Che ce frega der bosone?

Il Professor Higgs in posa davanti alla lavagna con la sua teoria

Il Professor Higgs in posa davanti alla lavagna con la sua teoria.

Che ce frega der bosone?
ci frega, ci frega eccome
non è cosa poi tanto lontana
se aiuta una persona a restar sana.
“Ma di cosa stai parlando?
io proprio non comprendo!”
Lascia allora che io ti dica
perché la fisica è tua amica.

Lo raccontavo anche a mia zia
di quella certa adro-terapia
“cos’è ‘sta roba? che se magna?”
guarda, c’è una scritta alla lavagna
col bosone e i suoi amici,
che so’ un po’ strani come dici,
ma per capire cosa fanno
c’è voluto tanto senno,
scienziati pazzi di curiosità
sempre in cerca di più verità;
fogli di calcoli a mani basse
per capir chi è che dà le masse
alle particelle elementari
che a lui si legan in modi vari.

È proprio lui, il gran bosone
col nome di un professorone,
per dar la caccia noi al quale
si è studiato anche un male:
un certo tipo di tumori
a cui si sparano da fuori
nuclei atomici pesanti
che non sapevamo esistenti:
sono questi detti adroni
che significa “omaccioni”,
gente forte come l’interazione
che governa la loro azione.

Ora basta coi dettagli
ché già ti vedo che sbadigli.
Ti basti solo ricordare
che proprio non ci si può stare
senza ricerca e senza scienza
sarebbe molta più la sofferenza:
del futuro non ha paura
chi conosce la Natura,
la rispetta e la comanda
perché ha risposto alla domanda:
“cosa c’è oltre il vedere?
ho bisogno di sapere!”

[Per saperne di più sulle applicazioni della fisica delle particelle alla medicina: Atomi che curano ]

An outreach Odyssey

I’m delighted to discover the translation into French of the book “A Zeptospace Odyssey“, written by eminent theoretical physicist Dr. Gian Giudice from CERN, about the LHC and the hunt for the Higgs. The translation is the result of work by students and staff of the Faculty of Translation of the University of Geneva, in Switzerland.
The reason why I’m very happy to see this translation is because it constitutes a practical and successful realization of one of the ideas for outreach I propose in my paper “Who cares about physics today? A marketing strategy for the survival of fundamental science and the benefit of society”. To efficiently satisfy the mandatory and diverse communications needs of scientists, in my proposal I specifically identify universities for the role they can play in outreach: being multi-disciplinary hubs by constitution, these institutions could improve use of their assets by having their many departments collaborate. This synergy is very beneficial for the students involved in the process: in fact they are provided with hands-on job experiences, which, being multi-disciplinary, are particularly professionalizing for a chameleonic job market.
The university itself benefits from this strategy in much the same way as from an investment: putting into contact its human resources, it can take fruits which are more numerous and rich than those available from summing the individual separated contributions; furthermore, it can shape its curriculum in a particularly distinctive and concrete way, thus securing students enrollments and investments from satisfied alumni.
I’ve recently presented this set of ideas at the University of Nottingham, which hosted the 2013 “Science in Public” conference and kindly granted me the opportunity of exposing in the parallel session titled “Public communication of science and technology by universities, research centres, scientists or researchers and society rights”. In this context I could stress once more what I think is a crucial attitude to be adopted for science outreach nowadays: to switch from the research mantra “publish or perish” to the communication one “be cool or perish”. In order to prosper, science has to show off its “sexy” side (read: usefulness and proximity to people): failure to do so will represent an Odyssey for both science and outreach.

Ideas are sexy too!

Ideas are sexy too!

Lascia che ti parli di Einstein … anzi, lascia che te lo balli ;-)

