Who you gonna call? Researchers!

When a new virus appears … Who you gonna call? Researchers!

When Einstein wants to be vindicated … Who you gonna call? Researchers!

When climate seems to go crazy … Who you gonna call? Researchers!

When a new planet seems to be lurking in the Solar System … Who you gonna call? Researchers!

When you need robots to enter nuclear plants … Who you gonna call? Researchers!

When antibiotics are not effective anymore … Who you gonna call? Researchers!

When you want to know how red the Red Planet is … Who you gonna call? Researchers!

When you need a machine that cracks numbers quicker than you can … Who you gonna call? Researchers!

When you want to optimize traffic … Who you gonna call? Researchers!

When you need safer cars … Who you gonna call? Researchers!

When you want energy for the future … Who you gonna call? Researchers!

When you need clean water for the poor … Who you gonna call? Researchers!

When you want to reinforce the bones of the elderly … Who you gonna call? Researchers!

When you need to communicate faster … Who you gonna call? Researchers!

When you want light rays to scan your body … Who you gonna call? Researchers!

When you need particle beams to cure your tumors … Who you gonna call? Researchers!



Review paper on the physics of proton therapy: http://t.co/K70SdQEIg6

The Atlantic highlights some cool health-based spinoffs: http://t.co/UDYUSj3byI

High Speed Camera Used In Space Adapted To Scan Skin Cells http://t.co/W7Ealz5vh8

wi-fi and astronomy:

Eye-tracking technology developed for ISS research now being used in laser eye surgery http://t.co/w5fG9Y0Sd8 http://t.co/z6GoSBt72z

This is how the camera in your phone came to be.  The invention and early history of the CCD http://t.co/JBpD4388bg

Outrageous Outreach

You might have noticed that I’m still very excited about the discovery of gravitational waves … judging from the media I’m not the only one. This week gravitational waves hit the Late Show with Stephen Colbert 

This was not the first time science made it to tv shows: the Hubble Space Telescope was featured on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon: and not just once but twice!

Astronomy is so cool that it can be featured on the covers of music albums, such as Joy Divison’s or Megadeth’s:

Megadeth “Super Collider” album cover

Other than in music, science can end up in poems: you can find examples here on my blog or on Sam Illingworth’s
A master of outrageous outreach is certainly Stephen Hawking: he’s a regular at the Big Bang Theory tv show, has played quantum chess with actor Paul Rudd and, last but not least, appeared in holographic form to console a teenager saddened by One Direction’s split.


In another post I told you about CERN being featured at Rio Carnival but science looks good on dresses, too.
Make sure you check all of Shenova’s work as well as Startorialist‘s.
A welcome incursion in people’s everyday life is the installation of cosmic rays detector in one of Naples metro stations by the Italian Narional Institute for Nuclear Physics. 
The term Outrageous Outreach was coined in this paper about unconventional ways of bringing science to the wide public by meeting people where they are on the basis of their interests; a similar approach is the one I dubbed “Marketing Strategy” in my white paper about how to popularize science today

CERN at Rio’s Carnival

Hello everyone,
it’s been a while and I wanted to break my silence with a short post. I would like to share with you a curious video that a friend of mine just sent me: it is nothing less than CERN physics showcased at Rio’s Carnival! Go to 27′ and 40” and see for yourself; of course you can also watch the video in its entirety.

As we can read from the Facebook post that CERN dedicated to the occasion:

“Last year’s winning samba school, Unidos da Tijuca, presented a Swiss-themed procession at Rio de Janiero’s Sambadrome, including 200 people with costumes representing CERN’s “Acelerador de Partícula”. 

The school’s parade, in collaboration with swissnex Brazil and Swissando, featured everything from William Tell to Swiss chocolate to Einstein and included CERN’s flagship particle accelerator, which crosses the border between France and Switzerland.”

For more geeky moments at Rio’s carnival you can take a look here.
I hope this will keep you cheerful until my next post: I have a couple of drafts that have been lingering for a while now and I wish I had already shared them with you.

Talk to you soon!

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 a rare beacon 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.

How drawing a penguin can help cure cancer: physics diagrams as modern hieroglyphs and their applications

If you are a fan of The Big Bang Theory tv series you are used to laugh at Penny and Sheldon’s interactions, especially those when Doctor Cooper tries to explain physics to his blond friend.

 Sheldon and Penny during a discussion about particle physics; drawn on the blackboard, besides formulae, are pictograms known as Feynman diagrams, after their inventor Richard Feynman, physicist and Nobel Prize winner in 1965.

