Monday, April 1, 2013

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Gravity: the dance of space and time

At the end of last year, 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 developped 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
at this link.
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

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

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.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

No Latino left behind

The recent presidential elections testify the increasingly important role that so-called minorities have in directing the course of US 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 to have a policy by which “no kid will be left behind” but it might not be enough to guarantee a world leading position to the US. 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: music, theatre and dance, for example, or video-games or comics.

Few weeks 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.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Sequestration cuts in Europe?

Nobel Prize and awardees and Fields Medalists launch campaing against EU research austerity 

On October 23 a petition has been addressed by Nobel Prize awardees and Fields medalists to the representatives of European governments, the object: the rumors that research funds will be cut on occasion of the next meeting to discuss the European budget.
The sword of Damocles that is threatening the European funds for scientific research is, at a closer look, an extremely dangerous risk for the future of all European 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, now operating 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 European 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 video-games or comics ... 
This list could go on and would cite many efforts that either have been just proposed or are already being implemented. 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 2009 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.
Today's situation, worsened by the economic and financial crisis, represents both a test bench and a turning point: if the lack of awareness and the poor appreciation of science by the public are not confronted vigorously, no petition will ever suffice.

In conclusion, putting forth a petition is very welcome, in that it asks the public to express its support; however in order for the public to be appreciative of science it has to be aware first and this can only be achieved if the public is engaged in a two-way conversation.
My recipe for tackling this problem at its roots is in a paper I titled “Who cares about physics today? A marketing strategy for the survival of fundamental science and the benefit of society”: it is available at, I hope you will find it interesting.

Umberto Cannella

Si scrive “comunicazione scientifica”, si legge “solide basi per un futuro di prosperita’ economica, sociale e lavorativa”

La spada di Damocle che pende sui finanziamenti europei alla ricerca e’, a ben guardare, un rischio pericolosissimo per il futuro di tutti i cittadini europei, scienziati e non.
Il presente agio della maggior parte di noi occidentali poggia su dei pilastri ben identificabili: studi scientifici, dapprima astratti e poi applicati, che si sono tradotti in elettricita’ e computer, tanto per fare due esempi. Non ci sarebbe niente di tutto quello a cui siamo abituati se qualche nostro antenato non fosse stato cosi’ curioso da pensare al perche’ e per come di fenomeni naturali con nomi a volte strani come “teoria campistica dei quanti”. L’esempio che, in quanto fisico e in quanto Italiano, mi piace citare piu’ spesso e’ quello del CERN e dell’acceleratore LHC ora in funzione sottoterra dalle parti di Ginevra: l’acronimo di questo esperimento si traduce in Italiano con “Grande Collisore di Adroni”, ovvero una specie di pista per l’auto-scontro, dove le auto sono minuscole particelle subatomiche appartenenti alla categoria degli adroni … adroni come in “adro-terapia”, una tecnica della moderna medicina usata per curare i tumori profondi in maniera insostituibile. In quale altro modo avremmo potuto scoprire l’esistenza e il comportamento del mondo subatomico senza percorrere la strada che ha portato all’LHC per scoprire e studiare e il Bosone di Higgs?
Questo collegamento e’ solo un esempio di una connessione tra scienza e benessere che e’ oscura ai piu’. Si capisce allora come il problema di un accurato posizionamento della ricerca nelle politiche europee di finanziamento sia in realta’ ben piu’ ampio e richieda un’unita’ di intenti che va ben oltre gli ambiti accademici e i laboratori: riguarda tutti noi e i nostri figli. In un tale contesto la voce che dovrebbe giungere alle orecchie dei nostri rappresentanti politici dovrebbe essere unica e raccogliere molte piu’ persone che non i soli scienziati.
Agli scienziati sta, semmai, il ruolo di guida di questi sforzi unitari: per avere un peso sociale prima che politico bisogna fare fronte comune o, all’inglese, fare lobby. Questo obiettivo si puo’ raggiungere solo se si lavora insieme e se si dialoga con il grande pubblico. E come si conquista il grande pubblico? Parlando la sua lingua, studiando i suoi interessi, incontrandolo la’ dove si fa trovare, non aspettandolo alla porta d’ingresso della Torre d’Avorio. Occorre adottare una strategia di marketing, si’: marketing, come nelle pubblicita’. A cosa si deve infatti il successo di una campagna pubblicitaria se non alla sua capacita’ di simpatizzare col pubblico, di immedesimarsi con lui, di toccare le sue personali corde emotive, categoria per categoria?
Basta allora con i soli “dispacci di stampa”! La comunicazione ha i suoi strumenti di funzionamento, la scienza e’ il prodotto da reclamizzare, in maniera appropriata evidentemente. Ecco allora che non e’ un’eresia darsi la pena di miscelare il contenuto scientifico con linguaggi non-scientifici e addirittura neanche verbali: il teatro e la danza per esempio; oppure i videogiochi; o ancora i fumetti. La lista potrebbe continuare e citerebbe numerosi sforzi gia’ proposti o in fase di attuazione. Quello che ancora manca, e che secondo me potrebbe rappresentare il salto di qualita’, e’ l’unita’ d’intenti: l’unione fa la forza, verrebbe da dire.
C’e’ un illustre precedente che sostanzia questo mio punto di vista: la storia del telescopio Hubble. Nel 2009 era stato “condannato a morte” da Bush junior e l’allora presidente della NASA, tale O’Keefe: niente piu’ manutenzione, i soldi per la necessaria missione dello Shuttle dovevano andare ai piani per portare l’uomo su Marte. La comunita’ scientifica riusci’ a suscitare una tale emozione nella gente comune che porto’ entrambi a fare fronte comune (lobby) contro questa decisione, spingendo Bush e O’Keefe a tornare sui loro passi … incredibile! ma vero e ripetibile.
La situazione di oggi, aggravata dalla crisi economica e finanziaria, e’ un banco di prova e un punto di svolta: se non si affronta in maniera vigorosa il problema della scarsa consapevolezza e dell’inadeguato apprezzamento del grande pubblico nei confronti delle scienze non ci sara’ raccolta di firme che tenga.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Ode to the Higgs