Per spiegare la maggior parte dei fenomeni intorno a noi non serve scomodare Einstein ma basta accontentarsi di Newton. Quando però usiamo un navigatore GPS andiamo a beneficiare di uno dei fenomeni per i quali Einstein serve eccome: si dà il caso infatti che il tempo e lo spazio non siano così ovvi come avremmo continuato a credere fidandoci di Newton, sono bensì dinamici e interconnessi. Anche una massa come quella della Terra è sufficiente a deformare questo tessuto spaziotemporale.
In maniera semplificata, la situazione è analoga a ciò che succede quando noi ci sediamo su di un divano: la piega del cuscino è più evidente vicino al punto in cui sediamo e, se mettiamo un oggetto lungo il pendio da noi creato, questo scivola verso di noi, seguendo la curva che abbiamo creato. Questa caduta lungo il pendio del divano è del tutto analoga alla caduta degli oggetti che, una volta scivolatici di mano, restano in balia dell’attrazione gravitazionale della Terra: la gravità non è altro che il risultato della curvatura dello spaziotempo. Ne consegue che il tempo può scorrere a un ritmo diverso a seconda di dove “sieda” l’osservatore: in particolare scorre più lentamente via via che si avvicina ad una massa (non tenere conto di questa differenza renderebbe inutilizzabile il sistema di navigazione satellitare GPS).

Un dettaglio de “La persistenza della memoria” di Salvador Dalì: trovo che questo dipinto sia particolarmente efficace per poter visualizzare il concetto che il tempo non è assoluto bensì mutevole.

Quando ero all’Università del Maryland per un periodo di ricerca ho sperimentato un modo nuovo di descrivere alcuni di questi effetti: l’arte, in particolare tramite uno spettacolo di ballo. I due atti della performance si basano rispettivamente su: incontri tra stelle e buchi neri, il primo, spazio, tempo e loro dinamicità, il secondo. Entrambe le situazioni non si verificano in maniera drammatica nel nostro cortile cosmico, il Sistema Solare: mentre da una parte questo è un bene per la tranquilla sopravvivenza dell’umanità, dall’altra fa sì che gli scienziati siano ancora in attesa di inaugurare l’astronomia gravitazionale, uno dei numerosi lasciti del genio di Einstein.

Il primo atto della performance è una gioiosa successione di incontri di diversi oggetti astrofisici, da cui la varietà dei colori dei costumi. Dal canto loro, i veli sono sia artistici che strumentali alla scienza che c’è dietro. Quando due oggetti celesti massicci si incontrano a distanza ravvicinata, producono l’uno sull’altro un effetto del tutto simile alle maree sulla Terra: il lato del nostro pianeta che è più vicino alla Luna si solleva perché è più attratto da quest’ultima, proprio in virtù della sua posizione di prossimità alla sorgente del campo gravitazionale; anche il lato della Terra più lontano dalla Luna si solleva, lui però perché meno attratto. I veli lasciano la libertà di accentuare queste deformazioni che, nel caso riguardino stelle poco compatte, possono deformare la stella fino a disgregarla, dando origine a delle scie di materiale stellare.

Vere “étoiles”: qui le ballerine compiono evoluzioni ispirate a quelle di stelle compatte e buchi neri, quando questi si incontrano nell’universo. (Copyright Stan Barouh http://stanbarouhphotography.smugmug.com/Theater/University-of-Maryland-School)

L’ultimo degli incontri stellari del primo atto avviene tra due ballerine, il cui moto a spirale è accompagnato da una colonna sonora abbastanza peculiare. Come accennavo poco fa, l’astronomia gravitazionale è un campo di investigazione ancora in fase di maturazione per mancanza di segnali rilevati: per essere sicuri di distinguere i segnali di interesse dal rumore cosmico e degli strumenti di misura, gli scienziati li simulano per sapere meglio cosa cercare. Quello che si sente mentre le due ballerine compiono evoluzioni, che le portano ad avvicinarsi sempre più, è proprio il segnale tipo dovuto all’avvicinamento e la fusione di due stelle compatte o due buchi neri.

Il secondo atto è del tutto diverso: qui le ballerine descrivono lo sfondo sul quale si verificano i cataclismi cosmici di cui sopra, lo spaziotempo. Si potrebbe dire che, mentre con Newton e la sua mela la scenografia è fissa e statica, con Einstein il palcoscenico partecipa alla narrazione cosmica al pari delle ballerine, pardon, degli astri. Gli effetti di questa nuova narrativa possono suonare folli, come il fatto descritto precedentemente, che il tempo può scorrere a un ritmo diverso a seconda di dove ci si trovi. Questo diverso ritmo del tempo è reso apparente dalla diversa velocità con la quale si muovono le ballerine nel secondo atto. Il tipo di evoluzioni che compiono invece simboleggia un altro ingrediente.

