Archive for: February, 2013

Your Brokenheart

Feb 21 2013 Published by under Uncategorized


I‚Äôm excited to write to you from our new guest house at Scientopia!! Do you like it?!?!? 'Cause we sure are getting comfy ūüėČ

For the first post I decided to cover a topic that remains a mystery  not only to me and larger scientific community but also (let's be honest here) the greater HUMAN species....


Or really in my case I wanna know what happens in your brain after you get your heartbroken.

You know that feeling, when that one person you thought was your soulmate decides he/she wants to end things. I won't go into details about your chest wanting to explode, or the fact you seem to be obsessively thinking about them every minute of everyday..

I'll simply refer you to any Nicholas Sparks movie.

Hey, you had your lovey dovey time over Valentines day.

But before we jump right into the ‚Äúremoval‚ÄĚ of love, let just get a refresher on love in the brain.

Clicky on this video for a 3 min breakdown.

As you can imagine, love is a complicated emotion, it has so so so many layers. While the above video tries to summarize it into compact digestible bits, it really remains one of those topics that scientists struggle to put into nice boxes.

So what dose neuroscience make of this entire heatbreak business?

First of all its "scientifically" called romantic/social Rejection (I really should have paid more attention in my psych classes, would’ve taken me less time to research this stuff), but Imma call it heartbreak. More dramatic.

As you can imagine studying love is messy, by default studying rejection would also be as messy if not more so.

Studies have just recently  begun to delve into the neuroscience associated with heartbreak. The studies I will be referring too (links down below,they are both open access!!) utilized fMRI imaging techniques along with various psych tests, such as comparing neural activation between a picture of the previous lover and a neutral/friend photograph.

When looking at reward, addiction or romantic love, a number of studies have shown that there is a similar pattern of activation in the subcortical areas, which include the ventral tegmental area (aka VTA, personally one of my favorites), the nucleus accumbens core, ventral globus pallidus and the ventral putamen.

The study by Fisher et al. further explored that activation of the VTA with regards to heartbreak; their subjects showed greater activation in that area when viewing an image of the pervious lover then when viewing a neutral faces. They concluded that regardless of the fact that these individuals were no longer in the relationship, the participants VTA and angular gyrus remains very much activated.

They also found that their participants had a more pronounced activiation in the ventral striatum, nucleus accumbens core and the ventral putamen...

Notice something guys?!?!?

Same areas that are involved in falling in love are also still involved in having your heartbroken...

Fisher et al. also found that their participants had significant activation of orbitofrontal/prefrontal cortex, the forbrain regions of the reward system. This finding right here is what I personally find totally cool. You see, the activation of the forbrain suggests that falling in/out of love involves learning. The authors actually hypothesized that this learning process may have used the experience-reward systems (the interplay between the VTA, forebrain & nucleus accumbens). This in turn may shed light as to how the reward system may have been employed & when it is activated in terms of the perceived relationship status.

You may be wondering "Okey, we get that we are addicted.. but why does heartbreak physically hurt?"

Well lovers, according to a  study by Kross et al. heartbreak  hurts because, you guessed it, it actually activates the same "pain area" in the brain as physical pain.  They found that both physical pain and social rejection have overlapping representation in the somatosensory system (the conglomerate of sensory information, from touch to pain to spatial positioning of the body).

Annoying eh?

Questions/caveats of these types of studies are (in my opinion) the ages of the participants, the length/commitment of the relationship, the type of relationship & using psych tasks to invoke memories of the feelings. Feelings are messy.

The good news is that more extensive research is being done in this area. So ¬†go ahead, fall in love, fall out of love, donate your time to science and help us figure this out ūüėČ

Till next time.

Stay Neurofabulous



For your pleasure;

Fisher, E., Brown, L.L., Aron, A., Strong, G., & Mashek,D. (2010)

Kross, E., Berman, M.G., Mischel, W., Smith, E.E., & Wager, T.D. (2011)

David Disalvo's piece for Forbes



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Public engagement should no longer be regarded as a commodity

Feb 15 2013 Published by under Uncategorized

I am very proud to share with you here an intervention I have been asked to provide for the Euroscientist magazine, an online publication of Euroscience, "a pan-European association of individuals interested in constructing scientific Europe from the bottom-up". The editor at Euroscientist, towards whom I am very thankful, contacted me when she found out about my publication "Who cares about physics today? A marketing strategy for the survival of fundamental science and the benefit of society", which is available on the arXiv web bullettin.
I hope you will enjoy my analysis at Euroscientist and become curious of the other Euroscience activities if you are not aware of them yet.
Public engagement should no longer be regarded as a commodity

Today, public engagement is mostly regarded as a commodity. If there is good level of funding available, scientists may consider spending money in what they usually call ‚ÄĚpublic relations‚ÄĚ. Otherwise this is the first thing scientists cut because they consider it to be the least necessary.

