Sofia Pazzagli experiments with tiny amounts of light
The wind sends small waves rippling over the pond: “This is how,” says Sofia Pazzagli, “we typically perceive of the motion of light.” Reality, however, is more complex: “When we look at light on a very small scale, in the quantum space, it behaves strangely. It is made up of photons, tiny particles that can be in two different places at once and can even combine with each other.”
At Humboldt-Universität’s Department of Physics on Newton Strasse, the Florentine native has been following light on the quantum scale for four years now. She mixes fluorescent molecules with novel materials, graphemes, and polymers. “We test procedures to find out which are the best so that all these ingredients interact harmoniously with each other to create new quantum light sources.” This research field, the one Pazzagli is dabbling in, is called nanophotonics. Personally, she calls it a magical “dance of light and matter” and talks of shifting “the boundaries of the imaginable” to pave the way for future quantum technologies.
Her passion for physics was sparked at the Liceo Classico Europeo, a secondary school or Lyceum in Florence, where she spent five years of her youth – years that have become golden years in her memory. The Lyceum is housed in a Renaissance villa with a park, which once belonged to the Medici, the famous banking family and political dynasty. Here, an inquisitive student met a teacher for mathematics and physics who had a knack for combining hard facts with the more “philosophical aspects” of these subjects.
Then, a “truly inspiring” course on photonics while reading physics at the University of Florence brought her one step closer to what would become her research field. The second reviewer of her dissertation in 2018 was a pioneer in the field of nanophotonics, the German physicist Arno Rauschenbeutel, who then taught in Wien.
Following his invitation, Pazzagli moved to the Austrian capital in January 2019 and, in July, followed Rauschenbeutel to Berlin, where he took up a professorship at Humboldt Universität.
“An incredible place. So many cool people, cool science,” she says looking back on the last four years. She is impressed by the campus, where research and high-tech companies work in close proximity: “This is extremely new to me. There is nothing like it in Italy.” With both hands, she seized the opportunities offered to young researchers. One of them was taking part in the Friday Light Talks at the Department of Physics in early 2021, an initiative to revive scientific exchange after the month-long dry patch caused by the pandemic. Every two weeks, people who are at the beginning of their scientific careers come together for short talks and debates.
Last year, Pazzagli won second place in the Falling Walls competition in Adlershof, which has been held annually since 2009. The Berlin-based foundation of the same name hosts the conferences every year on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, shining a light on “breakthroughs in science”. Since the spring of 2023, Pazzagli has been volunteering as one of seven select members on the Young Professionals Board of WISTA Management GmbH. The committee is to submit recommendations to technology park management on how to improve the living and working conditions of young people in research and the industry in Adlershof.
“Unless it rains”, she says, Pazzagli rides her bike to work from Tempelhof. Until recently, she lived there with her partner, a fellow physicist, whom she met in Adlershof. He has taken up research and teaching abroad – at the University of Florence.
Dr. Winfried Dolderer for Adlershof Journal