Lo spaziotempo è una membrana deformabile, come quella di un tamburo: alla fine del primo atto abbiamo sentito uno dei possibili suoni di questo particolare tamburo, nel secondo atto si descrive la membrana stessa. I costumi neri e stretch sono stati scelti proprio per rappresentare la neutralità della scenografia cosmica e la sua elasticità. Con questi costumi le ballerine possono enfatizzare allungamenti e torsioni: tali sarebbero gli effetti ai quali un astronauta sarebbe sottoposto se, galleggiando come una boa nello spaziotempo, si ritrovasse troppo vicino a un gorgo come quello di un buco nero.

Ballerine alle prese con la rappresentazione artistica del tessuto spaziotemporale. (Copyright Stan Barouh http://stanbarouhphotography.smugmug.com/Theater/University-of-Maryland-School)

Partecipare a questa esperienza è stato per me un regalo: ho potuto assistere da vicino a come il carattere estetico e la ricchezza espressiva tipiche delle arti possano dare una vitalità quasi tangibile a concetti e formule che, sebbene affascinanti per gli esperti del campo, sono spesso visti come aridi e inutili dai non-specialisti. Ritengo che il processo del quale ho fatto parte sia fondamentale per la diffusione della passione per le scienze, prima ancora che delle conoscenze a queste associate. Pertanto è con piacere e orgoglio che chiudo questo post linkando all’articolo della rivista IoDonna dove si fa riferimento a questo mio progetto di comunicazione scientifica.

Nobel petitions and sequestration cuts

On October 23, 2012 a petition was addressed by Nobel Prize awardees and Fields medalists to the representatives of European governments; the object: the rumors that research funds would be cut on occasion of the next meeting to discuss the European budget, at the end of November. A new petition has been written on April 10, 2013: this time around it’s the turn of US Nobel Laureates writing to Congress
.
The sword of Damocles that is threatening the future of scientific research is, at a closer look, an extremely dangerous risk for the future of all citizens, not only scientists. 
The current well-being of most of us Westerners is based on easily identifiable pillars: scientific studies, at first abstract and then applied, that brought us electricity and computers, just to quote a couple of examples. There would not be anything of all that we are used to if some ancestor of ours had not been so curious to think about the why and how of natural phenomena, which sometimes have weird names such as “quantum field theory”. 
The example that I personally like to quote most often, given that I am both an Italian and a physicist, is related to CERN and its accelerator LHC, located underground in the Geneva area. The acronym designating this experiment stands for Large Hadron Collider, which, in plain language, corresponds to a sort of dodgem whose cars are minuscule particles, which belong to the category of hadrons … hadrons as in “hadron-therapy”, a technique of modern medicine that is used to cure deep cancers in a unique way. How else could humanity have discovered the existence and behavior of the subatomic world other than walking down the path that has brought to build the LHC in order to discover and study the Higgs Boson?
 This link is just one example of a connection between fundamental science and well-being that is obscure to most people. It is then apparent how the issue of an accurate positioning of research in funding policies represents, in reality, a much wider problem, which requires a unity of intents that goes far beyond academia and laboratories: it concerns all of us together with our kids.
In such a context the voice that reaches the ears of our political representatives should be a single powerful one that collects many more people than just the scientists. The latter should lead these unitary efforts: in fact, in order to have a weight in society, before politics, lobbying is needed. 
This goal can only be achieved if the general public is involved in the process and engaged in a two-way conversation; how does one go about conquering support from the public? by speaking its own language, studying its interests, meeting it where it is to be found, which most certainly is not at the entry to the Ivory Tower. 
A marketing strategy is needed; that’s right: marketing, as in advertising campaigns; in fact, where else is the success of advertisement if not in its ability to sympathize with the public, to be in its shoes, to touch its emotional cords, one category at a time? 
The time is over, then, to simply rely on press releases in order to reach the public: communication has its own tools, science is the product to be advertised, in a proper way of course. In such a context it is not an heresy to bother mixing scientific content with languages that are either non-scientific or non-verbal even: theatre and dance, for example, or rap music or video-games or comics … 
This list could go on and would cite many efforts that have been proposed either very recenlty or little longer ago. What is still missing, which I personally believe would represent a qualitative leap, is the unity of intents: “united we stand, divided we fall”, as the saying goes. There is a notorious instance that exemplifies what I am advocating for here: the history of Hubble Space Telescope. In 2003 it had been declared doomed by US President George W. Bush and NASA President Sean O’Keefe, in charge at the time: no more maintenance for the telescope, the money that the necessary Shuttle mission would have cost had to be destined to bring astronauts on Mars. The scientific community succeeded in exciting such an emotion in common people that the two lobbied against the official decision, pushing Bush and O’Keefe to change their minds … incredible! But true and repeatable.

