My Italian etrog

Many of the etrogim shipped to Israel for Sukkot come from Calabria, a region in southern Italy whose etrogim are supposedly most similar to those used by the Israelites in biblical times.

When I buy my own etrog (the citron fruit used on Sukkot), I prefer to purchase one that comes from Israel, to support local farmers. However, I found my own personal etrog in the south of Italy. In this case I’m not referring to the fruit, but to a person – Prof. Roberta Citro from the University of Salerno, whose family name probably refers to one of the etrog-like fruits.

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Perhaps her ancestors were farmers and grew lemons in the hills surrounding Salerno.

Like me, Roberta is a physicist, an expert in the amazing and elusive field of quantum mechanics.

We first met in 2014 at Harvard University, where we collaborated on a project related to the heat that is generated by the recurrent motion of large objects, such as the engine of a car. Our research question was whether one could use quantum mechanics to improve their efficiency by reducing the heat emission rate. (Our current understanding is that, in general, quantum mechanics does not play a role here, although there may be exceptions worth studying.) In 2016, back in our home countries of Italy and Israel, we decided to organize a scientific conference to present the preliminary results from our project and get inspired by the findings of other research groups. This collaboration gave rise to the first Italy- Israel meeting on nonequilibrium physics at Bar- Ilan University, under the auspices of the embassy of Italy. The conference was very successful from both the scientific and diplomatic points of view, thanks in particular to the former ambassador of Italy to Israel, H.E. Francesco Maria Talo, who opened the conference with a clear message against the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

Fast forward to 2018. I’m now on a flight from Italy to Israel after having attended the second part of this conference in Salerno, Italy. This time, the conference was organized by Prof. Citro, Prof. Alessandro Silva (an Italian physicist who spent several years in Israel), and me. The speakers were renowned physicists from leading research institutions in Italy and Israel. They presented their recent findings concerning the interface between quantum mechanics and classical mechanics. The range of topics went from the thermal conduction of superconductors, to the response of a neuron in the brain.

As expected, the conference was quite schizophrenic, due to the presence of two nationalities (Italy vs. Israel), and two fields of expertise (quantum physics vs. classical physics). However, we all had a common language (English), and a common way to express our results (mathematical equations).

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After some initial ice-breaking, we were able to efficiently communicate and enrich our shared knowledge.

One detail of the conference that made me particularly proud was the support of the Israel Embassy in Rome. Financially, this was a relatively small contribution, but in my view, an important one. Thanks to their support, we were able to emboss a colorful “ISRAELE” on the banner of our conference. With this banner, students at the University of Salerno (one of the major universities in the south of Italy) learned that Israeli researchers are welcome here. This is quite different from what we usually read in the news, telling us that in many other universities (and now also in the streets of London), passersby learn that Israel is a racist (!) endeavor.

Based on my professional experience, I see that the great majority of researchers are happy to collaborate with Israel. They appreciate the value of the discoveries made in our universities and research institutions. Supporting research is not only good for our economy, but also for our international relations. But this is not sufficient. We must ensure that Israelis are key speakers at scientific events and that their active participation in these events is made public even if this attracts opponents. In the Facebook era, public events in support of Israel around the globe are probably more efficient than a dense network of secret agents.

Dr. Emanuele Dalla Torre, a native Italian, is a senior lecturer in the Department of Physics at Bar-Ilan University.

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