The Higgs boson is my name
which to you might sound insane
I came to put order in some mess
as I give every particle its mass
I've been hidin' for billions of years
but now I am in every mouth and ears
My potential looks like a Mexican hat
and on it now you know where I'm at
They made me come out in a cave
and they're really kind of brave
LHC is the machine at CERN
which did so well since on was turned 

It does not end with me getting to fame
Coz we've only started playing the game
You won't wait long for some more fun
Coz in reality it's only just begun
It took 50 years for an idea to test
Now for sure we can't just rest
So much stuff we don't know yet
We could call Hawking and make a bet
Most of the Universe is still obscure
We need imagination of the most pure
Our ignorance amounts to a grand 96%
So we hope for some strange particle event
To shed some light on the dark sector
We rely on some smart physics doctor

If all this doesn't ring you any bell
There's one more thing I'd like to tell
A weird connection called spinoff
that we should really not break off
What we discover due to curiosity
Turns out to benefit all humanity
Get then ready for some insanity
There's something called hadron-therapy
That can cure people's cancers
With best precision and least dangers
This is just one meaningful example
Of a pattern that is quite more ample

We explore Nature to understand
What is the picture the most grand
In trying to know of every piece its place
we get something you can't quite replace
To discover a particle called Higgs Boson
We opened wide a brand new horizon
In conclusion that's the story
Of why I deserve so much glory
So the moral of the story is
Don't forget what my name is

[rhymes conceived by Umberto Cannella]

Monday, May 28, 2012

Why pondering about the invisible reality

My personal try at a three-minute video along the lines of FameLab ( FameLab is a sort of "American Idol" for scientists: it consists in a contest based on science communication where participants are young researchers, such as grad students and postdocs, and have three minutes to present an item of their research with nothing but props (no slides!). This video is an exercise in that direction.