In conclusion, putting forth a petition signed by Nobel Prize awardees is very welcome; however, politicians represent interests, so it should be the public who turn to them with a petition and have them co-sign it. In order for the public to be appreciative of science it has to be aware first, which can only be achieved if laymen are engaged in a two-way conversation by scientists. If the lack of awareness and the poor appreciation of science by the public are not confronted vigorously, no petition will ever suffice.

Update
A first version of this post came out on October 24, 2012 at my former blog under the title “Sequetration cuts in Europe?”. Back then sequestration cuts in the US were just a threat, though a very serious one, that could still be avoided. As Europe was going to follow the route of cuts the parallel I drew in the title of the previous version was immediate.

A “Beppe Grillo” for the survival of fundamental research: scientists, don’t complain about sequestration cuts, you had been warned (*)

Sequestration cuts came into effect. Finally. It is with disbelief that I’ve read the news reporting the myopic decision. It is with surprise that I browsed through comments which resemble each other too much: they content themselves with just analyzing the figures and do not spend a single word about how this doomsday scenario could be fought now … and should have been fought earlier. “How?” you ask: well, for starters I’d have tried to make a lot of noise about it; better yet, when talking to the largest public possible, I’d have accompanied documenting the possible cuts by describing the vital role science and research have in our well-being. Examples of this role are numerous, so I will pick just a few from where you would expect them the least: theoretical physics. I’ve started writing this piece with a smartphone, one of those modern devices with which making a phone call is almost a commodity: typically, in fact, such a device sports a nice video camera, a large storage memory and a navigator. Although these parts all apply some physics my favorite one is definitely the latter: it is a gift from Einstein’s legacy, which supersedes Newton’s by taking into account that time is not absolute but rather dependent on one’s state of motion. This entails that at the height and speed of the Global Positioning System satellites time does not flow at the same rate as it does on the surface of the Earth. If this is not enough to blow your mind away, let me then add that the reason behind this quirkiness is that space and time form a single, dynamical entity, that is to say: spacetime can do stuff (see my past blog entry “Gravity: the dance of space and time”). Although Einstein did not set out explicitly to invent the GPS, we couldn’t have made without the theory of gravity he published 1915, almost a century ago! I think it’s very important to quote this date because it helps remember how indirect the path can be from inception to application when radical new ideas are involved. However long and tortuous the route is, a definite paradigm stands the test of time: there’s no progress without exploring new territories for the sake of knowing more.
In case you had not been impressed by the Einstein-GPS connection I have another one for you: the LHC-cancer one, with LHC being the Large Hadron Collider, the toy scientists have built to hunt out the God particle, a.k.a. the Higgs Boson. The particles that get smashed inside the humongous underground accelerator are called hadrons because they are sensitive to what is called the “strong force”, a fundamental interaction of Nature which just operates inside atomic nuclei. While studying what physical reality looks like at an ever deeper level scientists realized that hadrons could be used as projectiles to be shot at some tumors, especially the ones lying deep down into our bodies. How ’bout this as a connection between the knowledge conquered through pure research and common people’s needs?
Until recently I have been busy working to produce more of such knowledge, at some of the Ivory Towers scattered around the world. Along the way I could develop a sensitivity to the lack of awareness, and the consequent lack of appreciation, that people outside Ivory Towers have towards what happens inside them.
