Francesco Denza and the Carte du Ciel

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On 07 June 1834, Francesco Denza (1834-1894) was born in Naples. He was a Barnabite priest, astronomer, and meteorologist who immersed himself in solar spectroscopy and founded what later became the Italian Meteorological Society. He renovated the observation deck of the Vatican Observatory, founded in 1888. Vatican staff members realized that participation in the program ‘to map the sky’ would immediately give their young observatory international recognition. Pope Leo XIII commissioned Father Francesco Denza and Father Giuseppe Lais to attend the Astrographic Congress and enroll the Vatican as one of the participating institutions in the international Carte du Ciel project which made a photographic map of the stars.

Maria Gaetana Agnesi, Mathematician of God

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Maria Gaetana Agnesi (16 May 1718 – 09 January 1799) was an Italian woman of remarkable intellectual gifts and attainments. Her father was professor of mathematics at Bologna. When nine years old she spoke Latin fluently, and wrote a discourse to show that liberal studies were not unsuited to her sex: “Oratio qua ostenditur artium liberalium studia femineo sexu neutiquam abhorrere”. This was printed at Milan in 1727. She is said to have spoken Greek fluently when only eleven years old, and at thirteen she had mastered Hebrew, French, Spanish, German, and other languages. She was called the “Walking Polyglot”. Her father assembled the most learned men of Bologna at his house at stated intervals, and Maria explained and defended various philosophical theses. She devoted herself especially to the study of mathematics. Maria showed a phenomenal aptitude for mathematics. She wrote an excellent treatise on conic sections, and in her thirteenth year her “Instituzioni Analitiche” was published in two volumes (Milan, 1748), the first treating of the analysis of finite quantities; the second, the analysis of infinitesimals. This, the most valuable result of her labours in this field, was regarded as the best introduction extant to the works of Euler. It was translated into English by Colson of Cambridge, and into French by d’Antelmy, with the notes of Abbé Bossuet. The plane curve, known as versiera, is also called “the Witch of Agnesi”. Maria gained such reputation as a mathematician that she was appointed by Benedict XIV to teach mathematics in the University of Bologna, during her father’s illness. This was in 1750, and two years later her father died. Maria then devoted herself to the study of theology and the Fathers of the Church. Her long aspirations to the religious life were destined to be gratified, for after acting for some years as director of the Hospice Trivulzio of the Blue Nuns in Milan, she joined the order and died a member of it, in her eighty-first year.

(“mathematician of God”: see book by Massimo Mazzotti, The World of Maria Gaetana Agnesi, Mathematician of God, 2007

Enrico Fermi and an Umbrian Farmer

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2014-03-02-enrico-fermiEnrico Fermi (29 Sep 1901 in Rome, Italy – 28 Nov 1954 in Chicago, USA) is considered one of the greatest Italian physicists of his time. He had a remarkable capacity to join theoretical goals with ingenious experimentation. Fermi focused his studies on particle physics and quantum mechanics, receiving, in 1938, the Nobel Prize in Physics for his studies of neutron collision. He moved to the United States due to racial laws in Italy (his wife was Jewish) and turned his attention to the possibility of obtaining chain reactions that could start the production of neutrons for use as fission particles. The study of controlled chain reactions led him finally to the atomic bomb project, which he completed in collaboration with Oppenheimer. He faced his death serenely, suffering from an incurable illness that was diagnosed too late.

Little documentation exists regarding Fermi’s religious convictions, although the account of a profound moment in his life has been left to us: Continue reading