1 febbraio - 19 maggio

Texas University of Dallas, USA


Q: Please send us a short presentation of you including, if possible, a picture.

Bob Hilborn is Head of the Science/Mathematics Education Department and Professor of Physics at the University of Texas at Dallas.  He did his undergraduate work at Lehigh University and his graduate work in physics at Harvard.  After a post-doctoral position at Stony Brook, he taught at Oberlin College before moving to Amherst College in 1986.  In 1996 he was President of the American Association of Physics Teachers.  At Amherst he served as Department Chair and Associate Dean of the Faculty.  In 2007 he served as Research Professor of Physics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and as Science Director of UNL’s Center for Science and Mathematics Education. He has served as Chair of the National Task Force on Undergraduate Physics and as a member of NSF’s Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate Advisory Committee.  A member of the Association of American Medical Colleges’ Committee on the Scientific Foundations of Future Physicians, he was recently named to the AAMC committee charged with reviewing and redesigning the MCAT exam.  His research interests focus on laser spectroscopic tests of fundamental physics principles and applications of nonlinear dynamics to biophysics.  His book, Chaos and Nonlinear Dynamics, is now in its second edition with Oxford University Press.  He was elected as a Fellow in the American Physical Society in 2003.

Q: What are you working at now and what are your ambitions or expectations?

I am currently working on several projects.  On the research side, I am using computer simulations to understand the dynamics of combinations of genes and proteins in cells.  My group is trying to understand how cells are able to maintain stable genetic clocks (systems of genes and proteins that oscillate, for example, on a twenty-four cycle) even the chemical fluctuations in the cell should be large since the numbers of genes and proteins is quite small.  Under those conditions, we expect statistical fluctuations in the numbers to be large.  It seems that nature has made use of some clever tricks from nonlinear dynamics to make oscillators that are stable under these “noisy” conditions.  I am also doing calculations related to some of the experiments that are looking behavior of fundamental particles that would violate the usual distinction between so-called fermions (whose behavior is described by the Pauli Exclusion Principle) and bosons.  Various theories have been proposed for these violations and I am seeing how several of the ongoing experiments are sensitive to the violations.

Q: How and for what reason was your interest for physics born? Which characters have influenced this choice? What is the most beautiful memory of your life as a student?

I first got interested in physics when I was in secondary school.  I was fortunate to attend a series of seminars for a select group of high school students given by W. F. G. Swann, an astrophysicist who had worked with Einstein.  The seminars were held at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.  Professor Swann talked to us about relativity and quantum physics, subjects not even mentioned in our high school physics textbook, and I was captivated by these strange and fascinating ideas.  But I did not know that you could have a career in physics, so I started college as an engineering student.  However, I quickly realized that the parts of engineering I liked the most were called physics; so, I switched my major subject to physics.

Q: Which difficulties did you have to deal with in your career? What has given you the strength to carry on? Which was the most significant event of  your career?

I was in college during the Vietnam War era when physics was viewed as helping just the military.  So many people were trying to discourage young people from having careers in physical science.  However, I saw how physics could benefit everyone through its contributions to technology and to bio-medical physics. 
The most significant event of my career was finding the right Ph.D. research advisor.  I was very fortunate to be able to work with Prof. Norman Ramsey at Harvard University.  Prof. Ramsey was later awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for his contributions to atomic and molecular science.  For me, Prof. Ramsey was a model of a scientist who had a wide range of interests in science and was also actively engaged in promoting science at both the national and international levels.  At the same time, he was deeply interested in the progress of all of his students and gave us lots of encouragement when things were not going well in the lab.

Q: Which do you believe will be the next discovery in physics, and how this might contribute in changing our lives?

This is a difficult question to answer because discoveries are discoveries just because we cannot anticipate them.  My guess is that there will soon be important discoveries in elementary particle physics that will allow us to understand elementary particles at a level deeper than the current “standard model.”  We might find evidence for string theory or something totally surprising may emerge.  I also think that we will see a series of discoveries in biophysics that show how applying the techniques of physics to living systems allow us to understand and manipulate living systems in ways we can’t yet imagine.  The discoveries in particle physics will probably not change the practical details of our lives but will give us a much deeper appreciation of the mysteries of the universe.  The discoveries in biophysics are likely to lead to important contributions in medicine and the treatment of disease.

Q: In your opinion, what has been the biggest discovery in physics and who has been your "reference-scientist"?

I do not believe in the idea of a “biggest discovery.”  Science develops with many contributions--some large, some small--from many people in many parts of the world.  Of course, sometimes these contributions lead to major changes in how we think about the world (for example, Newton’s work and that of Einstein) but many of the important discoveries in physics have been the cumulative work of hundreds of scientists working on problems over many years.

Q: What characterizes research workplace and how is scientific collaboration organized?

Science research takes place in many different forms.  Some scientists prefer to work almost alone or in small groups.  Others like the excitement of large group research at national laboratories and international accelerators, for example.  There is one common characteristic in all of theses situations:  the scientists are passionate about their work and they create an exciting intellectual environment in which to work.  There are of course frustrations in often not having enough money or time for research but these frustrations are compensated by the joy of working with collaborators, often from around the world.

Q: Considering the crisis of inscriptions in scientific faculties, which do you retain are the reasons of the gap between young people and scientific studies and what may the world of research do in order to change this trend?

I believe that young people need to know about the wide range of careers that are open to people who study science.  Some small fraction of people trained in science do basic research in university or national laboratories.  Most find exciting and rewarding jobs in business and industry or in teaching.  Others work on science policy issues for national or international organizations.  Others get jobs that are not strictly scientific but where they can use their technical knowledge and their scientific skills at problem solving in a variety of ways.

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

Scientists have a deep curiosity about the natural world around them and are ready to work for a long time to answer questions about the natural world.  They need to be willing to work hard (though that is equally true for lawyers, doctors and other professionals) and not give up when challenges arise.  They must like to learn new things and to continue to ask questions about how and why things work in nature.  Intuition about nature is something that is under continuous development for scientists as they do new calculations, carry out new experiments, and absorb new information uncovered by other scientists.

Q: How do you spend your free time?

I have several hobbies:  playing the saxophone, cooking, and hiking.  I also like to travel and to learn foreign languages (though often not well).

Q: In this period of economic crisis, how do you see the future of research and what do you think about the employment of nuclear energy for energetic aims?

I believe that the current economic crisis will ease in the next few years, but unfortunately we are unlikely to return to the rapid economic growth of the 1990s and early 2000s.  But the need for new science knowledge will continue to grow. The people of the world will need to make important decisions in the next decade about what sources of energy we use and how we use that energy.  Many of the decisions are political but many will depend on new scientific and technological innovations, for example, in developing safe and reliable nuclear power plants and creating ways to use sustainable energy sources.  Similarly the need for more research in the bio-medical field is obvious both to cure disease and to make health care more affordable.