SuperQuark 2.0

Ieri sera è ricominciato SuperQuark o, per lo meno, questa è stata la prima puntata che ho visto della nuova stagione: vivendo all’estero seguo la nostra tv poco e da lontano.

Confesso che mi sono un po’ annoiato. Per carità, i servizi sono ben fatti e trattano temi abbastanza interessanti ma tutto mi sembra uguale a quando ho cominciato a seguire la trasmissione da bambino trent’anni fa (30!). Squadra vincente non si cambia? Sicuramente ma non posso fare a meno di ricordare un’intervista che Paolo Bonolis rilasciò al Corriere della Sera poco prima del Natale 2012. Alla fatidica domanda su quale fosse il suo sogno nel cassetto, Bonolis rispose qualcosa del tipo: “mi piacerebbe realizzare una versione di SuperQuark tagliata sui giovani: io ci sono cresciuto con questa trasmissione ma è forse giunto il momento di farne una specifica per un pubblico diverso”.

Già me lo sognavo: un programma dove la verve di Bonolis facesse da catalizzatore per portare ai giovani il messaggio e l’esempio che la scienza non è affatto noiosa né fatta solo di numeri e formule; quelli ci sono, nessuno lo discute, ma hanno lo stesso ruolo delle note in musica: sono uno strumento non l’essenza. Provai a contattare Paolo Bonolis per discutere di questa sua idea che combaciava perfettamente con la mia passione e competenza. Ero appena tornato dal mio biennio lavorativo in USA, diviso tra ricerca e divulgazione. Avevo osservato e imparato tanto, il che mi aveva permesso di sviluppare anche delle idee mie originali. Condivido qui oggi queste mie idee, ipotizzando una collaborazione tra Bonolis come conduttore a 360 gradi e me come referente scientifico.

M’immagino, ad esempio, di presentare e discutere in studio il video di uno spettacolo di ballo sui buchi neri, interpretato da studentesse della facoltà d’arte di una università americana e da me curato quando ero lì come ricercatore. Oppure di ascoltare e commentare insieme al pubblico i suoni dell’universo: dal respiro delle stelle all’osservazione del bosone di Higgs molti dati scientifici sono stati trasposti in chiave musicale anche rock, per non parlare di rapper americani che insegnano nelle scuole come scrivere rime di scienza. Ancora, c’è chi s’ispira alle meraviglie del cosmo per cucinare o disegnare abiti di moda, anche per le firme di grido. Da ultimo, si può ritrovare l’ordine della natura e la bellezza della matematica in murales e opere d’arte come la Notte Stellata di Van Gogh.

Tutti questi esempi servono da spunto per avvicinare l’ascoltatore all’emozione delle scienze, prima che al loro rigore: quest’ultimo, infatti, è perlopiù motivo di paura e allontanamento da parte del pubblico di non esperti. Invece, scoprendo l’aspetto emotivo delle scienze si possono instillare passioni impensate. Così è successo a me quando ero adolescente: i racconti di una mia cugina laureanda in fisica mi hanno sedotto verso quella che sarebbe diventata la mia scelta di vita oltreché di carriera. Sulla base di questa mia esperienza mi piacerebbe vedere usata la tv per proporre ai giovani di oggi una scienza alla loro portata e vicina al loro sentire, affinché la nascita di una passione si trasformi in un’opportunità educativa e formativa della loro persona.

Shall I buy a new smartphone? I’ll ask the stars

No, I do not believe in astrology, at all. It’s just that my iPhone’s started playin’ tricks on me and it’s only 3 years old! Three years might sound like an eternity for a tech item nowadays, especially for a smartphone, the life of which is heavily influenced by fashion and programmed obsolescence. That’s the problem, right there. My iPhone can still do its job quite decently, even without the larger screen or faster chip brain of its successors. Why, then, should I throw away something that isn’t old at all? And where is this “away” exactly?

