The Fascinating Link Between Art Heritage and Nuclear Physics

Allen Magnusson's summer in Florence has been more than the usual mixture of museums, antiquities, and la dolce vita. The NYU Abu Dhabi Physics major is spending two months in the Tuscan capital as an intern at the renowned Laboratorio di Tecniche Nucleari per i Beni Culturali, or Laboratory of Nuclear Techniques for Cultural Heritage.

At summer's end, when Magnusson begins his senior year at NYUAD, he'll have seen close-up some useful applications of nuclear physics to everyday problems. The main projects at LABEC, as the laboratory is known, use particle physics to analyze artworks and other artifacts, and to study air-pollution samples. "This lab is very specialized for cultural heritage studies," Magnusson notes, "in collaboration with museums, archives, and archeological institutions."

He became the first NYUAD intern at LABEC thanks, he says, to Francesco Arneodo, Associate Professor of Physics and Head of the Physics Program at NYUAD, who is affiliated with LABEC's parent body, Italy's National Institute for Nuclear Physics.

LABEC's principal tool is a three-megavolt tandem accelerator, used mainly for radio-carbon dating and for ion-beam analysis, which reveals the elemental composition of an artifact.

Magnusson acknowledges that as an undergrad, he's a bit out of his league at LABEC. "These are extremely complicated mathematical, engineering, and computational questions," he says. "Everyone there is either working on a PhD project or is already a postdoc … so it didn't make sense for me to just start pushing buttons and taking control of this accelerator."

Instead, he has been "working in an observational and assisting capacity … I've been revolving around a lot of the different projects, learning the theory, procedures, and methodologies."

NYUAD student Allen Magnussen (right) is interning with LABEC Director Professor Pier Andrea Mandò (left) in Florence to understand the connection between art restoration and physics.

He spent one week, for example, "in a chemistry lab learning about and assisting in preparing carbon samples. Essentially you have a piece of wood and before you can measure it you have to incinerate it into pure carbon. In high school you learn about half-lives and how those can be used to calculate ages, but the real numerical analysis is much more complex … getting your number, your concentration of carbon, is an actual procedure, and not just magic."

Another week, he "learned about how one actually uses the accelerator to make the final measurements," and how to interpret the data once it's obtained. Another was devoted to "the elemental analysis of air samples, to measure air quality." LABEC has been doing this work for decades, he says, and air samples come in for analysis from all over the world.

Florence, he notes, is a natural location for LABEC. "With the wealth of museums and culturally significant sites, it's fitting that this lab is here." (His Italian, he laments, is "terrible, abysmal … I've picked up a few words but it's a lot of me going into restaurants and pointing at things on the menu.")

Other NYUAD students may soon follow Magnusson to Florence. He says, and Professor Arneodo confirms, that the two institutions are considering a longer-term collaboration. "I'm testing what a future relationship might be," Magnusson says.

"I consider myself lucky. I owe an enormous amount to Francesco. I'm very interested to see what kind of relationship will be formed in the future."

His own future, however, may not lie at a lab like LABEC, he says. Despite his physics major, he doesn't plan to continue in that field, but is instead planning to go to law school, maybe after a gap year.

"I have an interest in going into intellectual property or patent law, something that combines law with science," he says. "That's a plan; I don't know if it's the plan."