Cosmologist Valeria Pettorino walks in Dantes Dark Wood



In 2004, the Italian theoretical cosmologist Valeria Pettorino wrote her thesis on "dark energy in generalized theories of gravity." As a secondary project she translated the opening rules of Dante & # 39; s Divine Comedy in a geometry problem.

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

The epic poem by Dante, in the translation by Mark Musa, begins:

Halfway through the journey of our lives
I woke up and found myself in a dark forest,
for I had strayed from the straight path.

The translation of Pettorino is as follows:

Given a line segment AB of size that is equal to our life path, consider its center M. If D is a man named Dante, D will coincide with M.
The segment AB will be in a dark field DF.
Starting from a circumference C exists, limited to the dark field DF, verify that the straight line r is external to such circumference.

This reimagining, part of a creative writing group project, was published in a collection with the title Faximile – a tribute to admired authors and texts, in which the Pythagorean theorem became a story, The Iliad became a football match, and the Italian constitution was displayed in hendecasyllabic verse. "We loved the originals, and we wanted to play with them and understand them better," Pettorino said.

She has approached cosmology in the same spirit, using stories from multiple angles as a guide. After obtaining her Ph.D. in 2005 she traveled around the world, limping between institutions in Heidelberg, New York, Geneva and Valencia, as well as Naples, Turin and Trieste in her homeland Italy, alternating observation, theoretical, methodological and statistical viewpoints in her study of the cosmos – a dark wood, a bit like that of Dante. She considers all these approaches as necessary for the unraveling of the nature of dark matter and dark energy, little understood substances that make up 95 percent of the universe.

It is perhaps not surprising that Pettorino landed in 2016 at the CosmoStat laboratory at CEA Saclay, a research institute 15 miles south of Paris. At CosmoStat, cosmologists and computer scientists work together to develop new statistical and signal processing methods for interpreting the enormous amounts of data obtained by modern telescopes. This summer, Pettorino helped with the latest analysis of data from the Planck space telescope of the European Space Agency, which charted the early universe with unprecedented precision. Her main focus is now on Euclid, the next large space telescope of the agency, which will be launched in 2022. Euclides collects 170 million gigabytes of data on billions of galaxies, cuts the universe at different times and follows its evolution under dark influences.

Quanta Magazine spoke to Pettorino via Skype this summer, while helping organize the annual EuroPython conference for users of the Python programming language, in addition to other extracurricular commitments. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You have a lot of interests. Tell me how you became a cosmologist.

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

How did you ultimately find cosmology?

At the end of 1997 I started physics as an undergraduate and then in 1998 there was the discovery of cosmic acceleration, which showed that much of the universe was completely unknown, and this immediately attracted my curiosity. What happened was that independent observations by two different supernova research teams yielded very surprising results: cosmologists expected the universe to be expanded after the big bang and because gravity pulled things together, it was expected that the expansion of the universe slowed down. Evidence of supernova explosions showed that the expansion accelerates on the other hand – as if there is an extra form of energy that counteracts gravity and increases the speed of expansion. This is generically called "dark energy".

Since 1998 many other experiments have confirmed the same image: normal atoms represent only about 5 percent of the total energy budget in the universe. There is 25 percent extra in the form of dark matter & # 39 ;. Dark matter still feels gravity, but we do not take it directly into account; it works as a glue that can form structures, such as galaxies and galaxies. And then there's the rest – 70 percent – which is dark energy and which should be responsible for cosmic acceleration.

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