Gravitational Waves Comic

I’m beyond happiness in sharing a project I had been dreaming of doing with Phdcomics for more than three years: now it has finally taken shape!
Many thanks to Daniel Whiteson, too: it was great exchanging about physics across our spacetime separation ūüėČ

I’m too excited now to say anything more than enjoy!

For those who want to pause on the very nice art that’s distinctive of Jorge Cham, you might want to head to his website where you can take a look at the comic version of the video.


After such a long wait I was already very satisfied with the animation coming to fruition. Three weeks after its public release the video has been watched 2 million times and the comic has been downloaded by more than a million people. These numbers keep surprising me as they grow and are beyond the wildest imagination I could possibly have when I partnered with Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson to realize the project.  

Beyond the digits what I am truly surprised of is its spread among different cultures and languages. The animation has been translated into many languages as either video or comic or both: Chinese, Hebrew, Hungarian, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and soon German, too. We’ve been asked for permission to share, repost or comment by tv, radio and journal outlets in Austria, China, Italy, Iran, Latvia and the US, beside those that happened without our direct involvement.

This is really an amazing example of science reaching across borders and I’m very happy to have contributed to such a wide dissemination of science among the public.


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 ‚Äúquantum soup‚ÄĚ idea is depicted through the dancers‚Äô 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 ūüėČ

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.

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

Per spiegare la maggior parte dei fenomeni intorno a noi non serve scomodare Einstein ma basta accontentarsi di Newton. Quando per√≤ usiamo un navigatore GPS andiamo a beneficiare di uno dei fenomeni per i quali Einstein serve eccome: si d√† il caso infatti che il tempo e lo spazio non siano cos√¨ ovvi come avremmo continuato a credere fidandoci di Newton, sono bens√¨ dinamici e interconnessi, costituendo un’unica entit√†: lo spaziotempo. Anche una massa come quella della Terra √® sufficiente a deformare questo tessuto spaziotemporale.
In maniera semplificata, la situazione √® analoga a ci√≤ che succede quando noi ci sediamo su di un divano: la piega del cuscino √® pi√Ļ evidente vicino al punto in cui sediamo e, se mettiamo un oggetto lungo il pendio da noi creato, questo scivola verso di noi, seguendo la curva che abbiamo creato. Questa caduta lungo il pendio del divano √® analoga alla caduta degli oggetti che, una volta scivolatici di mano, restano in balia dell’attrazione gravitazionale della Terra: la gravit√†, cap√¨ Einstein, non √® altro che il risultato della curvatura dello spazio creata dalla presenza di massa. Essendo spazio¬†e tempo un tessuto deformabile, lo spaziotempo, ne consegue che anche il tempo pu√≤ essere “deformato”, ovvero scorrere a un ritmo diverso a seconda di dove “sieda” l’osservatore: in particolare, il tempo scorre pi√Ļ lentamente via via che si avvicina ad una massa (non tenere conto di questa differenza renderebbe inutilizzabile il sistema di navigazione satellitare GPS).


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

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


Vere “√©toiles”: qui le ballerine compiono evoluzioni ispirate a quelle di stelle compatte e buchi neri, quando questi si incontrano nell’universo. (Copyright Stan Barouh

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

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

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

Ballerine alle prese con la rappresentazione artistica del tessuto spaziotemporale. (Copyright Stan Barouh

Ballerine alle prese con la rappresentazione artistica del tessuto spaziotemporale. (Copyright Stan Barouh

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

Gravity: the dance of space and time

At the end of 2012, before leaving the University of Maryland, I took part in an initiative that blended science with performing arts: that was “Gravity: the dance of space and time” and it was developed in collaboration with the School of Dance Instructor Adriane Fang and Astronomy Professor Cole Miller.
In this post I would like to present the performance in detail, by pointing at the background scientific concepts and how they got translated artistically into the show, which you can see in its final form here

Inspired by the “Dance your PhD” contest, Adriane was interested in bringing some science into dance and that’s where Cole and I came to the rescue: though we did not end up dancing in the show as it is required to the contest participants, we got actively involved in the rehearsals, not only building a conversation with the artists but also trying some moves out. I hope my following description will convey the feelings of emotion and satisfaction that I experienced during all the stages of the project.
Even though gravity might sound like something obvious and a completely figured out concept it is actually among the most intriguing domains of current investigations in both theoretical and experimental physics. Just think about the mysterious dark matter and dark energy and the fact that they account for as much as 96% of the total mass-energy density of the universe. In our everyday life we only have one chance to appreciate how gravity is far from evident, when we use the GPS antenna in our navigator or smartphone: if Einstein had not improved on Newton’s grasp of gravity the GPS could not exist or work. In Newton’s description gravity is a force that propagates instantaneously, for example from the Sun to the Earth: if one could make the Sun disappear we would immediately realize the absence of its gravitational pull on Earth (see for example a video from Brian Greene’s documentary “The Elegant Universe”- Episode 1, 9:30 into it). The set in which this happens is as static as a fixed stage, where every actor experiences things in the same way, most notably for what concerns time. Then came Einstein. In his picture gravity is still due to the presence of mass but there is something more profound to it: mass deforms space in a way similar to how a heavy ball acts on a trampoline or to when we sit on a couch pillow; objects put in the vicinity of the deformation fall towards the mass responsible for that, just as we see them falling toward the Earth when we release them to the pull of its gravity. What does this have to do with GPS? The answer lies in the fact that, with Einstein, space is no longer a static stage with one given universal time: there exists a single entity called spacetime, which is a dynamic stage that can do stuff and participates to the acting.
When our GPS antenna talks to the GPS satellite fleet to establish its position relative to the satellites’, an exchange of signals is involved in the process; the situation is reminiscent of clock synchronization among people: if everyone’s watch shows a different time there are very few chances to recombine all together on time. In the case of¬†GPS satellites communicating to our antenna, synchronization is not so easy: for starters time does not flow at the same pace for everyone! that’s what a dynamical spacetime stage entails. If mass can deform space, and space is a whole with time, mass affects time: the closer you are to the source of deformation, the slower time flows for your watch as compared to one which is at a larger distant from the mass. Finally, there’s one more source of difference between the pace of satellites’ time and the one of clocks on Earth’s surface, speed effects: the faster you move the slower time flows for your watch as compared to one which is at rest. It wouldn’t be worthy of Einstein if things were not so rich!

