(UCR/Thomas Wasper)

Office Hours

Flip Tanedo

This dark matter expert keeps his office vibe lighthearted.

By Omar Shamout

Standing in Assistant Professor Flip Tanedo’s office on the third floor of the Physics building, it’s easy to imagine you’re on the deck of the USS Enterprise from “Star Trek,” soaring above the UCR campus’ gorgeous green landscape.

The building, which opened in 1965, exudes a retro sci-fi charm befitting Tanedo’s interests. A self-professed “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” nerd — the latter series debuted on NBC only a year after the building’s unveiling — it was these shows that sparked Tanedo’s passion for science.

“There is a book called ‘The Physics of Star Trek,’” Tanedo said. “I read that in high school, and that’s how I got into physics.”

The 34-year-old particle physicist is an expert on dark matter, a hypothetical substance thought to account for 80 percent of matter in the universe.

If astronomers are the scientists searching the stars for clues to dark matter’s existence, theoretical physicists such as Tanedo are the ones using applied mathematics to make sense of those discoveries.

“I think in terms of atoms, things smaller than atoms, things smaller than even those things, and then try to classify and categorize all of it into a physical framework,” said Tanedo, who grew up in West Los Angeles and received his bachelor’s degree from Stanford University and doctorate from Cornell. “We want to write down the equation that tells you how that 
 all works.”

And chances are, he’ll be writing it on a chalkboard. Long his preferred method for working through problems on his own or with students, Tanedo, who can often be found covered in chalk dust, had several boards installed in his office.

“Something about writing on a chalkboard really helps the creative process in this type of work,” he said, noting green is his favorite color to use.

Tanedo spends about 12 hours a day on campus, mostly in his office, unless he’s teaching or taking a swim at the Student Recreation Center over lunch.

“I don’t have a lab,” Tanedo said. “This is where I close my door, and I think and develop new ideas; this is where I talk to my team, to my students; this is where I have my video calls with collaborators; it’s my mini-library; this is where I orchestrate my research program.”

While the quest to find a mathematical underpinning for dark matter is vital to helping humanity better understand the universe, Tanedo is wary of taking himself too seriously, as evidenced by the quirky knick-knacks and mementos scattered around the space.

For example, a Post-it note Tanedo placed above his nameplate in the hallway lists the previous occupants of the office and their notable achievements, including former UCR Chancellor Raymond Orbach, for whom the science library next door is named.

What does Tanedo list as his most notable achievement?

“Once ate 10 peaches in one day,” the note reads. “It’s true,” he added with a laugh.

‘Star Wars’ snowtrooper / race bibs

Tanedo has had this cardboard cutout since his days at UC Irvine. Originally purchased as part of a prank on another faculty member, Tanedo kept it for himself. He strategically places the cutout to appear over his shoulder during video meetings, and it’s become a sort of calling card. The bibs are from races Tanedo has run in an effort, along with swimming, to stay fit.

Hagoromo Fulltouch chalk

This Japanese brand of chalk is a favorite among academics, including Tanedo, with some even claiming it helps them make fewer mistakes. This box was given to Tanedo as a going-away gift from his graduate students at UC Irvine, where he was a postdoctoral researcher.

‘Flight of the Warped Penguins’

Tanedo keeps a copy of his doctoral dissertation to show students what he was working on at their age. The penguin is an inside joke among particle physicists to describe a process in which one type of particle decays into another. “It’s totally boring,” Tanedo said of the joke, which is also referenced by the “March of the Penguins” poster above his desk.

Post-it notes

Tanedo is known to leave Post-it notes on his door with written reminders on them. As a prank, his colleagues started leaving their own notes on the door, so others would think Tanedo had written them. “Most of this is stuff that my buddies put up to embarrass me,” he said.

UCR particle theory group logo

Tanedo designed this logo for the particle theory group within the Department of Physics & Astronomy. The black part resembles Mt. Rubidoux and also represents the portion of the universe made up of dark matter. The twisting yellow line is part of a Feynman diagram, invented by physicist Richard Feynman to visually depict the movement of subatomic particles. Also shown are the University of California’s Keck Telescopes looking up at the night sky, and Scotty, the Highlander mascot.