Don’t tell me you thought of a bin by the roadside! No trash can is the right tomb for your formerly beloved, almost symbiotic appendix that a smartphone has become for many of us today. A desk drawer is not much of a better place either: you are just delegating the problem to a future version of yourself, who would probably still wonder what the matter is with the stars in the title anyway :-)

Even if you’re a fond reader of horoscopes, I bet you’d never met any astrological advice as to when and why buy a new phone. Where do you think a smartphone comes from? Ok, China seems like an obvious answer but, even though I have never been there yet, I’m pretty sure they don’t grow smartphones on trees or in gardens. As you’re perfectly aware, smartphones are assembled in factories … but with what?

iPhone_Chem_Elements

If you look at the picture here, you can see how varied the iPhone recipe is in terms of natural ingredients. Wait, did I say “natural”? Yes, I did. The image lists many so-called “chemical elements”, the building blocks Nature uses to make up everything. Among those in the picture the ones you’re probably more familiar with are Aluminum, Iron, Silver, Gold and Oxygen: apart from Oxygen, that you can find in the air you’re currently breathing, the other elements are metals, which are to be found inside Earth. Who put them there? when? and how?

At a very basic level these elements, or “species of stuff”, are not different from you or the chair you are sitting on right now. This chair is probably something you bought from Ikea (at least mine is) and, to this day, you might still remember how hard it was to decipher the instructions to assemble it (at least I do ;-) ). Well, Ikea owes Nature big time, as all the variety of substances you find around are combinations of a very limited amount of building blocks, also called atoms.

It’s a minuscule sort of LEGO, if you will, with very few basic bricks. One can start with a yellow brick and a red one, representing two of the fundamental particles called quarks: yellow for the “up” quark and red for the “down” quark.

The LEGO bricks representing two of the  elementary particles called quarks.

The basic LEGO bricks that can be chosen to represent two of the fundamental particles called quarks (image credits: Queen Mary University of London, School of Physics and Astronomy, http://ph.qmul.ac.uk/engagement/physics-kits).

Quarks attract each other so strongly that, at the level of atomic nuclei, they tightly bound themselves in triplets, which are the more familiar protons and neutrons.

Protons and neutrons described by means of LEGO bricks

Protons and neutrons represented by means of three LEGO bricks, one for each constituent quark (image credits: Queen Mary University of London, School of Physics and Astronomy, http://ph.qmul.ac.uk/engagement/physics-kits).

Then you’re almost done: the recipe for an atom only needs you to add electrons, to neutralize the overall electric charge brought by protons, which are positive; neutrons, as their name says, do not have an electric charge. Representing electrons by means of unitary white bricks you can easily build your model for Hydrogen and Helium, the two least demanding chemical elements in terms of required building blocks.

Hydrogen and Helium, the two simplest atoms in terms of the required ingredients.

Hydrogen and Helium, the two simplest atoms in terms of the required assembling blocks (image credits: Queen Mary University of London, School of Physics and Astronomy, http://ph.qmul.ac.uk/engagement/physics-kits).

This description in terms of LEGO bricks is very useful to visualize something that can only be seen with detectors much more powerful than our eyes. To have a sense of the scale of an atom there is this descriptive video from TED, which also hints at the fact that electrons are not sitting on top of the atomic nucleus, as in the LEGO model. Moreover, to see how scientists progressively acquired this detailed description of atoms, there is another TED video you might want to look at:

What the LEGO model makes easy to understand is that more massive atoms require more building blocks for assembly: as much as a LEGO box provides you with a large but finite number of bricks of each type, so does Nature with the constituents of atoms. In the case of LEGO bricks it is a factory setting but what about Nature’s atomic factories?

Because protons are charged particles, in order to pack them together in the minuscule volume of a nucleus, you need to outdo their electric repulsion. To understand how this is done, think about taking a bus in peak hours, when you and your fellow commuters have barely enough space around to breath: when someone moves, everyone does. At every stop you hope passengers would get off but instead there are more people willing to board the car: unless someone pushes back, they squeeze in and carve some space for them. When this happens the temperature rises, in both figurative and physical sense. This should give you an image of the two forces that play a role in the assembly of atomic nuclei: the aforementioned electric repulsion (the traveling passengers repelling each other’s presence) and the strong version of the nuclear force (the commuters that make it in at a new stop). To reach and manage the high temperature needed to cook an atom Nature uses stars as blast furnaces.

It is not by chance that the process is called fusion: in the following picture you can see a sketch of how this goes for the case of Carbon, again using LEGO.

