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.
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.