On your wavelength

Interactions: Marco Martini

Marco Martini is in  the Materials Science Department of the University of Milano-Bicocca.

What did you train in?
Nuclear physics, environmental radioactivity.

What are you working on now?
Experimental condensed matter, interaction of ionizing radiation with materials, dosimetry and its applications to archaeological dating.

What motivated you to move to this field of research?
I found it very appealing to apply my knowledge in radiation physics both on the side of the interaction of radiation with matter and of the properties of insulating materials. The application has been either on new materials, fiber optics and microelectronics, or on ancient materials, mainly ceramics. This latter application introduced me to a very different field, i.e. science for archaeology and history of art, which has been named “archaeometry” since the 1960s.

What did you find more difficult when you started working in an area out of your comfort zone?
The approach to works of art is completely different for a physicist and an archaeologist, at least a traditional one, in the sense that particularly in the Mediterranean area, and mostly in Italy, the study of archaeological pieces is mainly based on the individual experience of the archaeologist and the scientific approach has been almost neglected up to a few years ago. Nowadays things are changing and archaeometry is expanding, making scholars in the humanities and in hard sciences meet and contribute to common researches.

And what did you find most helpful to familiarize yourself with new concepts and jargon?
For many years is has been very difficult to find a common jargon with archaeologists and art historians. The interest in understanding ancient civilizations has always been the driving force in applying the scientific method and in explaining how helpful scientific data can be, provided that they are always compared with the experience of the archaeological team.

Tell us about your experience the first time you went to a conference outside the field you trained in.
I must say that it was not so challenging, because I was so eager to let my colleagues know the power of scientific data in contributing to archaeological research that I tried to make all the scientific data accessible to them.

What are the main challenges and the main advantages of working in an interdisciplinary team?
It is extremely interesting, also because you always see how physics can be useful in fields apparently very far removed from it. At the same time it must be considered that building a career is much more complicated than when remaining inside an orthodox physics field, mainly due to the difficulties in finding appropriate journals: only very few results are so important to be published in international journals of high impact. Most results are very useful in the field, but no as highly considered as traditional physics experiments. Furthermore the community is not so wide and the citation numbers increase very slowly.

What would be your advice to a PI leading an interdisciplinary group?
In my opinion it is essential that before contributing to an interdisciplinary field, a researcher has a consolidated knowledge of his own discipline. A physicist can be a good archaeometer if he is a good physicist first.

Do you find it particularly difficult to obtain funding? Or to get your research published?
Nowadays, particularly in Italy, but also at the international level, the attention for cultural heritage is increasing and experienced laboratories are supported by public and private institutions.

Is there any anecdote you would like to share?
The archaeometry community is very composite, and you can be invited to contribute to local workshops and national meetings. Long ago I was invited to present our results on the Valdivia South American culture, which turned out to be one of the most ancient ones in the American subcontinent. I prepared my talk in English, but after a while I was invited to talk in Spanish, because almost half of the audience, mainly archaeologists, was not familiar with English. I spent in the past a few short periods in Spain due to a scientific collaboration: even if the Spanish and Italian languages are related, my Spanish is very poor. Nonetheless, my Italian-Spanish talk was understood and appreciated!


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