A model for how Nature forges massive atomic nuclei: Three Helium nuclei fuse together to give a Carbon nucleus.

A model for how Nature forges massive atomic nuclei in the hot cores of stars: after being stripped of electrons, three Helium nuclei fuse together to give a Carbon nucleus (image credits: Queen Mary University of London, School of Physics and Astronomy, http://ph.qmul.ac.uk/engagement/physics-kits).

Besides forming diamonds, Carbon is the basis for life, so we should thank stars for being around. In fact, even though the Universe was very hot and dense in its infancy, its expansion caused its cooling faster than it could form but a slew of atomic nuclei.

Together with Carbon stars gave us the Gold in our rings, the Calcium in our bones, the Iron and Oxygen in our blood and even the fluorine in our toothpaste. To cook Gold for example, you need 79 electrons and 79 protons (remember we said particles with opposite charges had to be present in the same amount for balance) and 118 neutrons. And that’s just insofar as ingredients are concerned. Then you’d have to bake them to obtain one atom of Gold and do so for at least a million billion billion of times (your ring contains a lot of atoms and there are many married couples around). This baking is done by stars through successive phases, which depend on the nuclear fuel and even include explosions! These bursts are responsible for disseminating heavy elements in the Universe, a sort of cosmic pollination that makes atoms such as Gold available to planets like Earth.

The relative abundance of chemical elements on Earth: Iron's symbol is

The relative abundance of chemical elements on Earth: Iron’s symbol is “Fe” in the center of the image, Gold is “Au” … can you find it?

Other than being used for wedding rings, Gold is very useful for tech devices such as our laptops and smartphones: it is a better conductor of electricity than Copper and lasts longer than Silver. This brings us back to the opening issue: should I change my grumpy iPhone? and what should I do to dispose of it properly, given its valuable content and its danger for the environment?

Until we figure a better way to recycle all the goods inside our precious tech appendices, a very compelling alternative is this one, of which I learned attending TEDxCERN last September: Basically you offer your old “useless” smartphone a second life as a tracking device against illegal logging. It really is a wake-up call about our perception of useless and waste: waste is only what we consider as such.

Another avenue I am considering is buying a fair phone, a smartphone that is conceived with an environmental consciousness from the mining of its components, to the social issues of its manufacturing, to the possibility of repairing it yourself and increase its life span, to its disposal.

Among the two, which one is your preferred option?

Chelsea the comet

I’m a comet hunter. I also hunt black holes, Higgs Bosons and the sounds of the cosmos, too. I’m a physicist and I’m so in love with the Universe and its phenomena that I decided to make it my work and life passion ever since I was a teenager.
I once caught a comet: her name’s Chelsea. I hadn’t quite chased her so much as bumped into her. You can catch her, too, actually: she’s not that far in the end, she’s on Earth, she lives in Maryland, USA. That’s where we met in 2012.

I was toward the end of my stay at the homonymous university, in the Physics Department, she had just begun her studies in the Dance Program of the Performing Arts Department, with a second major in Psychology. We didn’t meet for fun, we met for work. Truth be told, it was for the two at the same time, as we’ve both been given the gift of a profession, which gives us so much pleasure doing that it looks more like fun than job or study.
We were involved in the creation of “Gravity”, a dance show about black holes, dense stars and their rhythmic encounters in the cosmos. It was a blast for both: she took pleasure in the challenge of breathing her artistic spirit into those concepts, I was in awe in witnessing formulas coming alive before my very eyes in a wonderfully unusual way.

We took part afterwards but, little did I know, she would again visit my world of science lover every now and then. Just like Halleys Comet, which every 76 years returns to within Earth’s reach in its orbit around the Sun. This feat is part of an answer I gave Chelsea when she reached out to me after a Summer trip:

Hi Umberto! How are you doing?? A friend and I were recently sitting under a clear sky in Guatemala watching shooting stars and contemplating the Universe and we came up with some questions that I think you might be able to answer. Could you help us out? Here are some of our questions:
-Is a shooting star’s trail created by the Earth moving through the cloud of debris that we see?
-Can you tell me more about black holes? What do we know about them? If one person is on either side of a black hole (not inside), can they see through it to the other person?
-Is the brightness of a star that we see determined by the type of star or its distance from Earth, or both?
-Do you need to go somewhere to see a comet? What actually is a comet and how often are they visible?
-Auroras–are they always occurring but just only visible from up north?

