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


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!


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 on fait 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: 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! ]

The Perils of NOT Romanticizing Physics

A couple of weeks ago the Wall Street Journal featured an article titled “The Perils of Romanticizing Physics“, from Dr Ira Rothstein, professor of theoretical physics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburg.

I had the pleasure to meet Ira in my past life as a researcher, when I was working toward my PhD at the University of Geneva, in Switzerland. He agreed to let me visit him in Pittsburg for a few weeks right before Christmas 2009, in order to interact about one of his many an expertise: effective field theory. This is a very powerful and elegant tool that helps physicists discern the intricacies of a problem and work them a set at a time. So far Ira has adopted this calculation technique with success in at least three fields: particle physics, black hole encounters and molecular interactions. I indulged in this technical bit of information in order to stress how much I revere Ira’s work: I think he’s a cool, smart scientist and I especially like the multi-disciplinary character of his research.

This said I’m afraid I cannot spend similarly appreciative words for his op-ed on the Wall Street Journal, which was inspired by the public success of the movies “Interstellar” and “The Theory of Everything”. The main point of his article is kind of spelt out in the title: if scientists concede that the object of their life’s work is mistreated by Hollywood, the future of science is bleak. Still according to Ira, it would seem that everything else than a seminar is misleading about science, thus undermining its value and reputation. I think Ira’s hidden conclusion is that there should not be any opening to the public about science that is not guaranteed to be a ceremony conducted by the proper priests, the researchers who worked on that topic, who would guide a few chosen disciples to knowledge.

Ira’s words are more nuanced than what I’ve just said but I do not think I twisted their meaning: I wanted to bring these words to their consequences because it is big time the scientific community say explicitly what they think about the problem of public awareness and appreciation of science and research. For the sake of having this conversation with all my former colleagues I chose to take Ira as a representative of the community and his words as voicing their attitude toward the problem.
As you’ll understand from reading on, my point is completely opposite to Ira’s: we do need to romanticize physics! Beside saying why I will also provide a possible solution; this feature is probably the greatest difference between me and many of my former colleagues: they seem to have a problem with research funds being cut but they do not take the time to say what they intend to do about it and how.

I haven’t yet been able to watch the movie “The Theory of Everything” but I could watch “Interstellar” and I loved it! I’ve compared notes about it with some friends and we often found ourselves on opposite sides. I have no problem with that: a movie is a work of art and as such you are entitled to appreciate it or not according to your personal taste. What I really can’t understand is why scientists have to evaluate the movie as if it were a seminar on the subjects of gravity and black holes: they rightly pretend scientific rigor but they do so in the most constraining way possible, demanding absolute completeness and adherence to dry facts. This attitude is made more explicit in other online posts than Ira’s, which I found completely missing the point of the movie.

A quote from the first teaser of the movie Interstellar : I like to look at it as if it were an international anthem for mankind. : I like to look at it as if it were an international anthem for mankind.

Interstellar is the brainchild of Dr Kip Thorne, Emeritus “Richard Feynman Professor” of Theoretical Physics at Caltech. He’s recently published a book about The Science of Interstellar, which I’ve just started reading. In the introduction of the book Professor Thorne lets us in on his motivations: I report them here for you to know what drives a scientist who’s able to make bets with Stephen Hawking and to win them.

<< As a child and later as a teenager, I was motivated to become a scientist by reading science fiction by Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and others, and popular science books by Asimov and the physicist George Gamow.

To them I owe so much. I’ve long wanted to repay that debt by passing their message on to the next generation; by enthusing youth and adults alike into the world of science, real science; by explaining to nonscientists how science works, and what great power it brings to us as individuals, to our civilization, and to the human race.

I hope that at least once you find yourself, in the dead of night, half asleep, puzzling over something I have written, as I puzzled at night over questions that Christopher Nolan asked me when he was perfecting his screenplay. And I especially hope that, at least once in the dead of night, as you puzzle, you experience a Eureka moment, as I often did with Nolan’s questions. >>

I believe this is the preferred way out of a bleak future where laymen cannot appreciate science because they simply ignore what it is and what its benefits are for us as a species.

Since I left research I’ve probably gone back to the pool of normal or simple people, so it won’t surprise my former colleagues to hear what I say next. Up until last Summer I vaguely knew what the Manhattan Project was about; then the tv series Manhattan was released and I fell in love with it. All of a sudden I found myself to want to know more about the whole Manhattan Project because I could see the human side of characters and their struggles. I am perfectly aware that most of them are fictitious but they are very relatable as humans and they tell a story I am eager to follow. This has only become possible for me after I’ve been able to interact with the Manhattan Project in a non-rigorous way. I don’t think my brain is peculiar from this point of view. Mankind’s brain is hard-wired like that. Ever since before we invented writing thousands of years ago, we’ve loved telling stories: they made part of our culture in the past and contributed to shape our present the way it is now.

Only by enthusing people, especially youth, by the means of a good story can we hope to have them feel the thirst for more good and sound science: the same thirst that keeps scientists like Ira up and running toward producing beautiful results.
It is not enough for scientists to preach to the converted. For this very reason I elaborated a holistic strategy to overcome the issue at stake. A trademark of my strategy is to look at science 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 rapping about science and scientific comics. In so doing a university turns the necessity of reaching out into an investment for itself: such a new paradigm could establish a university as unique in the education panorama, providing its students with a diverse portfolio of work experiences and educating them toward creativity.

