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.