Thanks for your time! -Chels

How many times are you invited to talk about what you love with someone who shares the same curiosity and amazement as yours? I could not be any happier! My answer included comments about the differences between shooting stars, comets asteroids and meteorites, details I did not fully know myself, and the role of comets as a source of life on Earth.

A snapshot of the differences among asteroids, comets, meteors and other rocky objets flying in space.

A snapshot of the differences among asteroids, comets, meteors and other rocky objets flying in space.

Strangely, I wasn’t very fast in answering Chelsea’s email: even though my heart had been really warmed by those interesting questions, and the fact that they had been addressed to me, I was carrying a heavy weight on my chest, that was choking my creativity. Since the time I was in the US I had felt very frustrated with not being able to find a job that would allow me to do exactly the things I had done together with Chelsea: talking about the wonders of physics to the public, with and without the use of a verbal language. I thought I had proven enough of my future potential and existing skills: beside the dance show with Chelsea, I had rhymed about the Higgs Boson and conceived a holistic plan for outreach at a research institution.

The status I found myself in resembles what Buddhists would call Hunger, the second of Ten Worlds in Nichiren Buddhism, characterized by unfulfilled desires and greed; one who is experiencing Hunger is never satisfied and unable to utilize desires creatively.
The reason why I brought Buddhism into the picture is again connected with Chelsea. Before writing to me asking about comets and black holes, my own comet had already payed me a visit. Chelsea had reached out to me the previous Summer to bounce ideas off each other about an exciting project of hers: “Unraveling: Discovering the Interconnection Between Science, Religion, and Art“, which explores the interconnection between Nichiren Buddhism and the fundamentals of String Theory through somatic experience in the form of modern dance.
WOW! Just wow! I loved everything about this project: not only science and art were to meet again in one of my favorite ways, dance, but the exploration would now englobe religion, which is often taken to be incompatible with science and wrongly so, in my opinion: see for example the program called “DoSER”, for “Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion”, put forth by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Nichiren Buddhism teaches that people have infinite potential and are capable of attaining enlightenment in their lifetime; its Ten Worlds resemble a spectrum of life states that one can experience in a lifetime: Hell, Hunger, Animality, Anger, Humanity, Heaven, Learning, Realization, Boddhisatvas, and Buddhahood. Each of these worlds has been paired by Chelsea with an aspect of String Theory, starting from the ten dimensions of space necessary to the mathematical consistency of the Theory.
To describe the concept of different spatial dimensions, Chelsea writes about me in her paper, I used the everyday event of transitioning from laying down, to walking, to dancing, as an example to demonstrate the increased planes of movement with each dimension. This theme can be seen in the dance by the increase in movement physicality as the piece progresses.
Concerning the interplay between the Ten Worlds and String Theory Chelsea made inspired choices such as the following.

The first of the four upper Worlds is Learning, which is comprised of awakening to the concept of impermanence and overcoming the tendency of unhealthy attachment. Because of this, the dancers are moving and exploring separately. The String Theory phenomenon demonstrates that at the smallest scale imaginable, that of a string, space-time loses any smoothness and becomes frothy, messy, disconnected, and sporadic. The imagery of this “quantum soup” idea is depicted through the dancers’ chaotic and energetic movements using their own strings.

The Ninth World is Bodhisattvas, which is characterized by exercising the belief that all people can attain Buddhahood, which is the Tenth World. The life state of Bodhisattvas relieves suffering in the self and others, which leads to happiness. I chose to pair this uplifting world with the idea that different particles are formed by different vibration frequencies, which result in colored strings. The vibrant-colored ribbons with which the dancers moved represent these bright, dancing, energetic strings.

Enough with words, here’s the video of the performance.

