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SU quantum expert receives Italian knighthood
Author: Corporate Communications and Marketing
Published: 08/06/2023

​One of Stellenbosch University’s (SU) top academics received an extraordinary honour over the weekend when Italy’s ambassador to South Africa bestowed the Order of the Star of Italy on Prof Francesco Petruccione from the School for Data Science and Computational Thinking. 

The Ordine della Stella d'Italia is an Italian order of chivalry similar to a British knighthood. Petruccione received the accolade from the Italian ambassador, Paolo Cuculi, on Sunday 4 June during the celebration of Italy’s Republic Day in Cape Town. 

The Italian-born Petruccione, who was appointed as professor in quantum computing at SU last year, was described by Cuculi as “one of the leading experts in quantum technologies” and a distinguished academic and researcher. Petruccione previously held the position of Pro Vice-Chancellor: Big Data and Informatics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). 

“Through his academic and research activities, he has not only created the largest quantum technology research group in South Africa, but he has also fostered continuous transformation in his area of expertise, with the aim of bridging the gap between research and innovation in order to ensure sustainable development, for the benefit of citizens. Prof Petruccione maintains regular contact with the Italian community in South Africa, contributing to strengthening the bilateral relations between Rome and Pretoria,” Cuculi said. 

A few days after the ceremony, Petruccione was still beaming with pride. “Although the weather was miserable on Sunday, it was a very joyful day. I’m humbled and deeply grateful,” he said. “This honour is a recognition of my work in theoretical physics and a testament to the power of scientific exploration and the pursuit of knowledge. I am deeply grateful for this acknowledgment and remain committed to contributing to the scientific community.” 

Petruccione only heard that he was going to be awarded the Order of the Star of Italy ten days before the event. He immediately shared the news with his wife Monique Labat, but he only phoned his 87-year-old mother in Italy after the ceremony on Sunday to surprise her with the news that he is now a Cavaliere (knight). He received a certificate signed by the Italian President and the Minister of Foreign Affairs as well as a medal and a pin. 

Although he now has another distinguished title apart from professor, Petruccione jokes that he won’t insist on being called “Sir” by his SU colleagues. 

The Order of the Star of Italy specifically recognises Italians abroad who have promoted friendly relations and cooperation between Italy and other countries. While Petruccione left Italy at the age of 18 to go and study in Germany, he has always nurtured close ties with his native country. In December last year, he was instrumental in facilitating a memorandum of understanding (MoU) between SU and one of the leading institutes for theoretical physics in the world, the International Centre for Theoretical Physics based in Trieste in Italy. He also played a part in an MoU between SU and Cineca, the biggest high-performance computing center in Italy. 

Petruccione originally studied physics at the University of Freiburg in Germany, where he obtained a research doctorate in 1988. In 2004 he was appointed professor of theoretical physics at UKZN. In 2005 he received a grant from the Innovation Fund towards the establishment of a Center for Quantum Technology and in 2007 he was awarded the South African Research Chair for quantum information processing and communication. 

He is the interim Director of the South African National Institute for Theoretical and Computational Sciences (NITheCS),an elected member of the South African Academy of Sciences and the African Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa. He has published about 250 papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals and has built up the biggest research group in quantum technology in South Africa. 

Petruccione has often said his main focus is to close the gap between fundamental research, innovation and development to solve problems and ensure sustainable development. 

“We don’t have the billions of dollars that countries such as America and China invest in quantum computing and quantum technologies, so we have to play clever. We have to find our niche areas and excel there. We might not have the resources to build our own quantum computing machine, but we can focus on software and the development of algorithms and other tools. For example, researchers here are using quantum computing to look for better approaches to machine learning and to address sustainable development goals. It’s fun to work on such innovations in South Africa. We have opportunities to get people involved and to shape what happens.” 

The past year in Stellenbosch has been a wonderful experience, Petruccione said. He oversees eight postgraduate students and he’s inspired by their enthusiasm for quantum mechanics. 

“It is thrilling to be a part of the SU community. It’s hard not to like this town. Apart from the people, you can get the best coffee and food and wine. During load-shedding my wife and I often head down to Rome in a Bite for a taste of Italy.” ​