Summer School

By Sean Carroll | July 13, 2006 6:13 pm

Eavesdrop on an informal gathering of professional cosmologists, and you might hear them debating the relative merits of different strategies for measuring the dark energy equation-of-state parameter. Or they might be talking about which department is trying to steal whom away from where, the questionable competence of different funding agency administrators, or which airline has the best frequent-flyer program. Here is a question you won’t hear very often: “Did space and time exist before the Big Bang, and if not, can we make sense of the existence of our universe without invoking the presence of God?” But students will happily talk about such things — they haven’t yet figured out that they’re not supposed to. That’s why, when one finds oneself lecturing along with one’s colleagues at a summer school for physicists, it’s much more fun to hang out with the students.

I’m spending this week at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, an historic town overlooking the Adriatic Sea at the border of Italy and Slovenia. The ICTP is a little bit older than me, founded in in 1964 by Abdus Salam, who shared the Nobel Prize with Glashow and Weinberg in 1979 for their unified theory of the weak interactions and electromagnetism. Salam, from Pakistan, was committed to bringing modern science to developing countries, and an important mission of the ICTP is to collect scientists from around the world into one place to exchange ideas. It’s not hard to coax busy researchers into visiting Trieste, as you might guess from this view of the Adriatico Guest House where most of us are staying.

ICTP Adriatico guest house

I’ve been lecturing on introductory cosmology and the early universe at a summer school organized by Uros Seljak and Paolo Creminelli. The school spans quite a range of topics, from Tom Abel talking about early star formation to Alex Vilenkin talking about the multiverse. Five or six hours of lectures a day over the course of the two-week school keep everyone busy — for anyone out there wondering whether a career as an academic is for them, ask yourselves whether taking notes on talks about structure formation and linear perturbation theory sounds like a fun way to spend your summer vacation.

Admittedly, a salt mine it’s not — it’s a social occasion as well, in a gorgeous setting, and well, most of us manage to take advantage of the surroundings in our downtime. Yesterday evening Uros, who was born and lives nearby in Slovenia, took some of the lecturers out on his small boat (photos forthcoming, if I can get my camera to talk to my computer) to a seafood restaurant up the coast, where we enjoyed a light Italian repast. That is to say, over the course of several hours the server chose for us a substantial selection of antipasti (cozze, mussels, caught within sight of the restaurant, were the featured ingredient), followed by heaping plates of pasta, leading eventually to fresh grilled dorade and sea bass over vegetables, and concluding ultimately with biscotti dipped in sweet wine. Carafes of prosecco were produced to help keep the food going down smoothly. I was ready to push away from the table and stumble back to the guest house when the proprietess arrived with a bottle of grappa and a collection of shot glasses. We soldiered on.

As much as I do enjoy the company of my colleagues, however, the true joy was the previous evening, when I inserted myself into a group of students (mostly graduates from various countries of Europe) for drinks after an afternoon dinner reception. Starting with God and the Big Bang, we enjoyed the kind of good old-fashioned bull session in which college students regularly indulge, but which becomes increasingly less frequent as we grow old and settled in our opinions. Can you be a good physicist without knowing general relativity? What is the proper ratio of gin to vermouth in a dry martini? Does slow-roll inflation necesarily predict a nearly scale-free spectrum of primordial perturbations? What are the crucial differences between Croatian and Bulgarian accents? Why would anyone prefer The Animals’ version of I Put a Spell on You to the original by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins?

There is no occupation, from fighter pilot to professional hockey player to homicide detective, that is completely free from the danger of creeping professionalism — an adaptation to the customs and techniques of the discipline so thorough as to render the marvelous routine, pushing the sources of awe and wonder to the background in favor of more pressing and mundane concerns. It’s good to be reminded now and then of the open-minded stance toward the deep questions of the universe that originally motivates people to plunge into such a wildly impractical occupation as “professional cosmologist.” My deep thanks to Lyuba, Lily, Kai, Leonardo, Arti, Guillermo, Alex, Dominika, and all the other students at the school here in Trieste, for providing such vivid examples of why we all become scientists in the first place.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Personal, Travel
  • jay

    You and Alex for lecturers! Who are the organizers again? This time the students must learn a lot about cosmology and savvy dedicated ‘professional’ thinkers. Praise the organizers once again!

