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Pure Theory – From the fascination of mathematics without figures

When Marco Benini works, then the work that he does – even if he does it with his own hands – is pure theory. The Italian, who is currently a guest scholar at the Humboldt Department of Mathematics, is researching in the field of quantum field theory. “I am trying to create the mathematical basis for physical models,” explains the mathematician. “Some of the most complex and most accurate physical experiments conducted by humans, such as those at the world-famous CERN, confirm the theoretical predictions on which they are based, but their fundamental mathematical principles are not already completely understood. I want to play a part in changing that.”

Benini is actually a physicist. However, during his studies at the University of Pavia, he already slowly began to drift away from physics and move toward mathematics. “I had to realize: I am just not made for experiments,” says the young scholar. “There are people who endeavor to confirm theories using tests, and there are people who want to know why they work and what is behind them. Physicians need a formula that works. Those people who cannot bear the fact that they cannot explain a formula go on to study mathematics.”

Whoever thinks now though that Marco Benini just strings endless columns of figures together is mistaken. He himself sets the record straight: “It is said that there are three types of mathematicians: those who can count and those who cannot count,” says Benini laughing. “I do not work with figures…” As mentioned earlier: pure theory. And that is what he really enjoys: “I think it is great that my work may at some point consolidate physical theories. But the real motivation for my work is the work itself: What might be puzzle-solving for others on their summer holiday, is research into quantum field theory for me.”

Marco Benini does not see his research field as a tool, or as work, but as his passion. “For me, mathematics is related to philosophy or art,” says the guest researcher. “I see no major difference between a mathematician and a painter. When a mathematician writes down a formula, then it is a very individual expression of his mind.”

After gaining his PhD in 2015 Marco Benini left his home country. He feels that the job prospects are not good enough in Italy for researchers in his field. That is why he did not find it that difficult to leave. Benini only usually needs a computer for his work along with a pen and a piece of paper. And an inspirational environment which he found in Potsdam. With the help of his current host, Prof. Dr. Christian Bär, with whom he had already had contact when he wrote his doctoral thesis, he developed a project to investigate the quantum field theory of the so-called “Sigma model” and with it, he successfully applied for a scholarship from the Humboldt foundation. “From a ‘geometric perspective’ the model is very elegant,” enthuses Benini. “And it can be applied to many fields, from nuclear physics and solid-state physics to string theory.”

The southern European found it easy to settle in Germany. He lives in the Internationale Begegnungszentrum der Wissenschaften (IBZ) Potsdam and feels very happy there. He was quickly provided with a bike. As a medium-sized university city, Potsdam reminds him of his home town Pavia and he has already managed to thoroughly discover the city. He has even grown accustomed to the “Nordic” climate.

Even the German scientific culture, which has occasionally been criticized, does not cause him any problems. “There are more colloquia or seminars here, during which scientists can exchange ideas and views than at the University of Pavia,” he says. But Benini has treated himself to a short break after all: He went back home for a week in May 2016 to get married. In the meantime his wife lives with him here in Potsdam. Until now he is only really missing one thing, as he complains with a wink: a good pizza. So he draws comfort from mathematics: but please without figures.


Universität Potsdam
Marco Benini
Karl-Liebknecht-Str. 24-25, 14476 Potsdam
Tel.: 0331 977-1248
E-Mail: marco.beniniuni-potsdamde

Text: Matthias Zimmermann
Translation: Clive Jonathan Harker
Published online by: Agnetha Lang
Contact for the editorial office: onlineredaktionuni-potsdamde