Tuesday 28 June 2016

Be curious! Introducing Prof Catalina Curceanu our 2016 Women in Physics Lecture

We’re getting very excited about the arrival of Prof Catalina Curceanu to deliver the 2016 Women in Physics lectures.  She’ll be kicking off the tour of the 8th August in Tasmania and talking in each state and territory during her stay.  Check out when she is speaking in your state on the AIP events calendar.  

To get to know our 2016 lecturer a bit more, we’ve asked her a few questions about her life and work:

Q:What inspired you to become a physicist?

A: I was born in Transilvania (Romania), close to the Dracula’s castle. During holidays I visited my grandmother, who lived in the Medias town, in a house far from the city centre, rather isolated and without electricity. This was exciting for me as a child – we had light from gas-lamps, from the Moon and from… the stars! I was amazed by the stars and by the immensity of space since I was a little child and used to wonder how they work; why they are so bright? How far are they and “what’s life” over there? Physics is the perfect instrument to answers these questions and to discover the amazing Universe. This is what inspired me as a child and still does as a physicist. Of course, meanwhile I learned many things, I got fascinated also by other inspiring items, but the wonder of the night-sky is still genuine and the thrill the same as when I was 7!

Q: Who would you say your Physics hero is?

A: I do not have a hero, but I admire many physicists. Newton, Einstein and Feynman are on the top of the list, together with Nicola Cabibbo, Adam Riess and John Bell.

Heroes are those physicists who are facing extremely difficult conditions and even threats, in many countries, to do their work ad to contribute to the understanding of Nature, using science.

Q: What do you think has been the most exciting discovery of the last 10 years?

A: The detection of the gravitational waves emitted by collapsing black holes. This is the beginning of a new era: the gravitational waves astronomy and, since I was inspired by stars, I see it as a new opportunity to uncover the mysteries of the Universe. Why not, even to get an insight into the fascinating Black Holes. Moreover, the technology developed to measure these gravitational waves is amazing: LIGO measured stretches and squeezes of its arms by less than a thousandth the width of a proton! This is for me extremely exciting also because I am leading a team of scientists in the framework of the SIDDHARTA-2 collaboration aiming to study at the DAΦNE collider in Frascati processes involving the “strange” quark which might help understanding the inner structure (the heart) of neutron stars. Since binaries of neutron stars are emitting gravitational waves, it is expected they will be soon measured by gravitational antennae. So one can bridge the particle world with the gravity and learn more in both fields! The future will certainly be exciting.

Q: In your research you take on the 'big challenges' in physics - how do you approach such large and difficult questions?

A: Big challenges in physics should not scare us! I am working both in the field of particle and nuclear physics (see the question before and the research to understand the neutron stars) and in quantum mechanics – foundational issues, investigating fascinating physics items. In this last case I am leading a group of researchers crazy enough to try to discover “impossible atoms” (violating the Pauli Exclusion Principle) and modifications of the “standard quantum mechanics” (which has to do with the famous Schrodinger’s cat). In order to do this I proposed projects in various frameworks and won two important awards, one from the John Templeton Foundation and the other from the Foundational Question Institute, allowing to me and my team to pursue the research. Big challenges and questions are all around us – and even inside us, one only needs to carefully look and be curious. In the future I would love to be able to extend the items which I investigate to the “matter with life, matter with consciousness”.

Q: One question you ask in your lectures is 'Quo Vadis the Universe' - where do you think the Universe is going?

A: I do not know – that’s the reason for which I need the “The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy”. Fantastic book! Being serious, the Universe is expanding, with an accelerated expansion, the reason of which being assigned to the “dark energy”. We need to understand what dark sectors (matter and energy) in the Universe are made of to be able to dare answering the question. This might happen in the coming 10 years! But we also need to better understand the intimate structure of space and time, which has also to do with the quantum gravity (if any).

Q: Based on your experiences do you have any advice for aspiring young scientists?

A: Be curious! Explore the world and don’t be ashamed or shy to ask questions – there are no stupid questions (while stupid answers might sometimes happen). Be yourself and never give up. When failures happen (and they do happen), learn the lesson and go on. Follow your dreams, only they can bring you far. And, of course, study!

I would like to close with a poetry written by Feynman (The Value of Science, 1955) :
There are the rushing waves
 mountains of molecules
 each stupidly minding its own business
 trillions apart
 yet forming white surf in unison

Ages on ages
 before any eyes could see
 year after year
 thunderously pounding the shore as now.
 For whom, for what?
 On a dead planet
 with no life to entertain.

Never at rest
 tortured by energy
 wasted prodigiously by the Sun
 poured into space.
 A mite makes the sea roar.

Deep in the sea
 all molecules repeat
 the patterns of one another
 till complex new ones are formed.
 They make others like themselves
 and a new dance starts.
 Growing in size and complexity
 living things
 masses of atoms
 DNA, protein
 dancing a pattern ever more intricate.

Out of the cradle
 onto dry land
 here it is
 atoms with consciousness;
 matter with curiosity.

Stands at the sea,
 wonders at wondering: I
 a universe of atoms
 an atom in the Universe.

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