Sheldon and Penny during a discussion about particle physics; drawn on the blackboard, besides formulae, are pictograms known as Feynman diagrams, after their inventor Richard Feynman, physicist and Nobel Prize winner in 1965.

One such instance is captured in the picture above. If you look at it you can easily figure Sheldon say something like: “see, Penny: this equation accounts for the branching ratio of a top quark decaying into a W boson and a bottom quark, as depicted by the upper-left diagram”. Do you think Sheldon got into drawing to put himself in Penny’s shoes? Not at all: the pictograms on the blackboard are some serious piece of physics! They are known under the name of Feynman diagrams, after their inventor Richard Feynman, who first proposed their adoption in 1948 and later won the Nobel Prize thanks to, among other things, this visual handle on particle physics.

You don't get a postal stamp after you unless you've done something notable.

You don’t get a postal stamp after you unless you’ve done something notable.

Feynman was as much of an eccentric as his fictional colleague of The Big Bang Theory tv series: do you remember the episode “The Werewolf Transformation”, when Sheldon goes nuts and wakes up Leonard by playing bongos in the middle of the night? Well, Feynman used to play bongos, too (in fact, that’s probably where the authors of the series have taken inspiration from). However, quite differently from Doctor Cooper, Professor Feynman could drive a vehicle: this allowed him to have his van decorated with his own diagrams … how bloody cool!

Professor Feynman poses with his family in front of his van, which he decorated with instances of his very own visual handle on particle physics.

Professor Feynman poses with his family in front of his van, which he decorated with instances of his very own visual handle on particle physics.

But why would a scientist propose drawings to his colleagues? did they all get bored with their minds wandering? On the contrary: in the late 1940’s physicists were kind of stuck in their path to gain a better understanding of how the natural world works at an ever deeper level. Roughly speaking, they needed to know where to go next and how to reach their destination. That’s where the novelty of Feynman’s genius proved to be crucial: his diagrams provided the tools of a new language to formulate a new discourse.

Owing to their graphical character, Feynman diagrams bear resemblance to Egyptian hieroglyphs: just like that ancient pictogram system encoded a wealth of information in a single sign, a Feynman diagram encapsulates the description of an interaction among particles in a very clear and economic fashion; by means of this virtue, it is possible to streamline the computation of the measurable effect that a certain physical process has. Knowing what to compute and how were very much needed features at the time Feynman introduced his idea: the non-trivial advantage of adopting a common vocabulary lies in the univocal and universal standard of the naming this vocabulary provides; those who speak the same language are able to understand each other and, then, to communicate among themselves, sharing meaningful information.

Egypt Hieroglyphe4.jpg
Example of an Egyptian Hieroglyphe ” (licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons).

As time passed, something very down-to-earth happened with Feynman diagrams and their adopters: when pondering about physical interactions, physicists began dubbing the configurations that particles assumed once arranged in a diagram, just like what we all do when we search for images of animals in the clouds. There are indeed particle interaction processes whose Feynman diagram resembles a bell, a sunrise, a tadpole, a seagull or even a penguin!

The Feynman diagram resembling a penguin.

The Feynman diagram resembling a penguin.

All this theoretical fun has brought physicists down the path recently crowned by the discovery of the Higgs boson, a.k.a. the God particle. Besides invaluable ideas, this endeavor was also made possible by the Large Hadron Collider, a machine whose name is inextricably linked to hadron-therapy, a branch of medicine that can accurately cure tumors lying deep in the human body.

A picture worth a thousand words. Radio-therapy employs X-ray photons, that is to say the same particles that make up visible light but with endowed higher energy. In their path to the tumor, X-rays deposit a non-negligible fraction of their radiation dose to healthy tissues. On the contrary, we can see from the picture that protons, the positively-charged constituents of atomic nuclei, are much more effective in reaching the deep-lying tumor, without damaging other body parts.

A picture worth a thousand words. Radio-therapy employs X-ray photons, that is to say the same particles that make up visible light but with endowed higher energy. In their path to the tumor, X-rays deposit a non-negligible fraction of their radiation dose to healthy tissues. On the contrary, we can see from the picture that protons, the positively-charged constituents of atomic nuclei, are much more effective in reaching the deep-lying tumor, without damaging other body parts.

More than sixty years after their proposal, Feynman diagrams are still largely employed in particle physics but not only: for example they are allowing new insight and better precision in calculating both the astrophysical signal to be expected when black holes collide and the modeling of molecular dynamics. Next time you see Penny trying to interpret some murky hieroglyph on Sheldon’s blackboard, think about these deep connections … after you have laughed, of course.


