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Piero Angela. Credit: Pietro D'aprano/Getty Images

For generations of Italians, the journalist, Piero Angela, who has died in Rome, was the voice and face of science. With Quark, the show he invented in 1981 and continued reinventing for 40 years, he single-handedly ensured science was a staple of programming at RAI, Italy’s public broadcaster. He wrote almost 40 books, produced dozens of documentaries and multimedia shows, and became a role model for the country’s science journalists and communicators.

After his death was announced by his son Alberto, himself an author and TV host, tributes began pouring in from politicians, scientists, and administrators. Italy’s President Sergio Mattarella called him a “refined intellectual, journalist and writer who brought ever wider audiences closer to the world of culture and science.” Maria Chiara Carrozza, the president of the National Research Council, wrote that “Angela communicated to Italians the importance of scientific literacy for a mature, modern democracy, decades before the pandemic, the climate crisis and the digital transition made it clear to everyone”. Giorgio Parisi, a physicist and winner of the 2021 Nobel prize, said: “Italian science owes him a lot. With constant commitment, for 70 years he used his empathy and his communication skills to create a passion for science in his viewers, in particular many young ones who have become top scientists”.

Science was not Angela’s initial passion, nor his only one. He was born in Turin in 1928, the son of Carlo, a doctor, politician and opponent of the fascist regime, and Maria Luigia Maglia. He was interested in music from an early age, becoming an accomplished piano player and performing with jazz bands in Turin during his youth. Years later, he would never miss an opportunity to play the piano during television shows, and in recent interviews he said he was finally fulfilling his wish of recording a jazz album.

He studied engineering at Politecnico di Torino, but never completed his degree, as with many Italian journalists of his generation, he entered the profession before completing his studies. He would later make up with a dozen degrees honoris causa from Italian universities.

He started out in radio in the early 1950s, when it was still RAI’s only medium. When television arrived in Italy in 1954, he became one of the first foreign correspondents of Telegiornale, RAI’s news programme, first from Paris and then from Brussels. Back in Italy, he covered politics, society and sports, hosted the first lunch-time edition of Telegiornale in 1968, and the first edition of TG2 in 1974, after RAI launched a second channel.

Influenced by the work of film director and producer, Roberto Rossellini, he soon started writing and producing documentaries. A short one on NASA’s Apollo mission, in 1968, was his first venture into science. He quickly realized he had a talent for it, and throughout the 1970s he made other RAI programmes on scientific topics, starting with the 10 episodes of Destinazione Uomo in 1971, followed by other series that covered children’s development, the search for life in the universe, new technologies, or that gave a skeptical look at parapsychology.

In 1981 he launched Quark, a late-night programme where he and his collaborators would use all of television’s tools — animations, interviews, documentaries, demonstrations by experts in the studio — to make scientific findings, and technological developments, accessible to a general audience. At the time quarks, the fundamental bricks of which protons and neutrons are made, were still a relatively recent addition to the vocabulary of particle physicists, and the word was unknown to most Italians. As Angela explained during the first episode, the show’s name hinted at its makers intention to go ‘inside’ things and explain their inner working. There was no scientific topic that he and his team considered off limits or too difficult for television. But all topics were approached from the prism of the viewer rather than with the scientist, asking — and answering — the same questions any lay person would ask.

Quark also introduced Italian audiences to the classic BBC documentaries Life on Earth and The Living Planet by David Attenborough, who was a decisive influence on Angela’s hosting and documentary-making style.

The show soon proved extremely successful and developed into a franchise, with spin-offs on topics from the economy to the functioning of the European Union, and adaptations to daily time slots or to summer programming. Its credit sequence, a vocal arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Suite n. 3 in D major, accompanying a virtual 3-D landscape created by early computer graphics, remains one of the most instantly recognizable pieces of television for Italians of any age. In 1995 the show evolved into SuperQuark, an extended prime-time show that has kept running until this very year.

Angela also co-founded the CICAP association to promote critical thinking about pseudosciences. Though elegant and softly-spoken, he never shied away from fighting hard for the scientific method, on TV as well as in courts, where he won lawsuits brought against him by proponents of homeopathy, that he repeatedly denounced as unscientific.

He was unmatched when it came to making science accessible, and to sparking a passion for it. He was less interested in the kind of critical scrutiny of scientists’ work and motives that many younger science journalists now consider an essential part of the job. But he was also acutely aware of changing times, and of the need to adapt science communication to them. He had recently launched a version of SuperQuark tailored for streaming audiences, hosted by a group of younger hosts to whom he hoped to pass the baton.

In a final farewell message to his viewers that was shared after his death, he wrote: “I think I did my part, you all try to do yours for this complicated country”. He surely did his part, and then much more, working until his very last days. RAI, his home for 70 years, should do its part, and make sure science does not go off the air with him.