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

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.

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!

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.

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 thought  the title of the previous version could be extended.

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.