Interview with Dr. Maria Brigida Brunetti on Science, and CERN & Fermilab
Dr. Maria Brigida Brunetti is the former person responsible for the youth section of UAAR (Italian Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics). Here we talk about science as a recent post-doc for Dr. Brunetti.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Maria, was a deep interest and fascination with science a part of family history?
Dr. Maria Brigida Brunetti: There has always been a fascination with it. I do remember summer stargazing sessions, wondering about the distance of stars and the limits of space, or speculation on other stimulating topics, despite none of my relatives holding a scientific degree. I think some influences may have come from literature and cinema, especially science-fiction.
Advanced physics has properly entered the conversation in my family only recently, with my main topics of interest providing occasions for discussion.
Telling the general public about the boundaries of our knowledge is challenging, as it forces you to take a step back from the specialized language of your field and the frame of thought it spans, as this is often hard to reconcile with everyday intuitive and sensorial experience.
To complicate things, particle physicists have their own practical but deceitful language; as an example, we speak of flavour and colour to indicate properties of particles, but those words of course don’t hold here their literal meaning.
The goal is to communicate the nature of reality itself, relating it as much as possible to our common human thought and experience — which is the way in which we started doing science in the first place!
Jacobsen: Following from the previous question, how was science a part of early life and education for you? When was physics discovered as a talent and an intrigue for you?
Brunetti: Science was not a main focus of my early education, but neither was it belittled, despite the fact that I attended a catholic primary school. I recall being taught there that faith and science answer different questions — the authority of science on evidence-based matters was not questioned. This argument didn’t suffice to sell religion to me, as I started to develop my skepticism in those years, but I still appreciated that boundary being drawn back then.
Until I was a young adult I used to prefer humanistic subjects, for example I was an avid reader and enjoyed creative writing, especially fiction. However, I was a curious and imaginative child, who enjoyed deep or unusual questions and the reflections they stimulated. I chose to attend a scientific high school in my home town, which provided me with solid grounds in maths, and helped me broaden my scientific interests.
The die was cast when I stumbled into astronomy, which seemed to mix well rigorous thinking and a yearning for exploration and discovery. It was reason wrapped up in an envelope of romanticism, two features I resonated well with.
I was hyped about it: I bought books, binoculars and telescopes, I used to attend the astronomical observatory in my city, joining the activities of astro-amateur groups, and went on international astronomy summer camps for young people — check out the IAYC if you’re into that sort of thing.
Once I had to pick a degree physics was the obvious choice, and I had in mind to focus on astrophysics — only later on, my preferences shifted from the very large to the very small.
Jacobsen: Gifted and talented students, often, benefit from enrichment, formally or informally, in education. Was this nurtured in any way for you?
Brunetti: Thank you for the esteem, but I never regarded myself as being gifted or talented, even though I am proud of where I am today!
Let me stress that scientific careers are not only for extremely brilliant individuals. Once upon a time, perhaps, science was a prerogative of a handful of Newtons and Maxwells, extremely brilliant minds capable of causing, alone, whole paradigm shifts in their fields.
Although we still need such minds, we now live in an era where advancements in our knowledge are only possible thanks to the joint efforts of extremely large, international communities — with experimental collaborations ranging anywhere in size from a few members to several thousands, as it is the case, for example, at the CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC).
The ability to contribute a tassel to the big puzzle has a lot to do with dedication, curiosity, rigour and perseverance. Being good team players is a bonus!
Now, to go back to your question — my education followed a pretty standard path. I was lucky enough to have some excellent teachers, but only a limited programme of enrichment was on offer throughout my studies. I think more could be done, especially in Italy, to stimulate receptive young minds and give them a glimpse of cutting edge research. However, I believe the most compelling question is how to make quality basic education accessible to everyone, before focusing on additional opportunities for the particularly curious.
Jacobsen: Why pursue particle physics, in particular, in graduate school?
Brunetti: Because that’s the field that studies the world at the most fundamental level. Particle physicists have been breaking matter for decades, trying to find the smallest pieces that everything is made of, and studying their behaviour. We keep on asking new questions about the foundations of reality and sometimes the answers are mind-blowing — nature can be quite strange!
Ultimately, we want to put together a theory that predicts all phenomena to high precision, a theory of everything.
This sounded to me like a very exciting endeavour, something worth the challenge, and something I could have lost my chance of exploring and being part of, had I not made this choice. The beauty of physics is that it ties in with all other technical fields: you can always move away from physics onto a different career, but the converse is not as easy.
Image Credit: Maria Brunetti.