But public engagement in science is very much needed. At the very least because the public is either an enemy or an ally of research. Examples such as the climate change denial illustrate this point well. In other circumstances, such as the 2009 Shuttle mission, it was people who wanted such mission to happen in order to service the Hubble Space Telescope for the last time even thought it had been declared doomed by US President George W. Bush and NASA President Sean O’Keefe. An unprecedented movement of popular opinion grew to such a large extent that the official decision had to be changed and money reallocated.

To adequately communicate research to a lay audience, it is necessary to adopt the audience’s language and appeal to its own interests. Just like what is done in marketing. Therefore it is not a heresy to mix scientific content with languages that are either non-scientific or even non-verbal, including, for example, by communication through the means of theatre, dance, video-games, comics or music …

This is all part of an approach I dubbed “A marketing strategy for the survival of fundamental science“. Such an approach is critical in order to build a society that is both aware and appreciative of science. A conscious society is the only one able to properly assess how crucial investments in science have to be in the European budget. Or how future prosperity depends on new ideas and how these have to be explored by young and passionate minds.

For example, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) particle accelerator is teaching scientists important lessons about the Higgs Boson, among others. However, some have argued that the money this experiment costs should rather be spent on finding ways to cure tumours. However it is precisely the capacity we acquired by walking down the road of curiosity for the invisible and the minuscule that contributed to finding solutions to cure cancer. Indeed, the LHC smashes particles called hadrons. They are the very same particles used in hadron-therapy, a medical technique that can treat deep cancers in an efficient way.

Many more of these beautiful and deeply meaningful connections have yet to be unveiled to the largest public. Once the level of public engagement progresses, the public will slowly see reduce its disconnect with science and scientists. Instead, the public will start further engaging in a durable and satisfying conversation with these scientists.


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Gravity: the dance of space and time, Part II

Feb 15 2013 Published by under Uncategorized

In a previous post of mine I briefly introduced a beautiful example of blending science with performing arts: that was "Gravity: the dance of space and time", an initiative in which I took part recently at the University of Maryland, in collaboration with the School of Dance Instructor Adriane Fang and Astronomy Professor Cole Miller.
In the present post I would like to present this performance in more detail, by pointing at the background scientific concepts and how they got translated artistically into the show, which you can see in its final form at this link.
Inspired by the "Dance your PhD" contest, Adriane was interested in bringing some science into dance and that's where Cole and I came to the rescue: though we did not end up dancing in the show as it is required to the contest participants, we got actively involved in the rehearsals, not only building a conversation with the artists but also trying some moves out. I hope my following description will convey the feelings of emotion and satisfaction that I experienced during all the stages of the project.
Even though gravity might sound like something obvious and a completely figured out concept it is actually among the most intriguing domains of current investigations in both theoretical and experimental physics. Just think about the mysterious dark matter and dark energy and the fact that they account for as much as 96% of the total mass-energy density of the universe. In our everyday life we only have one chance to appreciate how gravity is far from evident, when we use the GPS antenna in our navigator or smartphone: if Einstein had not improved on Newton's grasp of gravity the GPS could not exist or work. In Newton's description gravity is a force that propagates instantaneously, for example from the Sun to the Earth: if one could make the Sun disappear we would immediately realize the absence of its gravitational pull on Earth (see for example a video from Brian Greene's documentary "The Elegant Universe"- Episode 1, 9:30 into it). The set in which this happens is as static as a fixed stage, where every actor experiences things in the same way, most notably for what concerns time. Then came Einstein. In his picture gravity is still due to the presence of mass but there is something more profound to it: mass deforms space in a way similar to how a heavy ball acts on a trampoline or to when we sit on a couch pillow; objects put in the vicinity of the deformation fall towards the mass responsible for that, just as we see them falling toward the Earth when we release them to the pull of its gravity. What does this have to do with GPS? The answer lies in the fact that, with Einstein, space is no longer a static stage with one given universal time: there exists a single entity called spacetime, which is a dynamic stage that can do stuff and participates to the acting.
When our GPS antenna talks to the GPS satellite fleet to establish its position relative to the satellites', an exchange of signals is involved in the process; the situation is reminiscent of clock synchronization among people: if everyone's watch shows a different time there are very few chances to recombine all together on time. In the case of GPS satellites communicating to our antenna, synchronization is not so easy: for starters time does not flow at the same pace for everyone! that's what a dynamical spacetime stage entails. If mass can deform space, and space is a whole with time, mass affects time: the closer you are to the source of deformation, the slower time flows for your watch as compared to one which is at a larger distant from the mass. Finally, there's one more source of difference between the pace of satellites' time and the one of clocks on Earth's surface, speed effects: the faster you move the slower time flows for your watch as compared to one which is at rest. It wouldn't be worthy of Einstein if things were not so rich!

