STAGES PER STUDENTI DI SCUOLA SECONDARIA
DI SECONDO GRADO
www.lnf.infn.it/edu/stagelnf/

STAGES INVERNALI 2009
2 febbraio - 20 maggio


 
FABIO BOSSI

Fabio Bossi is a researcher at the Frascati National Laboratories of the INFN, and is spokeperson for the KLOE experiment. In the past he has also worked at CERN on the ALEPH experiment.


The following live interview with Fabio Bossi took place in the KLOE control room.

I took my degree in Physics at the Rome University with a thesis on a High Energy experiment at CERN in Geneva which would start taking data soon. I rose through the ranks quite normally, first a scholarship at the INFN, and after that a fellowship at CERN. I went to live in Geneva for some years, which was a very interesting experience since CERN is the centre of the world as far as particle physics is concerned. There was a new accelerator with lots of new data to be analyzed. The contact with the best minds of physics was exciting. I came back to Frascati, for personal and professional reasons, when at Frascati the DAFNE and KLOE projects were started, where I worked on the calorimeter of KLOE. Then I passed on to the trigger, which is a crucial part of the experiment: this is an electronic device which helps to decide whether an event is interesting to us or not. When we started the run and data taking, I was appointed first Vice Technical Manager, and then Technical Manager, my task was to coordinate the efforts to make the device work properly. We are now entering a new season of data taking, and I have become the project spokesperson. This is my history. I have always been interested in accelerator physics, especially in electroweak physics.

Q: How and why did you decide to study physics and which is the best memory of your life as a student?

It was a multi-layer decision, at the time I went to the liceo classico, which is a secondary school type with the emphasis on humanities, so we did not do much physics, and generally the technical and scientific subjects were quite neglected. I also saw my studies in physics as a challenge to do something different from what I had been doing up till that moment. But above all there was a more philosophical reason: I learned at school that the most productive way of understanding the world around us is through a logical and scientific process, following the paradigm of “theory-experiment-theory”, which is the foundation of the Galilean science. And since I wanted to acquire knowledge, the choice of physics came natural.
The best memory of my time at university are the lectures in theoretical physics. At that time my interest in the subject had reached a low point, but those lectures were very exciting and they have restored my enthusiasm and stimulated my interest in the matter.

Q: Which difficulties did you have to face and what was the most exciting episode of your career?

I have had hard times, but they were not extremely hard. I think that my generation has been rather lucky compared with today’s. Of course you were expected to work hard at university, like anything else you do in life, but you got opportunities back for that. As I said, I got a scholarship here at LNF, and then a fellowship at CERN, and when I was thirty I got a permanent position at the LNF. So my scientific career has been quite smooth, without too much hassle. Nowadays you see people that are only a bit younger than me encountering enormous difficulties at the INFN, even if they are quite brilliant. But on the whole I cannot say that I have had any particular problems. Maybe I will get them in the future, but I do want to continue in this work achieving the same – or possibly better – results, and with the same enthusiasm and commitment. Of course this also depends on your surroundings: without the support of the Institute in terms of human and financial resources there is not much one can do. Actually, I am quite worried about how things are going at the moment, we may be facing a bleak future.
The most exciting episode of my career would have been if either ALEPH or KLOE, the two experiments in whose data taking I have been involved, had produced a revolutionary scientific discovery. This has not happened, but the moment the device was mounted onto the beam and we saw it starting to work was pretty exciting too. It was like seeing a child taking its first steps. It was beautiful because what you are doing at that moment is completely new, and you see the results of many years of work spent in designing and building coming to life. You get completely taken by it, you hardly sleep, day and night cease to exist and every single event you see on your screen seems the most beautiful thing in the world.

Q: What are you working at presently?

As I said, my job is to get the project back on the beam and to start up KLOE again. This is an organizational task that is taking most of my energy. When you get to be “less young”, science takes up less of you time, and you spend more time on science politics, organizational issues, financial support harvesting, meetings with committees that need to be convinced of the validity  of your proposals... I have decided to keep some spare time to study the field of the dark matter which is the field of physics I am most interested in.
The two pillars in my mind are on one hand the dark matter as main scientific problem of particle physics, and on the other hand my commitment to this laboratory and the KLOE experiment, which you might call a kind of Frascatian nationalism. Until some time ago these two things were not connected, but recently I read an article in which two theoretical physicists stated that there might be signs of a connection with the dark matter which might also be studied at the energy levels KLOE uses. I got really excited when I read about this, and now I am working on this specific problem, trying to formulate a proposal for a kind of measure with KLOE which could in some way give us some answers.

Q: Which do you believe will be the next discovery in physics?