I find Salvador Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory” a powerful visual handle to grasp the concept of mutable time.

This was kind of a long introduction but it will allow you to better appreciate the dance show, especially its second part: in fact, while the first act represents the motion of astrophysical objects in spacetime, the second is devoted to spacetime itself. For this reason, I’m going to talk about the final half of the show first.
In collaboration with costume designer Kate Fulop, we chose black stretchy costumes to be used in the second act: they were meant to represent spacetime as an elastic deformable cosmic fabric. The moves the dancers perform are both artistically pleasant and scientifically suggestive: they alternate between slow and fast, just as we said time can flow in a specific region of space according to the proximity of this region to a heavy astrophysical mass.
Of course, we did not want the dance performance to be just descriptive: that’s what I meant earlier on when I said that the entire collaboration has been the result of a conversation around a scientific theme. Adriane proposed her graduate students to perform their moves according to an interesting interpretation of the scientific concepts: in pairs, the artists would stimulate their partner’s movement by transmitting them their own energy through a flow without contact; then the partners would react either by affinity or contrast, that is to say moving towards or against the source of energy, respectively. I personally took part in the rehearsals in which the dancers were exploring this part of their “phrase”, as it is called in their jargon: for me it was both new and challenging to try and bring formulae alive in this way. Another distinctive type of the grad students’ moves inspired by science¬†was the “stretch and squeeze”. In order to explain it let me go back to the trampoline analogy I used to depict how spacetime gets deformed in the presence of mass. Imagine moving the mass around on the surface of the trampoline: you can picture ripples forming on the elastic membrane, just like waves on the surface of a pond. This might make you think of yet another type of waves coming from a perturbed membrane: the ones coming from a drum hit by mallets, that is to say sound waves.¬†Like a buoy is carried up and down by the tide a device probing spacetime ripples would experience two peculiar effects: the aforementioned stretch and squeeze.

Dancers depicting the spacetime fabric. (Copyright Stan Barouh

Dancers depicting the spacetime fabric.
(Copyright Stan Barouh

The sound you hear at the end of the first act is the melody played by two huge cosmic mallets hitting on the spacetime drum, a couple of merging black holes. This is the result of a simulation where the astrophysical signal expected from the coalescence has been treated in such a way as to shift its frequency to the region audible to our ears: in fact, these gravitational waves do not bring any type of light by themselves, so we will not “see” them but rather “listen” to them with our instruments. Given the variety of astrophysical sources and configurations, scientists expect to listen to a sort of very peculiar concert of gravitational waves: in the next few years instruments will be upgraded to the necessary sensitivity and we could hear as many as a hundred of different “music pieces” per year.
On scene the sound simulation accompanies the evolutions of the last two dancers in the first act: they represent two black holes orbiting around each other in a¬†spiraling shrinking motion dictated by Einstein’s equations; the very last stage of the evolution, the merger of the two bodies, is described by the powerful moment of a hug between the two dancers. One of them is still carrying her veil. This element of the costumes is instrumental to the science too. When an astrophysical object passes by another its companion experiences a varying gravitational field, thus the companion deforms its shape. This is fancy talk to refer to Earth’s tides; due to the varying distance of the Moon our planet gets periodically deformed on two sides: the one closer to the Moon, which is feeling its gravitational pull more strongly, and the other farther from the Moon, which is feeling its gravitational pull less strongly. At a more quantitative level such tidal deformations, and their physical effects, are nicely represented by simulations such as this one from¬†Caltech.

Dancers playing star encounters in the universe. (Copyright Stan Barouh

Dancers playing star encounters in the universe.
(Copyright Stan Barouh

The first act of the performance is then a joyful succession of star and black hole encounters, something that cannot happen in our astronomical neighborhood because it is not very populated. While this is good for the survival of the human race on Earth it is kind of boring for the curious scientists. Soon they will be able to add yet more information to their comprehension of astronomy by opening a new observation window on the Universe: this is what scientists such as Cole and I call gravitational wave astronomy; together with Adriane, her amazing students and her friendly colleagues we happily participated in building a representation of the subject that could be attractive to non-scientists. We hope we succeeded. Now watch the video of the performance again and see if you think likewise.