I find Salvador Dali's "The Persistence of Memory" a powerful visual handle to grasp the concept of mutable time.

This was kind of a long introduction but it will allow you to better appreciate the dance show, especially its second part: in fact, while the first act represents the motion of astrophysical objects in spacetime, the second is devoted to spacetime itself. For this reason, I'm going to talk about the final half of the show first.
In collaboration with costume designer Kate Fulop, we chose black stretchy costumes to be used in the second act: they were meant to represent spacetime as an elastic deformable cosmic fabric. The moves the dancers perform are both artistically pleasant and scientifically suggestive: they alternate between slow and fast, just as we said time can flow in a specific region of space according to the proximity of this region to a heavy astrophysical mass.

Dancers depicting the spacetime fabric.

Dancers depicting the spacetime fabric.
(Copyright Stan Barouh

Of course, we did not want the dance performance to be just descriptive: that's what I meant earlier on when I said that the entire collaboration has been the result of a conversation around a scientific theme. Adriane proposed her graduate students to perform their moves according to an interesting interpretation of the scientific concepts: in pairs, the artists would stimulate their partner's movement by transmitting them their own energy through a flow without contact; then the partners would react either by affinity or contrast, that is to say moving towards or against the source of energy, respectively. I personally took part in the rehearsals in which the dancers were exploring this part of their "phrase", as it is called in their jargon: for me it was both new and challenging to try and bring formulae alive in this way. Another distinctive type of the grad students' moves inspired by science was the "stretch and squeeze". In order to explain it let me go back to the trampoline analogy I used to depict how spacetime gets deformed in the presence of mass. Imagine moving the mass around on the surface of the trampoline: you can picture ripples forming on the elastic membrane, just like waves on the surface of a pond. This might make you think of yet another type of waves coming from a perturbed membrane: the ones coming from a drum hit by mallets, that is to say sound waves. Like a buoy is carried up and down by the tide a device probing spacetime ripples would experience two peculiar effects: the aforementioned stretch and squeeze.
The sound you hear at the end of the first act is the melody played by two huge cosmic mallets hitting on the spacetime drum, a couple of merging black holes. This is the result of a simulation where the astrophysical signal expected from the coalescence has been treated in such a way as to shift its frequency to the region audible to our ears: in fact, these gravitational waves do not bring any type of light by themselves, so we will not "see" them but rather "listen" to them with our instruments. Given the variety of astrophysical sources and configurations, scientists expect to listen to a sort of very peculiar concert of gravitational waves: in the next few years instruments will be upgraded to the necessary sensitivity and we could hear as many as a hundred of different "music pieces" per year.
On scene the sound simulation accompanies the evolutions of the last two dancers in the first act: they represent two black holes orbiting around each other in a spiraling shrinking motion dictated by Einstein's equations; the very last stage of the evolution, the merger of the two bodies, is described by the powerful moment of a hug between the two dancers. One of them is still carrying her veil. This element of the costumes is instrumental to the science too. When an astrophysical object passes by another its companion experiences a varying gravitational field, thus the companion deforms its shape. This is fancy talk to refer to Earth's tides; due to the varying distance of the Moon our planet gets periodically deformed on two sides: the one closer to the Moon, which is feeling its gravitational pull more strongly, and the other farther from the Moon, which is feeling its gravitational pull less strongly. At a more quantitative level such tidal deformations, and their physical effects, are nicely represented by simulations such as this one from Caltech.