For this reason I have taken every opportunity to advocate in favor of science and research, notably during my two-year experience in the US. Despite the presence of many laudable efforts, their individual character and the absence of more prevent reaching a critical mass and a consequent large scale efficacy. Critical to that is, I believe, the necessity of having a strong unitary voice to be heard by the public: “united we stand, divided we fall”, as the saying goes.
I feel like I have tried to be for fundamental physics what Beppe Grillo has represented for Italy’s politics (*): if we unite our individual complaints about an unsatisfactory status quo we can change it. In science there is a notorious instance that exemplifies what I was advocating for and why: the history of the Hubble Space Telescope. In 2003 it had been declared doomed by US President George W. Bush and NASA President Sean O’Keefe, in charge at the time: no more maintenance for the telescope, the money that the necessary Shuttle mission would have cost had to be destined to bring astronauts on Mars. Excited by scientists working on the Hubble project, an unprecedented movement of popular opinion grew to such a large extent that the official decision had to be changed and money reallocated. My last year in the US, 2012, seemed like a good time to propose to the community of scientists to stand up and organize something similar, although quite belatedly because of sequestration cuts behind the corner.
My idea to tackle the problem of public awareness and appreciation of science was to adopt a marketing strategy in favor of research, especially for fundamental physics. What better opportunity than the discovery of a Higgs-like particle announced in July? In this context I proposed that a large University, better yet a national coalition such as the American Physical Society or the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, worked with public figures to host a panel discussion, which elucidates the ties of the discovery itself with respect to science, technology, society and politics. Besides scientists involved in the relative disciplines, I suggested, for example, that the panel was to be composed of a public figure to whom the young and laymen audience can relate. For the latter I couldn’t think of a more iconic candidate than Jim Parsons, the actor who plays the role of theoretical physicist Doctor Sheldon Cooper in the popular tv series “The Big Bang Theory”.
Though very concrete, and not challenged by any competing alternative, my proposal fell on deaf ears: now that entire research programs are going to be shut down, it looks a lot like a missed opportunity. Moreover last week we learned that NASA announced they would wipe out their future outreach efforts. I couldn’t disagree more: if you have been condemned to death, won’t you rather try everything to fight it instead of accepting to go through a slow torture? If you do science and you cannot communicate it, does your science really exist?
In my proposal I also suggested that a politician figured in the panel because of the huge social implications the cuts will produce: if that is not a matter during election time I don’t know what else can be! In fact US society is changing its ethnic composition: as the 2010 Census data indicate, in some twenty years from now US youth will be mainly composed by Hispanic population. Far from being a racial problem this change demands rethinking the education system and the job market. As a matter of fact about around 86% of Hispanic origin youth do not go to college: already today the US fall short of highly skilled workforce among their citizens, how drastically worse will the situation get in the next twenty years? Will it still be possible for the US to import scientists and engineers from Asia when their countries’ economies and universities perform better than the US? Won’t there be social tension when most US citizens cannot find a well-payed job or just any job?
To conclude, maybe my “outreach revolution” would’ve changed nothing in regard to the political myopia that brought to sequestration cuts but a skeptic “nothing will change” was exactly the sentiment accompanying the chances of success of Beppe Grillo in Italy’s elections (*).