Within this context and mindset finest scientists like Ira and science communicators like me will find themselves working together toward a common goal, the same goal professed by Kip Thorne: “how do I share my deepest love for science to everyone who’d listen”? coz that’s what you want to do when you’re in love: tell everyone. Just as a shy lover who’s lost for words turns to a poet to seduce his loved one, someone like Ira, whose work deserves to be properly supported and advertised, will benefit from interaction with a scientific poet such as myself.

I speak these words in the hope of having ever more scientists on board with the mission of engaging the masses and involving them in the process of creating well-being for society, first and foremost through science. In fact I can see quite a few job categories that can be uniquely impacted by science, such as:
– molecular gastronomy chefs and bartenders;
– programmers and tech entrepreneurs;
– radiography and oncology technicians;
– designers of special graphical effects for movies and video-games;
musicians, dancers, stylists and other artists working at the interface of their domain and science;
– last but not least, future science and math teachers.

You can't possibly have such a beautiful idea for a dress if you don't love science.

: you can’t possibly have such a beautiful idea for a dress if you don’t love science.

More than a single academic seminar, opening the scientific discourse to a Hollywood-type of conversation with the masses is poised to impact society. That’s why I say we do need to romanticize physics (as well as other sciences). I hope this discourse will move out misunderstandings about the aims of reaching out: physicists like Ira and science communicators such as myself have to get our hands dirty to change things for good and improve appreciation of science by society, one outreach event at a time.

Further reading

On the Science of Interstellar
– An infographic about the Science of Interstellar


As soon as I published this article I sent an email to Ira to inform him I felt like answering his op-ed and, because I referred to him in person, I wanted to make him aware. In the spirit of my post I was hoping for a reply by him and I haven’t been disappointed. Truth be told I am not surprised he has gotten back to me: Ira’s a cool person, as I said in the introduction. His answer is:

I understand your note, but I think you exaggerated my conclusions.
I emphasized the importance of communication several times in the article and I also (multiple times in the article) talk about how wonderful it is that the public is entranced by modern physics. My point was more that we should not take the metaphors too literally, which I’m sure you agree with.
I also don’t think Hollywood mistreats science, as I note how great a job Interstellar did with the physics (at least till the end).
Perhaps the article was not clear enough on this point, and I certainly don’t think that EVERYTHING beyond a seminar is misleading.

I am thankful to Ira for taking the time to acknowledge my very long post. His op-ed article was much more synthetic than mine, which is probably why I haven’t been able to completely discern his main and only point: “that we should not take the metaphors too literally”.
What set me off in the direction I took is two-fold. I had honestly thought that his point on the proper imagery to convey science was more fundamental like, as I say in my article, “no imagery at all, coz that’s where problems come”. On this basis I thought I had recognized the repeated denial I’ve heard time and again by many of my former colleagues: “there should not be any opening to the public about science that is not guaranteed to be a ceremony conducted by the proper priests, the researchers who worked on that topic, who would guide a few chosen disciples to knowledge.”
Though I have had this feedback more than once by my former colleagues I cannot say I have had it from Ira, too. Being aware of this possibly risky generalization, in my article above I specified that “For the sake of having this conversation with all my former colleagues I chose to take Ira as a representative of the community and his words as voicing their attitude toward the problem.” Let me stress once again that the negative feedback I got in the past from my former colleagues is real and, because it had not ever been explicitly justified, I felt an op-ed such as the one I thought Ira had written represented a timely occasion to have a deeper and more productive exchange of ideas.

Now that we’ve moved out misunderstandings about respective motivations we can deepen the conversation toward the solution of the problem I care the most: what shall the scientific community do about the lack of appreciation by the general public toward science in general and physics in particular? shall they adopt CERN’s strategy with Angels and Demons and take advantage of waves of public notoriety of physical concepts/figures to establish a dialogue with laymen? if not, what else and how/why?


These last 24 hours or so I’ve received interesting feedback about my article: some comments were against my interpretation of Ira’s op-ed on the Wall Street Journal, others in support. I have to conclude that it was indeed possible to read between the lines of Ira’s article and interpret them as farther reaching than what their author later told me (see Update 1 above).
As I said in the previous update, the hidden message I saw in the op-ed on the Wall Street Journal resonated with many previous instances of negative feedback against romanticizing physics that I had got in the past. It would seem I’m not the only one who’s had to listen to dry no’s in the face of viable and concrete avenues to be taken toward actually doing something about the lack of public appreciation of science, instead of just complaining. These avenues share something with movies of the like of Interstellar: they are light ways of enticing people toward wanting to get quantitative and deep about the physical sciences. Light avenues, not false ones. Such a delicate courting is unique in seducing toward science the “unchosen ones”, those who will not get to it no matter what, because they haven’t always had the penchant for math and physics. These are what I call the masses. These are the unconverted that scientists should preach to. Why? Because these are tax-payers, voters, parents or youth. These people might never fall in love with science unless we go look for them, instead of waiting for them to show up at the door of the Ivory Tower. In the case of youth this need is especially urgent: they might need science as a decisive turn in their lives, either to find a job or to fall in love with something and thus give meaning to their whole existence. This is why I care so much about having an honest and quantitative conversation about outreach with practicing scientists and people working in formal education: it is a matter for the future of a country, what’s more urgent than that?