UCL Mathematical & Physical Sciences


Gaetana Laricchia

Gaetana Laricchia is a Professor of Physics, and Head of the Positron and Positronium Scattering group, in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at UCL.

MAPS Spotlight

1 March 2020

Image - Professor Gaetana Laricchia
Professor Gaetana Laricchia has a long association with UCL. Born in Apulia, Italy, not far from Cannae (the site where Hannibal inflicted a major defeat to the Roman army in 216 BC), Gaetana has spent around 2/3 of her life in London and 40 years at UCL where she was both an undergraduate and a postgraduate student, obtaining a PhD in 1986.

From 1986-1988, she worked as a postdoctoral research assistant at UCL and Aarhus University in Denmark in an early collaboration aiming to produce antihydrogen (the atom made of a positron and antiproton). In 1988, she was appointed to UCL staff as a Lecturer. In 1994-1995, she held a Science Research Fellowship awarded by the Nuffield Foundation and in 1996 she was promoted to Reader. In 2003, she became the first woman Professor of Physics at UCL and from 2004 to 2013 she headed the Atomic, Molecular, Optical and Positron Physics (AMOPP) group.

The apparent imbalance between matter and antimatter in the universe is a major puzzle in science, but much has been learnt about the interactions between the two through studies of controlled collisions of positrons and positronium (the short-lived atom made of an electron and its antiparticle, the positron) with atoms and molecules. The Positron and Positronium Scattering group at UCL is an international leader in this type of research, and Professor Laricchia is its current Head.

Gaetana has published around 150 articles and book chapters, delivered talks worldwide and has served on editorial and advisory boards of various journals and conferences. In 2004, she was elected Fellow of the Institute of Physics (UK). She is the recipient of the Occhialini Medal and Prize 2009 (jointly awarded by The Institute of Physics and Societa' Italiana di Fisica) for “distinguished work on experimental positron physics",  and also recipient of the Thomson Medal and Prize 2010 (awarded by The Institute of Physics) for her "contributions to the development of the world's only positronium beam and its use to probe the properties of atoms and molecules". In 2015, she was elected Honorary Member of the Roland Eotvos Physical Society of Hungary.

She believes that experimental and theoretical studies with positron and positronium continue to be valuable in gaining glimpses of the workings of nature at a very fundamental level.  A current focus of her research is interference and resonant phenomena involving positrons and positronium, as well as general propensities in atomic collisions. In fact, her team has recently discovered that the same mathematical formula (the “lognormal”) which describes the probability distribution of macroscopic phenomena (such as periods of incubation of diseases, size of clouds, abundance of species, age of marriage, fluctuations in economic variables, etc.) may also apply at the quantum level, with a simple modification. This discovery helps in describing and predicting how collision probabilities involving subatomic particles vary with energy, and impacts on a fundamental issue in physics - that of the boundary between the classical and quantum domains. 

As well as science, Gaetana gets much pleasure from nature and the arts, and feels that London (with its wonderful open spaces, galleries and theatres) has much to offer in this respect.