Ideally some kind of result from Kloe, even though the probabilities are quite small. I think the main issue in physics at this moment is the dark matter. I don’t know if the next great discovery will be in this area, nobody knows. The nice thing about scientific research are the surprises, and the bigger the discovery the bigger the surprise. The evident macroscopic problem of physics is the fact that in the energetic balance of the universe, the matter that surrounds us, including all the excited forms of strange quarks, only account for 4% of the existing matter. There is another 25% which is dark matter, and the remaining 70% is dark energy. While dark energy is the area of astrophysicists, the concept of dark matter is the typical field for particle physicists. We have done a great effort over the past years by building the Standard Model of elementary particles with a quite solid and self consistent theoretical construction. But then come the astrophysicists, and they tell you that we are only talking about 4% and that we know nothing of the rest. That is a great theoretical and experimental challenge. Therefore I expect there is some great discovery coming up in this field.

Q: In your opinion, which is the best discovery ever and who is your favorite scientist?

There have been many great discoveries. Come to think about it, I would say that the greatest discovery was the understanding of the atom model through Rutherford’s experiment (the father of all particle physics experiments), when it was understood that the world at microscopic level is made of atoms. This established that the atom exists, and what it looks like, and this has given us a really innovative vision, and it has been the foundation of the physics of our century and of that of the past one.
My favorite scientist is probably Fermi. He was one of the very few physicists in the recent past who was a theoretical as well as an experimental physicist, and his great discoveries have earned him the Nobel Prize.

Q: How important is the collaboration in scientific research, especially among researchers from different countries?

Collaboration is absolutely fundamental. Science belongs to the world and not to some single nation. I suppose you have learned about certain would be philosophers, who describe science as a product of white males, and who attack scientific knowledge as a sociological product of a male dominated society, especially European and Western society. I completely disagree with this. There is evidence of brilliant women and of non European researchers. I believe that the understanding of the world from a scientific point of view is a heritage we all share, and that it should be pursued with every effort and in maximum transparency and debate. Moreover, any venture in high energy physics capable of reaching meaningful results for the progress of science is so demanding in terms of means and manpower that it is an illusion to think that a single nation could accomplish this. Collaboration is a necessity, apart from being ideologically important.

Q: How can a scientist be defined and how do talent, intuition and study influence his profession?

A scientist is someone who believes the world around him can be described with a Galilean kind of methodology, through questions and verifiable experiments. He is someone who asks questions, and through the verification method decides freely whether an hypothesis is right or wrong, and he is ready to accept that some of his hypotheses were wrong if proven so by the facts. His reasoning should not be influenced by ideological prejudices and axioms.
Unfortunately, for me personally study is the most important factor. Generally speaking I would say that talent is an influential factor, and intuition is a child of talent. If a young enthusiastic scientist-to-be would ask my advice, I would tell him to study as much as he can, to learn how to ask questions, to be ready to discuss and to understand fully.

Q: What are your hobbies and passions and what book would you suggest us to read?

I do not have any particular hobbies. I don’t do things in a systematic way. I do have several passions: literature, soccer, art exhibitions and travel.
It is difficult to suggest a book: we all have our own book. If you are now the way I was when I had your age, I would suggest “L’Aleph” by Jorge Luis Borges, a compilation of short fantasy stories written by an intelligent anti-scientific person with a philosophical approach.

Q: How do you see the future of research in this period of global economic crisis?

I think we are facing hard times in research: lots depends on politicians. The amount of money needed for research is not as enormous as it seems if compared to the money spent on less noble and much less important things. Money is fundamental, and in times of crisis this gets to be a problem. Governments should understand that progress in terms of well being, comprehension and democracy is difficult to attain without research. I think Obama has understood this, having appointed as minister of research an internationally famous scientist. In Europe we have Angela Merkel, who is a physicist, and this might help. In Italy we are less brilliant.

Q: Italy is going through a period of crisis and modern research constantly demands investments of public money. Do you think this is realistic, or should the money be spent elsewhere?

Public financing has some realistic advantage. Through research new abilities are developed, and new technologies are built. The only way to progress is through the interaction between research and enterprises, and between research and society. Science per definition cannot deliver certainties, since it searches for unknown things. Let’s take Michael Faraday, the physicist who developed the theory of electromagnetism which resulted in the construction of power plants. His research was to all intents and purposes useful, only at the time this was not yet clear. When a journalist asked him what use his discoveries were, he said: what good is a new born baby? Meaning: at this moment we do not know, but we’ll see.

Q: Have you ever had to study things for which you had to sacrifice your passions?

Of course, inevitably. This work asks a total commitment, thus taking away space for other things. Sometimes you have to choose between family, dear ones, having fun and your professional ambitions and study. The scientific line I have followed in my work life agrees with the Laboratories where I work, and it has all worked out reasonably well, my work has always been interesting. But my main interest remains dark matter.