Sunday, January 28, 2007

Guest Post: Tommaso - A Happy Fish

I was asked by Sabine to write here about why I became a physicist, and to answer a few ancillary questions she supplied as guidance. I am happy to comply, so let me start from the beginning, as I am a tidy person when it comes to writing.

When I was a kid, I used to be a little mathematics genius. I was fascinated by math and its rationality - everything was simple, and orderly, quite unlike the shattering relationship between my parents. Math was a refuge. And quite naturally, from math I came to appreciate most natural sciences, especially Astronomy.

It was only in high school that I started to study Physics and to love it, stimulated by a very charismatic professor of math and physics. To study Physics at the University became a natural choice, but my interest in the investigation of the organization of Nature at the smallest scales was not love at first sight, but a slow process, and my landing in high-energy particle physics was somewhat accidental - I stumbled in a call for summer students at Fermilab, and got hooked!

I realize that telling the story of how I became a researcher does not fully answer Sabine's question of why I am a physicist, but it is tough to do that. After the University I could have decided to become something else, but so many things pulled in the same direction I did not even start to oppose resistence.

So let me make a list of why I chose a career as a physicist, rather than trying to make sense of each bit in a grand design. Computers are my best friends. I am fascinated by science and basic research. I am ecstatic if I can find a pure thought nobody had before, and use it in my studies. I love to teach. And I love to travel!

But of course there is more. I am not driven by a strong ambition - let's say that my objective is to end my career as a inspirational professor of physics. What drives me in my job is rather the attempt at justifying my life in helping the advancement of human knowledge, and I think the best way to do it for me is by doing research in particle physics.

Of course, I find my job fascinating, and just being part of giant and complex projects such as CDF or CMS makes me proud. There is always so much to learn that one cannot get bored. And it is extremely stimulating also because many of the people I work knee to knee with are at least as smart as I am, and it is a full time job to keep my head above the water.

Yes, I am a happy fish. And my philosophy of life comes to the rescue when I feel I am not doing enough, since I subscribe to Oratio's aurea mediocritas: I do not want to become a general, but just be a good soldier. If they allow me to do my tiny bit to help humanity progress then I feel I have done my duty...

Sabine also asked me about my blog. Why do I spend so much time on it ? I think as scientists we have the moral obligation of doing as much outreach as we can. In today's world there is such a tremendous drift toward irrationality, religious beliefs hindering the progress of a free society, and a continuous barrage fire on the media promoting superstitious beliefs, that if scientists continue to hide themselves in their ivory tower they can only lose the battle. What is the purpose of devoting one's life to the advancement of knowledge, if that knowledge is not shared by many ?

Sure, one could argue that technological advancements are used by everybody even if people do not understand them, but the problem is that as science gest more and more disconnected from the real world the investment that society does will shrink gradually. It took just a few ignorant congressmen to kill a fantastic experiment in the nineties, the SSC. Because of that, we lost 15 years in fundamental physics. So it is our responsibility to educate to science the future congressmen that could kill important new endeavours.

Keeping a blog, maintaining it and making it interesting and stimulating both to non-scientists and to colleague scientists (their contribution is fundamental to keep the effort going) is a heavy burden, but I have some time to devote to it since I do not teach. So I invest part of my research time in explaining particle physics to whomever wants to listen... So far so good!

Tommaso Dorigo is a INFN researcher in particle physics at the University of Padova. He collaborates with the CDF experiment at Fermilab and the CMS experiment in construction at the CERN laboratory. His research activities are in top quark physics and Higgs boson searches. Tommaso is 40 years old. He lives in Venice with his wife Mariarosa, a teacher of latin and greek, and their two children, Filippo (7) and Ilaria (3). When he is not working (that is, most of the time) he is busy with his many hobbies: astronomy, chess, piano. And of course he maintains the blog 'Quantum Diaries Survivor', where he strives to make elementary physics really elementary, by explaining cutting-edge research in simple terms.



  1. Very interesting stuff... great post!

  2. Thanks Bee and Tommaso for sharing this story. My eleven year old is probably a future physicist. He's always thinking about how the universe works and is always asking questions that I can't usually answer. Actually, his questions were part of what got me reading physics blogs. Sometimes he wishes he could talk to a real physicist instead of me. ;-) (I am a little overprotective about setting him loose in the blogosphere.)

  3. Thanks for this interesting story! It's great you take the time writing a blog (both of you)

    - Rob

  4. PASSION! Scientists do not see hardware or a chalkboard, we see the future. We do not go to work, we embrace life itself. We must know!

