I just got back from a 10-day trip to northern Italy, a combination of work and play. The work part was for a research workshop with Eni, a gigantic company you’ve probably never heard of unless you have a thing for 6-legged dogs.
The 6 legs represent the 4 wheels of a car and the 2 legs of its driver.
As a token of goodwill and everlasting research funding (haha NOT), Eni shipped us a human-sized stuffed dog-dragon-thing. It has many uses, including taking up office space and scaring undergrads.
Eni is the Italian national oil and gas company, known by some as “the state within the state” for its outsized influence in Italian politics. The company is trying to reinvent itself as an “energy company,” drilling for crude oil in North Africa with one hand while funding solar research internally and at MIT with the other.
It’s a tough balancing act. Oil supermajors (Exhibit 1: Exxon) aren’t particularly well known for believing in human-caused climate change, much less supporting a wholesale shift away from their hydrocarbon lifeblood***. It’s not clear to me whether their support of renewable energy research is merely a good PR move or reflects a genuine desire to save us all (OR perhaps just a hedge in case the world actually decides to do something about climate change). The real answer is probably (d) all of the above.
***Although it’s noteworthy (but not altogether surprising) that a few small oil companies—BP, Shell, Eni, Total, and Statoil—recently urged the U.N. to place a price on carbon.
In any case, Eni seems to be taking one small step in the right direction. During our visit to Eni’s headquarters in San Donato (just south of Milan), CTO Roberto Casula at least used all the right words in talking about climate change: that we need to start the low-carbon transition today, that an investment in renewables is an investment in the future, that Eni needs to become not just an oil company but an energy company, etc. And Eni has its own team of 20 researchers working on solar cells. They do great work on polymer PV, but I can’t help but laugh/cry when an “energy” company with 85,000 employees dedicates just 0.02% of its workforce to developing a key part of the future energy system. Maybe I’m too sentimental.
After the workshop in San Donato, I did some solo traveling, visiting the World Expo in Milan and posing as an Italian in Turin (~1.5 hours west of Milan by train) with Francesca, an MIT friend and colleague who grew up there and was kind enough to show me around her hometown and introduce me to sambuca.
Here are a few highlights from the trip:
With MIT colleagues in San Donato
Duomo di Milano. Right at the center of Milan, the Duomo is the largest cathedral in Italy and far too ornate to comprehend.
At the Duomo with Vladimir and Pat Doyle. (Selfie photo credit: Vladimir Bulović)
Papa Francesco visited Torino while I was there. Unfortunately I missed his call…
Running at the Politecnico di Torino, Italy’s oldest technical university.
Oddly enough, Turin is the home of one of the biggest collections of Egyptian artifacts in the world. Here’s the Gallery of the Kings at the Egizio Museo di Torino.
Focaccia at Perino Vesco. Don’t miss this bakery in Torino.
Taking a ride in the Turin Eye, the world’s largest tethered hot-air balloon.
TIL 1 kilogram of apricots = ~25 apricots. Clearly I didn’t know what a kilogram was. I wanted a snack; I got a stomachache.
Sardinian cuisine with Francesca and friends, captured in full Polaroid glory.
Politecnico di Milano, the largest technical university in Italy and sworn enemy of its Torino counterpart.
Navigli: Ancient canals and home of Milanese nightlife.
The Brera Gallery is a very cool art museum in the heart of Milan.
The Kiss (Hayez 1859). So Italian.
Kicking it at the World Expo. The theme was “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life”, aka FOOD!
Main street of the Expo.
20,000 LEDs form a room-sized floor display in the China pavilion.
With Francesca at the China pavilion.
Nutella restaurant? Count me in.
Vertical farm at the Israel pavilion.
Aquaponics = Aquaculture (raising fish in tanks) + Hydroponics (growing plants in water). The fish poop, bacteria break down the poop into nitrates, and the plants use the nitrates as fertilizer. Unfortunately you still have to feed the fish.
What is this thing, and why is it here?
The UK beehive pavilion. The pavilion is connected to an actual beehive in Nottingham: In the pavilion, speakers and LEDs generate noise to reflect the real-time activity of bees in the actual hive.
Good ole USA.
Supermarket of the Future: This was very cool. It’s an operational supermarket with a bunch of high-tech stuff. Point at food and the screens above show you the nutritional information, price, etc. Robot arms pick up and package fruit. And after you check out, you get to carry your grocery bags around the Expo all day. Yay!