[ (*) Disclaimer. I took Beppe Grillo just to represent a contrarian/naysayer figure: by referring to his name I do not mean to endorse any political view of his or his characteristic style of wording his ideas. ]

Who, what, why, when, where

Hi there!
I hope you have appreciated my posts so far, for example my Ode to the Higgs and “Gravity: the dance of space and time“; I’ll return to them in the future but now it is time for me to tell you something about me: Who am I? What brought me to start a blog? Why do I like being a blogger? When did I start doing what I do? Where have I made my experiences so far? Before you give up reading let me assure you: I’m not going to write a novel of my life but, as I feel some background is important, I’ll just sketch a few chapters of my biography anyway ;-)
Who. I like to define myself as a “sociable physicist”, that’s to say someone who is equally appreciative of the conquests of the human mind, as well as of them being shared with those who did not take part in the endeavor … other than paying for that through their taxes. And that is What brought me to this point of my life, where I’ve realized that my deepest passion for the physical sciences has to be expressed through what it is generally called “public outreach“. I’ve recently read a blog post debating about what meaning to assign to “public outreach”: is it something resembling preaching to the converted or does it really reach out to people who do not know why science concerns all of them? As much as I value initiatives falling in the first category, such as public lectures or popular science books, I believe they have to be accompanied by a larger set of efforts. This attitude is best defined, I think, as a marketing strategy for fundamental science, which is how I called it in a paper you can find at this address: http://arxiv.org/abs/1210.0082. There I explore why it is important that the scientific community reaches out to the largest public, through a variety of means and approaches that are tailored on the target audience. Another salient aspect of my proposal is its somewhat invasive character: you have to use your target audience’s interests in order to have it pay attention to a scientific content whatsoever. That’s where marketing kicks in. Of course among the means I propose to be more efficiently used and exploited by the scientific community are internet and the world of social media: you can’t hope to reach out to the public if you do not have a presence where the public is and spends time. Therefore I felt I had to start my own blog. Truth be told this is not my very first try: even before I opened an account on Blogger I started looking at a few other, such as those at Scientopia, where later on I have been offered a time slot as a guest blogger. Why: check.
When and Where. About a year ago I took the decision to put aside research and follow my real inclination and passion of popularizing science. I was starting my second year as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Maryland, just outside Washington DC, which I had joined after four years of doctoral training in theoretical physics at the University of Geneva, in Switzerland. All along those years I’ve promptly taken any occasion to share tales of my personal journey in the world of the physical sciences: be them related to the exploration of advanced concepts or concerning visiting scientific cathedrals, such as the Large Hadron Collider at CERN or the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. However most of the people with whom I could talk did not show the interest I was hoping for: in general they did not feel much drawn to the theoretical aspects, however fancy their names were, or proud citizens of a country that sponsors the pursuit of knowledge. They did not know that those cathedrals I revered so much serve two purposes: the first is the scientific goal they are after, the second is to empower mankind with new means for growth and prosperity. The most eloquent examples of how this is true are both related to CERN (I’m Italian and I’m proud of my country being among the pioneer countries which founded CERN just after World War 2). First, the Large Hadron Collider, the experiment that has discovered a new particle of Nature, be it the Higgs Boson or not, has the word “hadrons” in its name: this is a category of subatomic particles subject to the strong nuclear force; had scientists not been curious about what lies at ever more microscopic scales and how it behaves, we would have not known that hadrons exist and that they can be used as very precise projectiles to be shot at tumors lying deep down inside the human body. Second, the World Wide Web, the network we now massively use to communicate, work, exchange and look for info, travel, buy, etc: its inventor, Sir Timothy John Berners-Lee, used to work at CERN.
Both connections between fundamental physics and everyone’s life are so profound you’d wonder how we (read: our governments) do not try and find more ways to keep this healthy process alive. That is the mission I’ve chosen for myself: to make people aware, first, and appreciative, afterwards, of why science is both beautiful and useful. I’m confident this blogging experience will serve this purpose of mine, as well as teach me how to do it better along the way.

[ disclaimer: I have very slightly re-edited this post from a guest contribution I wrote for Scientopia ]

Ode to the Higgs

The following rhymes stem form my love for rap music and my passion for theoretical physics; they were born on the days following July 4, 2012, the day that will be remembered as the discovery of the Higgs Boson.  Enjoy!


The Higgs boson is my name

which to you might sound insane
I came to put order in some mess
as I give every particle its mass
I’ve been hidin’ for billions of years
but now I am in every mouth and ears
My potential looks like a Mexican hat
and on it now you know where I’m at
They made me come out in a cave
and they’re really kind of brave
LHC is the machine at CERN
which did so well since on was turned.

It does not end with me getting to fame
Coz we’ve only started playing the game
You won’t wait long for some more fun
Coz in reality it’s only just begun
It took 50 years for an idea to test
Now for sure we can’t just rest
So much stuff we don’t know yet
We could call Hawking and make a bet
Most of the Universe is still obscure
We need imagination of the most pure
Our ignorance amounts to a grand 96%
So we hope for some strange particle event
To shed some light on the dark sector
We rely on some smart physics doctor

If all this doesn’t ring you any bell
Then there’s one more thing I’d like to tell
A weird connection called spinoff
that we should really not break off
What we discover due to curiosity
Turns out to benefit all humanity
Get then ready for some insanity
There’s something called hadron-therapy
That can cure people’s cancers
With best precision and least dangers
This is just one meaningful example
Of a pattern that is quite more ample
We explore Nature to understand
What is the picture the most grand
In trying to know of every piece its place
we get something you can’t quite replace
To discover a particle called Higgs Boson
We opened wide a brand new horizon
In conclusion that’s the story
Of why I deserve so much glory
So the moral of the story is
Don’t forget what my name is