Dancers playing star encounters in the universe

Dancers playing star encounters in the universe.
(Copyright Stan Barouh

The first act of the performance is then a joyful succession of star and black hole encounters, something that cannot happen in our astronomical neighborhood because it is not very populated. While this is good for the survival of the human race on Earth it is kind of boring for the curious scientists. Soon they will be able to add yet more information to their comprehension of astronomy by opening a new observation window on the Universe: this is what scientists such as Cole and I call gravitational wave astronomy; together with Adriane, her amazing students and her friendly colleagues we happily participated in building a representation of the subject that could be attractive to non-scientists. We hope we succeeded. Now watch the video of the performance again and see if you think likewise.

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It is written ‚Äúscience communications‚ÄĚ, it is to be read ‚Äúsolid foundations for a future of prosperity in science, economy and society‚ÄĚ

Feb 04 2013 Published by under Uncategorized

Last year on October 23 a petition has been addressed by Nobel Prize awardees and Fields medalists to the representatives of European governments: the object: rumors that research funds will be cut on occasion of the end of November meeting to discuss the European budget (
Back then no agreement was found among the leaders, who are to meet again this week on February 7 and 8. In view of this new summit it is the European Industrial Leaders that put up a "campaign to stave off possible cuts to the European Union's research budget" (

The sword of Damocles that is threatening the European funds for scientific research represents, at a closer look, an extremely dangerous risk for the future of all European citizens, not only scientists. ‚Ä®The current well-being of most of us Westerners, in Europe as well as the US, is based on easily identifiable pillars: scientific studies, at first abstract and then applied, that brought us electricity and computers, just to quote a couple of examples. There would not be anything of all that we are used to if some ancestor of ours had not been so curious to think about the why and how of natural phenomena, which sometimes have weird names such as ‚Äúquantum field theory‚ÄĚ.
The example that I personally like to quote most often, given that I am both an Italian and a physicist, is related to CERN and its accelerator LHC, now operating underground in the Geneva area: the acronym designating this experiment stands for Large Hadron Collider, that, in plain language, corresponds to a sort of dodgem whose cars are minuscule particles, which belong to the category of hadrons ... hadrons as in ‚Äúhadron-therapy‚ÄĚ, a technique of modern medicine that is used to cure deep cancers in a unique way ( How else could humanity have discovered the existence and behavior of the subatomic world other than walking down the path that has brought to build the LHC in order to discover and study the Higgs Boson?
This link is just one example of a connection between fundamental science and well-being that is obscure to most people. It is then apparent how the issue of an accurate positioning of research in European funding policies represents, in reality, a much wider problem, which requires a unity of intents that goes far beyond academia and laboratories: it concerns all of us, together with our kids.
In such a context the voice that reaches the ears of our political representatives should be a single powerful one that collects many more people than just the industrials or the scientists. The latter should lead these unitary efforts: in fact, in order to have a weight in society, before politics, lobbying is needed.
This goal can only be achieved if the general public is involved in the process and engaged in a two-way conversation; how does one go about conquering support from the public? by speaking its own language, studying its interests, meeting it where it is to be found, which most certainly is not at the entry to the Ivory Tower. ‚Ä®A marketing strategy is needed; that's right: marketing, as in advertising campaigns; in fact, where else does the success of advertisement lie if not in its ability to sympathize with the public, to be in its shoes, to touch its emotional chords, one category at a time? ‚Ä®The time is over, then, to simply rely on press releases in order to reach the public: communication has its own tools, science is the product to be advertised, in a proper way of course. In such a context it is not a heresy to bother mixing scientific content with languages that are either non-scientific or non-verbal even: theatre and dance, for example, or video-games or comics ... ‚Ä®This list could go on and would cite many efforts that either have been just proposed or are already being implemented. What is still missing, which I personally believe would represent a qualitative leap, is the unity of intents: ‚Äúunited we stand, divided we fall‚ÄĚ, as the saying goes. There is a notorious instance that exemplifies what I am advocating for here: the history of Hubble Space Telescope. In 2003 it had been declared doomed by US President George W. Bush and NASA President Sean O'Keefe, in charge at the time: no more maintenance for the telescope, the money that the necessary Shuttle mission would have cost had to be destined to bring astronauts on Mars. The scientific community succeeded in exciting such an emotion in common people that the two lobbied against the official decision, pushing Bush and O'Keefe to change their minds ... incredible! But true and repeatable. Incidentally, that's the story of how today you can enjoy the Hubble IMAX movie (
The present situation, worsened by the economic and financial crisis, represents both a test bench and a turning point: if the lack of awareness and the poor appreciation of science by the public are not confronted vigorously, no petition will ever suffice.
In conclusion, putting forth petitions and campaigns is very welcome, in that they try to protect everyone's future. However in order for the largest public to be appreciative of science it has to be aware first and this can only be achieved if the public is engaged in a two-way conversation. My recipe for tackling this problem at its roots is in a paper I titled ‚ÄúWho cares about physics today? A marketing strategy for the survival of fundamental science and the benefit of society‚ÄĚ. An example initiative is the dance show "Gravity", about which I posted a contribution previously. The paper is available at, I hope you will find it interesting.