I hope you liked the dance show: I was very proud of Chelsea’s work when I first saw it soon after its release in 2013. I’ve been dreaming of writing about it ever since but only recently come out of my Hunger world to be able to do so. In fact, I’ve just found the dream job I was looking for! I’ll be working for a project titled “School to Mars”, where I will conceive teaching supports for middle-school students inspired by the Red Planet, in collaboration with their teachers at the International School of Geneva, the staff of the Swiss Space Center and the researchers of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne.

I’ve struggled a lot to find such a good professional fit to my skills, even at the level of personal growth. It might not be an accident then that, together with this important though external event in my life, I’ve recently found the “relief from suffering in the self and others, which leads to happiness” that characterizes the Ninth World of Nichiren Buddhism.

As of Chelsea, she’s doing great things at the University of Maryland, working on a fusion of both her curricular interests: art and psychology; she’s developing a program called “Dance/Movement Psychotherapy“, which is the psycho-therapeutic use of movement to further the emotional, cognitive, physical and social integration of the individual.
The program aims at “Facilitating Nonverbal Communication and Experiential Learning in Low Socioeconomic Status, Spanish-Speaking Students” and will take place at the Spanish Education Development Center, which is a bilingual school in Washington, DC for low income children who speak English as a second language. It aims to help students who struggle with aggression, interpersonal relations, and emotional intelligence to learn English and become both socially integrate and emotionally aware.
Chelsea will apply her research findings from this program to the arts school that she’s starting in rural Los Andes, Guatemala in 2015-2016: that’s where she goes when courses and exams are over, for so called “alternative breaks”.

With Summer coming she might be off to a new break of social engagement. Before leaving I hope she finds time to apply to an artistic residency program at CERN, in Geneva, where I happen to live: it could well be that my comet is due to pay me another visit soon and I’m so looking forward to that ;-)

Further References

In case you didn’t know, humanity has caught a space comet for real: the European Space Agency has recently landed on a comet, first time in history! Here is the sound of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (that’s its name): from another world … literarily! And here’s how it looks like

cometCG01_rosetta_2048

Last but not least, if you don’t believe black hole hunters exist, you can read about them here at New York Times.

Today we make history

Today the Large Hadron Collider at CERN restarts doing its business: colliding particles. How this works is best explained in this video from PhD Comics. As the video says, having energy is like having money: you can buy stuff. It’s like going to a restaurant and being able to buy dishes you never had the money for; the nice thing is that you do not know what those dishes are: it is as if the ingredients had not existed before you had enough money to order those dishes.

And that is also why today is so important. Until today we have never had so much energy to magnify the behavior of Nature at very small distance. Such a behavior has only been present once in the history of the Universe, some 14 billion years ago, when the cosmos was so young it only measured a teeny tiny speck, smaller than anything you have a feeling for.

So today CERN brings us back to those times, to see what was there before our atoms even existed. Today we go witness an untold chapter of the tale of our Universe. Today we travel back in time, today we make history!

LHC_and_Universe_1

L’énergie, en poésie

Et si je prenais le Français
Cette fois pour te parler
D’une chose que je tiens à cœur
Et qui se trouve dans un réacteur
Se trouve aussi dans l’eau
Dans les choses tombées en bas
Et celles qui partent du haut

Cela s’appelle l’énergie
Et je sais que t’as envie
De ses mystères connaître
Car tout le temps ça semble paraître
Dans les news et les discours
que les gens te font autourEnergy_Types_ImageÉlectrique, thermique, chimique,
Solaire, nucléaire, éolien,
C’est quoi tous ces machins?
Et ben c’est pas si lourd que ça
Une chose qui n’est pas là
Du coup elle y est bien
C’est pas qu’on l’ait crée
Elle a juste un peu changé
D’une forme à un autre type
et comme ça ainsi de suite

On dirait de la monnaie,
T’achètes ce que tu veux:
T’as envie de mouvement?
Maintiens fixe ton volant
Tu fonces à fond sur la pédale
Et ta vitesse n’est plus égale
Avec l’essence dans ton moteur
On fait un peu comme dans le réacteur
T’empruntes quelque chose, elle se transforme
T’obtiens une autre, ce qui est énorme
Le bilan est respecté
C’est pas que t’as triché
Tout en fait est conservé

En fin j’ai pris le Français
Encore une fois pour te parler
de la Nature et son charme infini
duquel nous aussi faisont partie
Cela devrait nous rappeler
Qu’est bien plus riche la réalité
Continuons ensemble à en parler
Toi et moi, tous les deux
Moi je veux bien et toi, tu veux?