  • jayster

    Hello!I’m a chinese student.
    welcome to my blog!

  • Dukahweew Olie

    nice piece, sean!

  • JoAnne

    I’m lecturing at Trieste in September for their LHC summer school. And staying at the Adriatico guest house. Can’t wait!!! It’s a great place and atmosphere for physics.

  • Amara

    I don’t know if you have transportation to move outside Trieste, but if you have a desire to see more, you can head to Croatia and the lovely coast. One of my life’s pleasures is to seek and enjoy the best naturist beaches in the world. Naturism is not as socially acceptable in Italy as it is in all of the countries surrounding Italy (although if you find a remote deserted Italian beach, Trieste too, noone who passes by truly cares if you are senza vestiti). In the lovely Croatian Istra coast among the more touristy textile beaches are other less crowded beaches that are more relaxing. While the weather and water is warm, it might be a nice diversion.

  • zhao Rongqin

    I am a teacher from China.My field is geography.Today,I learned about that the blog of you five scollars was listed as one of the top five blogs in sciences. congratulates!

    your blog is simple but profound. I like it. Meanwhile, welcome to visit my blog(“the window to Earth”)(in Chinese) at your convenience.

    Best regards!

    yours:Zhao Rongqin

  • Sean

    Amara, unfortunately this is (despite the impression one might get from the post) just a quick trip for work rather than play, and I’m heading back very early tomorrow. No time to explore the beaches and their denizens, clothed or otherwise. Hopefully after I move in the fall I will be able to have a more relaxed schedule and get to play tourist a bit more.

  • Plato

    In your opening paragraph I thought it might be one of those examples of what cosmologists must do by remaining “in the box” as Clifford liked to call you cosmological people.

    But then, maybe, it is more then that, when it comes to letting the hair down, and feeling free to wonder?

    A doing away of the “discipline,” and being the “children of the universe,” all dreamy? :)

    It’s sort of like watching children doing there thing from a parental perspective?

    That one is allowed such freedoms of play? Then again, coming back from the play, one is to regain composure and adult status? The “chalk board” (tabla Rusa) showing all the ideas, but “reigning in” when the ideas are ready to be check for accuracy?

    Sometimes a little pearl maybe?

    So you encourage, while still seeking responsibility?

    Having a perspective about God, “knowing” that once you were such a child?

    There are such thoughts about being the child and encouraging such freedoms(creativity and ingenuity) even within such discipline, I am sure. Maybe you have a more advanced way of saying this?

  • Urbano

    Trieste definitely is a wonderful place in summer…

    Just and appendix on the ICTP: it has a leading role also in taking science to the third world countries. They cover ALL the expenses for the students coming from underdeveloped countries, and give them a chance to interact with the cream of science during those schools. They really do a fantastic job!

  • citrine

    THIS is what we need to describe to HS and college students who are wondering whether to major in physics!!
    Actually, I’m not being flip. This kind of international collaboration must be very exciting and informative, when physicists from various academic backgrounds and schools of thought get together to exchange insights.
    What significant differences do you see between those who studied primarily under the American college system vs. those educated mainly in Europe? It seems to me that in some countries, physics tends to be taught in a very theoretical way using extremely rigorous math while in the USA for instance, applications and interpretations are stressed quite a bit.

    What are the answers to those profound questions you mentioned? Can you be a good physicist without learning GR? etc. etc.

  • Uncle Enzo

    jayster: I love your blog! Lots of pretty question marks! Very entertaining.
    zhao Rongqin: Lots of pretty symbols in your blog too, though not enough question marks. But your blog is much more informative than jayster’s blog. However, I can get all that content from wikipedia.

    Excellent blogs! Congratulates to you both.

  • Count Iblis
  • Uncle Enzo

    You see? Italia is the best! Forza Italia! Good work. We are talking about Italia. Just what I wanted. Thank you, Sean!