If you would like to know more about how the machinery of Feynman diagrams works you can take a look at the following references:
let’s draw Feynman diagams;
Physics and Feynman Diagrams.

For more fun, less mainstream uses of Feynman diagrams see:
– the ParticleZoo Feynman Diagram magnet set;
– the PhDComics’ Feynman Diagrams on Academic Interactions;
– the result of a Google search
art inspired by Feynman diagrams;
and much more …

A very passionate follower of Feynman diagrams chose to have one tattoed on his arm.

A very passionate follower of Feynman diagrams chose to have one tattoed on his arm.

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!

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.

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. As a matter of fact 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 one? 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 very little 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. As a disclaimer I should conclude to mention that 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.

No Latino left behind

Last presidential elections in the US testify the increasingly important role that so-called minorities have in directing the course of the country’s future. A couple of years ago the US Census data about newborns anticipated that US society would change its composition by the next twenty years: it will truly become a melting pot, this time with Caucasian Whites in the role of minority. A similar transformation is likely to invest the rest of the Western world, including Italy where I am from.

This shift in the social paradigm should not scare in itself but certainly represents a challenge for a future of genuine social integration and economic prosperity of the countries involved. A key role in economic prosperity can certainly be ascribed to science and technology: because today’s minorities will be the majority tomorrow their absence from an active engagement in science and technology compromises the competitiveness of the entire host country too.

In this context education has a crucial role. It is certainly laudable that US have an education policy by which “no kid will be left behind” but it might not be enough to guarantee a world leading position to them. What I am advocating for here is a type of informal education that I like to call “a marketing strategy for science”, which is characterized by talking the language people use, considering what interests them, going where they are, rather than waiting for them to knock at the door of some Ivory Tower they might not even know it exists.

I had the chance to visit a few such Ivory Towers, whose name is a kind of a brand in the world of science: NASA and CERN (the European Center for Nuclear Research), where the famous particle accelerator LHC is operating. In particular CERN was founded by a small group of pioneering countries just after World War II, a group that comprised Italy. Unfortunately the sense of pride that I have for this effort of my home country is not shared by too many people, be them fellow nationals of mine or not: the typical street person argues that the money spent at CERN to search for the God particle, a.k.a. the Higgs Boson, should rather be invested in curing tumors. When I have the chance to talk to one such person I like to mention a one-line selling point for the entire particle physics endeavor. The LHC acronym stands for Large Hadron Collider, that in plain language means a humongous dodgem, where crashing cars are subatomic particles of a category dubbed “hadrons”; the same guys are at play in “hadron-therapy”, a technique of modern medicine that allows to treat deep cancers with the highest precision and least damage to healthy tissues. This happens because, driven by curiosity, mankind was able to uncover the existence and behavior of the subatomic world, thus finding that some nuclei can be better projectiles to be shot at tumors than photons, the particles that make up light, which are used in another curing technique called “radio-therapy”.

To invest in their future US need to specifically attract minorities, among all laymen, to become part of the scientific adventure and to feel its emotions. In such a context it is not a heresy to think of conveying scientific content by mixing it with languages that are either non-scientific or even non-verbal: rap music, theatre and dance, for example, or video-games or comics.

Few months after the elections many a challenge lies in front of President Obama: one of those is making sure that minorities are exposed to the fascination and excitement behind science and research so that they can take an active role in them; failure to do so means mortgaging the nation’s future by wasting its major human potential. It is not just the minorities’ future but also everyone else’s in the US that will not have applications of ideas that did not get the chance to be explored, will not have the jobs derived from these applications, will not have well-being opportunities that go hand-in-hand with applications and, last but not least, will not have them, the majority, study disciplines that, by then, might look as appealing as an ancient dead language.

In conclusion what I called “a marketing strategy for science” could have as well been written as “building the future of US society, economy, and job market”; this is, I believe, the only way by which no Latino will be left behind.

Update no. 1
This post first came out on my former blog soon after November 4, 2012 when Obama was re-elected with the fundamental contribution of Hispanic voters. In the meantime funding for scientific research and education has been hit hard by the sequestration cuts. How this is linked with Latinos is in an article that Wall Street Journal was reporting yesterday, April 9, 2013: “Students from China may be rethinking the value of a U.S. graduate degree“, which ends with the words: <<… “to protect themselves [US] schools must recommit to attracting underrepresented groups, including women and racial minorities. This should be a wake-up call.”>>.

Update no. 2
You can call me Cassandra now:
California no longer has a White majority.