Cutting funds to scientific research: whose problem is it?

European Commission reveals details of proposed cuts to science. This is not new, unfortunately. However, what is worse is that the answer to these cuts from the scientific community is the same as always: it’s an inevitable fatality of the crisis and the lack of understanding of our representatives in government.

In the article, dated January 15, we read:

Research advocacy organizations lobbied last month to protect Horizon 2020, but their response this week has been muted. “I’m surprised that there isn’t a louder outcry and no clearer opposition from the scientific community,” Hans-Olaf Henkel, a member of the European Parliament, told Science|Business. “What are these ministers for research, presidents of science organisations, and scientists themselves doing? Where is the outcry by all European Nobel laureates?”

It would seem a few scientific organizations have protested just recently: it’s been through a letter addressed to the European Commission, the same who have proposed the cuts, so I cannot help finding it funny. You wanna change the minds of political representatives? You gotta change the minds of their constituency! If the public is not onboard with science as a mission for society we will continue to witnees this sad game of letters exchanged by higher-ups, that delivers absolutely nothing.

I believe the problem is in thinking it is up to Nobel Laureates to efficiently lobby and save the day for science. Defunding research, at this point, is clearly not a matter of technical merit, it is rather due to how the public perceives the social utility of research. The scientific community should undertake a serious campaing for engaging the public, for example through the many activities I propose here: http://arxiv.org/abs/1210.0082. A trademark of my strategy is to adopt the audience’s language and appeal to its own interests. Just like what is done in marketing. Therefore it is not a heresy to mix scientific content with languages that are either non-scientific or even non-verbal, including theatre, dance, video-games, comics or rap music.

A key element is to look at communications as something that concerns a whole university instead of just a single scientific group or department. Notably by building collaborations among them, university departments will be able to take full advantage of the multi-disciplinary nature of an education institution. Numerous, ready-to-use examples are presented in my white paper, that do not necessarily cost more money than the existing budget available to departments. Initiatives range from a dance show about black holes to translating existing material and citizen science. In so doing a university turns the necessity of reaching out into an investment for itself: it could establish itself as unique in the education panorama, providing its students with a diverse portfolio of work experiences and educating them toward creativity. If, and only if, the Ivory Tower of knowledge opens its doors, it becomes a better known and more attractive place, whose usefulness and proximity to the public are shared concepts. Only at this point it will be possible to efficiently lobby for science at political assemblies because it will be the public to require it as a right to its wellbeing, in the present and the future.

 

Questa è la scienza, lor signori

Prendo la penna, la poggio sul foglio
penso un po’ e poi scrivo ciò che voglio
Anzi no, non è un’opinione:
È solo il frutto della ragione
Prende forma da un rivolo nero
Descrive una mela che cade, un buco nero
Succede lì, lo affermo qui,
Così vicino, così lontano
Eppure è vero, lo tocco con mano.

Affermare per poi verificare,
Indagare, sperimentare,
progredire, ricominciare:
Questa è la scienza, lor signori
E non c’è modo di farla fuori.
Il dato s’interpreta, non si cancella
E non perché lo dice Umberto Cannella.
È valido come un mantra
Ma la religione non ci entra.

L’Universo per lo più è ancora oscuro
E a volte si sbatte contro un muro:
Tutto questo è un po’ frustrante
Ma ancor di più è stimolante.
Nessuno riesce a prevedere
Fin dove la curiosità può far volare
Ma se ci si lascia trasportare
Si è sicuri di arrivare
Da qualche parte inaspettata
Nuova, reale e inesplorata

È da lì che poi ci si gira
E il cammino si rimira;
Si pensava di aver sognato
E invece tanto si è guadagnato:
Comprensione, cognizione,
Una nuova spiegazione
Che un fenomeno descrive
Ed è qualcosa che poi vive
Applicata a destra e a manca
Rende la vita meno stanca.


[ Questa è la mia terza poesia, le precedenti sono:
– “Che ce frega der bosone?
– “Ode to the Higgs
buona lettura! ]