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Who, what, why, when, where

Feb 01 2013 Published by under Uncategorized

Hi there!
I hope you have appreciated my first two posts: my "Ode to the Higgs" and "Gravity: the dance of space and time"; I'll return to them in the future but now it is time for me to tell you something about me: Who am I? What brought me here? Why do I like being a Scientopia guest blogger? When did I start doing what I do? Where have I made my experiences so far?
Before you give up reading let me assure you: I'm not going to write a novel of my life but, as I feel some background is important, I'll just sketch a few chapters of my biography anyway ūüėČ
Who. I like to define myself as a "sociable physicist", that is to say someone who is equally appreciative of the conquests of the human mind, as well as of them being shared with those who did not take part in the endeavor … other than paying for that through their taxes. And that is What brought me to this point of my life, where I've realized that my deepest passion for the physical sciences has to be expressed through what it is generally called public outreach. I've recently read a blog post debating about what meaning to assign to "public outreach": is it something resembling preaching to the converted or does it really reach out to people who do not know why science concerns all of them? As much as I value initiatives falling in the first category, such as public lectures or popular science books, I believe they have to be accompanied by a larger set of efforts. This attitude is best defined, I think, as a marketing strategy for fundamental science, which is how I called it in a paper you can find at this address: There I explore why it is important that the scientific community reaches out to the largest public, through a variety of means and approaches that are tailored on the target audience. Another salient aspect of my proposal is the somewhat invasive character of the suggested outreach: you have to use your target audience's interests in order to have it pay attention to a scientific content whatsoever. That's where marketing kicks in. Of course among the means I propose to be more efficiently used and exploited by the scientific community are internet and the world of social media: you can't hope to reach out to the public if you do not have a presence where the public is and spends time. Therefore I couldn't be happier when I was offered the chance to participate as a Scientopia guest blogger: I've just started browsing the many blogs the Scientopia community comprises but I could already gather that it's a very convenient setting to have diverse interests and backgrounds all hosted under a common umbrella. Why: check.
When and Where. About a year ago I took the decision: I put aside research and committed to popularizing science. I was starting my second year as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Maryland, just outside Washington DC, which I had joined after four years of doctoral training in theoretical physics at the University of Geneva, in Switzerland. All along those years I've promptly taken any occasion to share tales of my personal journey in the world of the physical sciences: be them related to the exploration of advanced concepts or concerning visiting scientific cathedrals, such as the Large Hadron Collider at CERN or the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. However most of the people with whom I could talk did not show the interest I was hoping for: in general they did not feel much drawn to the theoretical aspects, however fancy their names were, or proud citizens of a country that sponsors the pursuit of knowledge. They did not know that those cathedrals I revered so much serve two purposes: the first is the scientific goal they are after, the second is to empower mankind with new means for growth and prosperity. The most eloquent examples of how this is true are both related to CERN (before being a physicist I'm Italian and I'm proud of my country being among the pioneer countries which founded CERN just after World War 2). First, the Large Hadron Collider, the experiment that has discovered a new particle of Nature, be it the Higgs Boson or not, has the word "hadrons" in its name: this is a category of subatomic particles subject to the strong nuclear force; had scientists not been curious about what lies at ever more microscopic scales and how it behaves, we would have not known that hadrons exist and that they can be used as very precise projectiles to be shot at tumors lying deep down inside the human body. Second, the World Wide Web, the network we now massively use to communicate, work, exchange and look for info, travel, buy, etc: its father, Sir Timothy John Berners-Lee, was working for CERN when he invented it. Both connections between fundamental physics and everyone's life are so profound you'd wonder how we (read: our governments) do not try and find more ways to keep this healthy process alive. That is the mission I've chosen for myself: to make people aware, first, and appreciative, afterwards, of why science is both beautiful and useful. I'm confident this experience at Scientopia will serve this purpose of mine, as well as teach me how to do it better along the way.

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