  • Jeff

    very nice writing sean. Somehow, as this blog often does, it seems to find a way to connect to my own life and experiences. Not too long ago I actually applied for work at ICTP in Trieste to do exactly that — bring scientific development to the developing world. But, in the meantime, I’ve gotten another job offer related to exactly what you were talking about — the wonder of the cosmos and how it excites us. I’ll be working on designing new satellite concepts for a variety of astronomy and physics missions (including gravitational waves (LISA) and dark energy). Fundamentally the reason I’m taking the promotion is not because of money or ranking — it’s just too frickin’ cool to work with this stuff. Now… I am woefully behind the curve on being fluent in the latest research… I probably need to attend your summer school lectures… yeah, in Italia… mmm..spaghetti con cozze…prosecco…

  • Amara

    Uncle Enzo: Just so you know: ICTP (and to some extent SISSA) is unique in Italy regarding support of science. It has a large influx of funding support from the outside. If you go next door to the Osservatorio Astronomico di Trieste, then you are back in the usual Italian lack-of-science-support conditions. Italy has dropped further in the last 5 years, currently investing about 0.8 or 0.9% GNP on research.

  • Amara

    citrine: “What significant differences do you see between those who studied primarily under the American college system vs. those educated mainly in Europe?”

    One (small?) difference I’ve noticed in astronomy / planetary science here (Europe) is _alot_ of “schools” (often in the summer, but not always) for the PhD students. They are relatively cheap, you go someplace pleasant but isolated for 1-2 weeks once or twice a year, with 30-50 other students, focussed on a topic, and learn with lectures and sometimes hands-on work. If such a thing was available to me in the States when I was taking my graduate courses, then I somehow missed the advertisements. These schools seem to take the role of the ‘practical’ or ‘real-world’ application of the theory that the students learn in the European universities.

    Last year I was a lecturer for an October one-week astrophysics school in Volterra, and I agree with Sean’s experience. It was way more fun to hang out with the students!

  • Sean

    citrine, the great thing about these questions is that they don’t have settled answers! My answer to the GR issue was a fudge: it’s a shame that, 90 years after its invention, people can still get degrees in physics without being exposed to general relativity — but, as a matter of indisputable fact, plenty of great physicists don’t know GR at all.

    And Amara, as luck would have it, the end-of-the-week party was held at a beach that was in fact quite naturist, although on the Italian side. The physicists uniformly did not get into the spirit of things, and some of the students were quite a bit disconcerted — the joke was to wonder which group would drive off the other first, although they ultimately coexisted peacefully.

  • Pyracantha

    As I once pointed out here, the intellectually exciting conferences in nice places and the interesting social life and the conversations on the beach and at the restaurants are perks. They are earned by twenty years of struggle and toil and competition until degrees, papers, and academic status are achieved. This pleasantry is not open to just anyone who likes and learns about physics.

  • Amara

    Pyracantha, yes, but hopefully young people are involved by their bosses at an early stage in their careers in the data acquisition and analysis and conference presentations, any of which can occur in special places. If one’s career demands 24 hour a day attention (many do), these ‘perks’ are almost necessary to maintain one’s sanity.

    Sean, I can picture the scene, a funny kind of dance between two out-of-the-ordinary groups, who have little idea what the other group represents. My adventurous colleagues, who enjoy some of the same hobbies that I do, have been known to jump fences while exploring an island in their one free afternoon of a week-long workshop to accidently find naturist beach parties in progress. (They joined the celebration, which was the naturist club’s commemoration of a new ladder that reached the sea from the rocky shore). All it takes is a curious mind, open heart, and an adventurous spirit to find those precious nuggets of unforgettable moments.

    Kip Thorne quote: “CALIFORNIA magazine, in an article on “The Man Who Invented Time Travel”, even ran a photograph of me doing physics in the nude on Palomar Mountain. I was mortified—not by the photo, but by the totally outrageous claims that I had invented time machines and time travel.”

  • Guillermo


    thanks to you for enjoyable lectures and conversations.

    As regards to the physical world, I’ll have more questions than anwers by the end of the school. This is probably a positive net balance.

    Having attended Joanne’s extra dimensions lectures last summer at Les Houches, I can say that Trieste will have another good science communicator in september.

  • Uncle Enzo

    Amara: No, I refuse to believe that Italia is not the best. They are the best, and Italia’s world cup victory over France was proof positive that they are!

  • JoAnne

    Guillermo, Thanks! I’m looking forward to Trieste.

  • Pingback: Arbitrary Chronological Signifiers | Cosmic Variance()

  • Pingback: End of the summer school season | Cosmic Variance()


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


See More

Collapse bottom bar