    Everything else is just waiting.

  5. Dear Tommaso,

    thank you for sharing these fascinating facets of your life! To live in Venice (... sorry if that's stupid, but this reminds me of Commissario Brunetti, hasn't he also two kids, and a wife who is a teacher?) and work and do research in Galilei's University sounds like a dream to me ;-)... Or do you curse to have to commute every day?

    More serious, I completely agree that it's very important to try to communicate what one is doing as a physicist!

    I guess I should read more of your blog ;-)... What I am curious about, besides the physics, are also some sociological aspects: How are such huge collaborations as CDF organized? Who decides which data are taken, what experiments are done, which analyses are done? Are there strict rules, a formal organization? What are your experiences in this big kind of company? Maybe you can comment (or have commented?) on your blog on such topics sometime...

    Thank you,

  6. Dear Rae Ann,

    Actually, his questions were part of what got me reading physics blogs. Sometimes he wishes he could talk to a real physicist instead of me.

    That's very interesting! Are there any options to allow access just to very specific blogs?

    Or, maybe, I see a new kind of blog posts emerge: All the physicists around trying to answer your sons's questions ;-)

    Best regards, stefan.

  7. Thanks all for the positive remarks...

    Rae Ann, good luck with your kid! I think he might end up changing his preferred science before he becomes an adult, but for sure he looks like he'll be a good scientist!

    The reason of my remark is that when I was a summer student at Fermilab I got to talk to a physicist who was lecturing us newcomers, and he insisted on polling us on the age at which we chose Physics. It turns out that the distribution has a sharp peak at 15-16 years of age (and we were no exception). Before that, kids have not discovered everything yet, and they can still be subjected to new fascinations....

    Stefan, I do not know a commissario Brunetti, should I ? :)

    I love to live in Venice, but indeed I spend there a very small portion of my time, since on workdays I'm mostly in Padova, and during weekends I try to drag my family to the mountains. Venice is a beautiful place, but it has down sides... No cars = less pollution and more quiet environment, but also a lot of trouble buying and bringing home groceries - to say just one thing.

    As for the "dream job", remember in Italy the salary of researchers is ridiculous if compared to the US, or even Germany for that matter. My monthly paycheck is below 2000$! It is not playing with words if I say that luckily enough "I can _afford_ to be a scientist"!!

    And you are right, I should write more about the sociology of CDF and CMS. It is indeed fascinating. I often write about it though, but it will not be titled "sociology of CDF"... You have to read between the lines. Recent examples are when I discuss about our publication procedure (see today's post on the significance of bumps) or about letting go humorous remarks ("Hearty laughs at the CMS meeting", one week ago).


  8. Hi Tommaso,

    I do not know a commissario Brunetti, should I ? :)

    now, that's funny... This commissario is the creation of Donna Leon, an American living in Venice. There have been more than ten novels or so about him over the last fivteen years. But it seems that they are best known in Germany, there has even been a German television series about Brunetti...

    I have read three of them - the setting is always Venice, and I had the impression that you learn quite a bit about the city today, and about how it is to live there - but maybe it's all clichee ;-)

    Best, stefan

  9. Bee/Tommaso

    Great post!.

    In my case would be something like 'why I did become a boring engineer instead of a physicist....but still reading physics after all this years"


  10. Thanks Tammaso,

    I always like the idea behind "Quantum Diaries" and it was through there I learnt of the Pierre Auger research by John Ellis.

    It gave me a foot hold in perspective about cosmic particle collisions, as well as, "a particle reductionist view" within context of Cern.

    Thanks for remaining accessible.

  11. Stefan,

    "Or, maybe, I see a new kind of blog posts emerge: All the physicists around trying to answer your sons's questions ;-)"

    Hey, that's a good idea! Maybe we'll try that one day. Thanks!


    From what I hear, it's the engineers who actually do most of the testing of ideas and who often correct the problems.


    Thanks, and yes, at 11 he's still also thinking he might be rock star. ;-)

  12. Rae Ann, hmmm... I doubt I would encourage a career as a rock star for my son. We badly need a new generation of astrophysicists! ;-)


  13. Its been pointed out to me that the magazine 'Focus' mentioned in the comment that I just deleted does indeed exist. In case you are interested in running the above post, please contact me by email (sabine[@] For obvious reasons, I will not give copyright to an anonymous commenter. Thanks,



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