Friday , May 14 2021

Cosmologist Valeria Pettorino Wanders in Dante's dark wood

In 2004, Italian theoretical cosmologist Valeria Pettorino wrote his doctoral dissertation on "dark energy in generalized theories of gravity". As a side project, she translated Dante's Divine comedy into a geometric problem.

"I felt there was mathematics already in Dante's writing," Pettorino said recently.

Dante's epic poem, in Mark Musas translation, begins:

Halfway along the journey of our lives
I woke up to find myself in a dark wood,
because I had walked away from the straight road.

Pettorino's translation reads:

Given a line segment AB of size equal to our lifestyle, consider its centerpiece M. If D is a man named Dante, D to coincide with M.
The segment AB should be in a dark field DF.
Suppose a perimeter C exist, delimited to the dark field DF, check that the straight line r is external to such circumference.

This reimagining, part of a creative writing group project, was published in a collection titled Faximile – A tribute to admired writers and texts, where the pythagoran chair became a story, Iliad became a football match, and the Italian constitution was made in hendecasyllabic verse. "We liked the original, and we wanted to play with them and understand them better," said Pettorino.

She has approached cosmology in the same spirit, using stories from several angles as guiding principle. After earning her Ph.D. In 2005, she traveled the world and jumped between institutions in Heidelberg, New York, Geneva and Valencia, as well as Naples, Turin and Trieste in her native Italy, which shifted between observational, theoretical, methodological and statistical viewpoints in her study of the cosmos – a dark wood , rather like Dante's. She believes that all these approaches are necessary to unraveling the type of dark matter and dark energy, small-minded substances that together represent 95 percent of the universe.

It is perhaps not surprising that 2011 landed Pettorino at the CosmoStat laboratory at CEA Saclay, a research institute 15 miles south of Paris. At CosmoStat, cosmologists and computer scientists collaborate to develop new statistical and signal processing methods to interpret the large amounts of data acquired by modern telescopes. This summer, Pettorino helped complete the final analysis of data from the European Space Agency's Planck Space Telescope, which mapped the early universe with unmatched precision. Her main focus is now Euclid, the agency's next major space telescope, to launch in 2022. Euclid will collect 170 million gigabytes of billions of galaxies, cut the universe at different epochs and follow developments under dark influences.

Quanta Magazine talked to Pettorino over Skype this summer as she helped organize the annual EuroPython conference for users of Python programming languages, including extracurricular commitments. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You have many interests. Tell me how you became a cosmologist.

I did not think of cosmology at all when I started physics, and even then I was not very convinced of the physics itself. But physics offered me a good opportunity to combine several different interests. At that time, I lived in Naples, my city. I really wanted to follow a path that would let me get to know people, live in different places and learn languages. I really liked logic and mathematics. And I heard about physics from my uncle Roberto Pettorino, who was string theorist; He told us about strings, multiple dimensions, time travel. And I loved science fiction. The authors I read most were Philip José Farmer and Jack Vance – the stories had adventure and different technologies, and they were very realistic and created new worlds in detail with things that do not exist but could very easily have existed. I liked challenges. At that time I took actors and creative writing courses. And then I just said, "Let's do physics!" I was curious about the whole picture, and physics looked at me as a good combination of logic, communication, imagination. My primary goal was to learn, to increase my knowledge, to satisfy my curiosity.

How did you eventually find cosmology?

I started physics as a primary education at the end of 1997, and since 1998 there was a cosmic acceleration discovery revealing that much of the universe was completely unknown, which immediately attracted my curiosity. What happened was that independent observations of two different supernova research groups showed very surprising results: cosmologists were waiting for the universe to expand after the storm and because gravity attracts things against each other, the expectation that the expansion of the universe was decreasing. Evidence from supernova explosions showed that expansion instead accelerates – as if there is any additional form of energy that counteracts gravity and increases the speed of expansion. This is generally called "dark energy".

Since 1998, many other experiments have confirmed the same picture: Normal atoms represent only about 5 percent of the total energy budget in the universe. There is an additional 25 percent that is in the form of "dark matter". Dark matter still feels heavy, but we do not notice it instantly; It acts as an adhesive that allows structures such as galaxies and clusters of galaxies to be formed. And then the rest is – 70 percent – which is dark energy, and who will be responsible for cosmic acceleration.


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