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 Halley‘s 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.
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 ;-)
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.