Acceptance Speech – Rome, 17.11.2016 (Video – Italian + Text – English)


Federico Capasso

2016 Balzan Prize for Applied Photonics

For his pioneering work in the quantum design of new materials with specific electronic and optical features, which led to the realization of a fundamentally new class of laser, the Quantum Cascade Laser; for his major contributions in plasmonics and metamaterials, at the forefront of photonics science and technology.

Mr. President,
Members of the Balzan Foundation,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am enormously grateful for this Prize recognizing the research carried out with my collaborators over a time span of almost thirty years, first at Bell Telephone Laboratories, creative crucible from which so much of the science and technology of the information society has sprung, as have so many fundamental discoveries in the most diverse fields ranging from mathematics to astrophysics. I must also thank the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, another “hot spot” of science, technology and innovation.
For my early scientific education, I owe a debt of gratitude to the School of Physics in Rome, born again in the years after the War from the tradition of Enrico Fermi and his group, and I would like to remember those great scientists like Edoardo Amaldi, Giorgio Salvini, Nicola Cabibbo, Bruno Touschek and Franco Bassani, whom I had not only as professors, but also as examples and Masters. More recently, there is Giovanni Jona-Lasinio, who opened up the world of the physics of complex systems to me, and whom I have had the good fortune of collaborating with. This tradition, which is rightly called “Fermian”, was a way of doing research and confronting problems by directly connecting experiment to theory, giving preference to the physical interpretation of phenomena and clarity of thought. My first university degree with Francesco De Martini, who had made a name for himself in France and America, gave me the opportunity to learn my trade by working at the frontiers of optics. It also provided excellent groundwork for the style of research practiced in the leading American laboratories. We were a group of young scientists enlivened by the sacred fire of research in a little laboratory in the basement of the Institute of Physics!

After completing my doctorate I taught for a year in a technical institute in Rome, which gave me a taste for teaching, and then spent two years doing research at the Bordoni Foundation, a first-rate telecommunications institute. Thanks to the interest of my director, the late Benedetto Daino, and a fellowship from the Rotary Club, at the age of twenty-seven I was thrown headlong into the heart of the most advanced industrial laboratory in the world, Bell Laboratories, now decorated with eight Nobel Prizes, at the forefront in research where pure science and its applications were merged in a highly interdisciplinary and innovative context. This enormously stimulating environment – although a highly competitive atmosphere of new frontiers where taking risks was strongly encouraged – was a determining force for finding my voice, as it were, and for this I express my most heartfelt thanks to my managers, all high level scientists. There I realized that creativity can be learned, and I nurtured my vocation as “quantum designer” of new artificial materials with properties non-existent in nature and capable of being engineered for the most varied applications. One of these includes quantum cascade lasers, the fruit of team work with the best young scientists, in particular Jérôme Faist, now professor at ETH in Zurich; Carlo Sirtori, professor at the Université Diderot in Paris; and Claire Gmachl, professor at Princeton University. Here I must remember my fruitful collaboration of over twenty years with Alfred Cho, to whom I also express my gratitude. He is the father of the widely used commercial technique of thin-film deposition of single crystals, also known as molecular beam epitaxy, which makes it possible to create artificial materials only a few atoms thick. Hence, it is no wonder that I consider Bell Labs as my second Alma Mater after the University of Rome.

After twenty-seven years at Bell Labs, I felt a strong desire to start a new scientific adventure and to throw myself into university teaching. At Harvard University, at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, I have found a congenial, creative environment thanks to the absence of barriers between disciplines, to opportunities for collaboration that spring up spontaneously and are encouraged by different groups of students, and to stimuli to experiment with new teaching methods. Here, together with young collaborators, I have embarked on my first start-up. Thanks to an excellent group of students and researchers, new horizons in science have opened out before me, and they are of great technological potential in the field of the design of artificial surfaces like flat and ultrathin lenses. I am also thankful to the General Prize Committee of the Balzan Foundation for recognizing these recent contributions.
Finally, the continuous – and I must underline this – patient support of my wife Paola in these almost forty years of scientific adventures has been priceless, as has the cheering on of my “fan club”, my daughters Luisa and Marta!
Thank you.

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