of the “G. Natta” school (Daniela, Giovanni, Paolo, Nino, Italo, Giuseppe, and many others!), academic mentors, colleagues and friends (my colleagues here at INRS; Patrizia and Sergio; MaVi; Marc, Para, Gonzalo, Stanley, Christine, Steven, Klaas-Jan, Stefan and Dima; Cédric, Carlo, Rebeca, Jean-Michel, Marc, Jeanne and all other Parisian friends; Kylie, Simantini, Ian, Philip, Holly, Justin and all other Oxonian friends and colleagues); Stefania, who taught me what the fabric of time is made of, and not only from a physicist’s point of view, reminding me that chronos has a counterpart, kairos.
And Teresa, and now words fade, and I ask for help:
Iremos juntos sozinhos pela areia
Embalados no dia
Colhendo as algas roxas e os corais
Que na praia deixou a maré cheia.
As palavras que disseres e que eu disser
Serão somente as palavras que há nas coisas
Virás comigo desumanamente
Como vêm as ondas com o vento.
O belo dia liso como um linho
Interminável será sem um defeito
Cheio de imagens e conhecimento
Sophia de Mello Breyner, in No Tempo Dividido, 1954 (retrieved at: http://purl.pt/19841/1/1940/1940-3.html)
1. For hard-core science fans and research aficionados in general, here is an actual description of what I do: Design, synthesis and electrochemical characterisation of thin-film metals and metal alloys prepared by pulsed laser deposition. Study of structural effects (i.e. degree of surface preferential orientation) and of the influence of the alloy composition on the electrocatalytic activity for reactions of the nitrogen and carbon cycle, and for oxygen reduction.
Correlation of the electrochemical performance of silicon- and graphite-based anode materials with structural parameters (granulometry, degree of crystallinity, oxygen content) to improve the cyclability and the rate capability performance in Li-ion batteries.
3. “Un nouveau mode de liaison entre la théorie et la pratique s’est établi. Les intellectuels ont pris l’habitude de travailler non pas dans l’universel, l’exemplaire, le juste-et le-vrai-pour-tous, mais dans des secteurs déterminés, en des points précis où les situaient soit leurs conditions de travail, soit leurs conditions de vie (le logement, l’hôpital, l’asile, le laboratoire, l’université, les rapports familiaux ou sexuels)[…]; c’est ce que j’appellerais l’intellectuel spécifique par opposition à l’intellectuel universel“, in Entretien avec Michel Foucault, 1976
6. As an example of hardworking attitude, immigrants from the rural valleys fanning out north of Bergamo were regarded as the best dockers on the quays of the port of Venice in the heydays of the maritime Republic. Called bastagi or bastazi, they monopolised their trade.
DISCLAIMER: It goes without saying that this is simply a personal blog which reflects the author’s random musings, opinions and views only, and absolutely not those of my employer or my funding agency. Although I ponder over what I would like to write before typing and blogging, and although I do my best to avoid writing grossly incorrect information, I cannot ensure that the contents of this blog are 100% accurate…these are not peer-reviewed scientific publications after all! What’s more, if I talk about experiments performed in a chemical laboratory, never try them at home!!
Feel free to comment, criticise, point out my mistakes, but visitors are strongly encouraged to be polite, and they are reminded that they are responsible for their comments. Offensive, rude, abusive comments will not be tolerated. Witty remarks are instead greatly appreciated. I have a reasonable command of Italian, Portuguese and French: feel free to comment in these languages. I can read and understand Spanish, Dutch and a bit of German: if your comment captures my attention, I might even do my utmost to dust off these languages!
I will endeavour to correct all mistakes, from typos to grammar errors and incorrect information, at my earliest convenience. Bear with me: I am not (yet?) paid to blog!