International Talks

International Talks: Erkka Juhani Frankberg

Erkka Juhani Frankberg

Breaking the habit

They say that Italy is hard to understand. It is convincing, as it is the locals who will tell you this. Yet I found the simplest of things to be my favorites in Italy. Family, good friends and good food. Of course, Italy like all countries, has its complicated features, but it seems I like challenges. In fact, I came to Italy to tame a challenge. All my career, I have been trying to understand how interaction of atoms leads to everything there is to see and to hold. As a fresh University student, I stumbled into a question that has been haunting me ever since: why do the strongest of materials break and fracture so easily? A diamond or a sapphire are held together by some of the strongest atomic bonds in existence. Yet a well-placed hammer blow can easily shatter them to small pieces. This pattern goes through all materials. The stronger you make a material, the more brittle it becomes. I wanted to find out if we could use the full potential of these strong atom bonds. Turns out it is possible and during my stay at the IIT Center for Nano Science and Technology in Milano, we managed to break this habit and showed that a glass can be bent like steel without breaking it, even at room temperature. The discovery could lead to a whole new paradigm of light weight and high strength glass materials for engineering and construction. However, scaling up the material manufacturing will be another big challenge. In Materials Science this can easily take several decades. But it could be worth the wait since if a material is found genuinely useful for humanity, it will end up being used for thousands of years, as glass has been.

I am glad I came to Italy. The media sometimes builds a story of an ideological and political conflict between the Northern and Southern European countries. As a Finn I found nothing of that sort in Italy. Instead, I found the nicest of people, helping us whenever in trouble while moving and settling in. I made lifelong friends in Italy and we will continue together to make the strongest materials known to mankind. I wish that Europeans would travel more to South and North vice versa to witness the same as I did. For us researchers, the Marie Curie Fellowship is an excellent tool to broaden our world view. I can sincerely recommend applying. You get your very own EU project with a good salary and extra compensation if you take your family with you. For me there were a lot to compensate as I came to Italy with my wife and two children and left Italy with my wife (luckily and despite of those good looking Italianos) and three children. If you have children, I’m sure you are thinking about how difficult it will be to handle family life in a new country. I urge you not to think it too much. For sure there will be difficulties, but they can be overcome and once you decide to go, I guarantee you will find everything worth your while.

My young adventure days are behind me and I rather enjoyed more simpler things living in Milano. The home-cooked cafeteria lunch. Sitting down on the corner café, to debate politics and philosophy with good old friends. Taking a stroll around the old Politecnico campus at Piazza Leonardo to see the young eager graduates in their lecture rooms. Hopping into the historic tram 19 on a rainy day just to see around the city and arriving home early to see cook dinner for my family. If only one thing, you must have the spaghetti allo scoglio with olive oil and a glass of local white wine.

I returned to Finland after two years in Italy. Driving my car across the Europe to Finland was a trip to the past, closed borders and a feeling that the national interests had returned. However, for my generation there is no turning back to the old. To me, Europe is and always will be more than a just a “bella figura” and I know the European Union will come out this stronger and more open to collaboration. I am fundamentally a European and whatever happens, I will stand by my fellow Europeans in Italy and elsewhere in Europe. Stay safe and happy midsummer!