Community Profile: Miguel Zumalacarregui

Name: Miguel Zumalacarregui

Current position: Faculty

Affiliation: Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics (Albert Einstein Institut)

Field of research: Gravitation and Cosmology


What is your career trajectory to date?

I did my PhD in the University of Barcelona and the Autonomous University of Madrid. Then I was a postdoc at the University of Heidelberg, a Nordita Fellow at the Nordic Institute of Theoretical Physics and a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Global Fellow in the University of California at Berkeley. My Fellowship's return phase was at the IPhT in Saclay, which was cut short as I joined the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics for 5 years to start a new group.

What are the most exciting open questions in your research area?

There are so many! How did the Universe begin? What is dark matter? Why is the universe accelerating, and why so slowly? How do black holes form? All this questions (and about a third of open problems in physics, see this link) are related to gravity, directly or indirectly. And we expect to make substantial progress thanks to upcoming experiments and astronomical observations.

What do you like and dislike about being a scientist?

I love the freedom of being a scientist: to pursue interesting projects, to choose how (and when) I work. I enjoy chasing down a problem for months or years, giving up for a while and returning some months later with a fresh perspective. I’m also very grateful that my performance can be very uneven: an inspired afternoon can make up for weeks of going in the wrong direction (which would not be acceptable in many professions).

The worst is the uncertainty: a lot of effort goes into finding the next job and there is little control of where that will be. The dozens of rejections for every success. I wish this could be more like a regular job that you keep if you do it well.

Which of your skills are you most proud of, or find most useful?

I’ve gotten comfortable enough at coding, working with data and analytical calculations. I love working with people who have focus on one aspect, but also jumping between these modes. I also find very useful to embark on new topics or approaches every now and then. And take my time to develop projects thoroughly, even this means publishing fewer papers.

In your career so far, at what point were you the most excited, and what were you excited about?

When Gravitational Waves were first detected. I had been thinking about them for some time before 2015, but when the first detection was announced I was shocked. I decided to make gravitational waves my primary focus and explore how they can help us advance open problems in cosmology.

What new skills would you like to learn in the next year?

I’d love to embrace “snack writing”. As junior faculty and a father of a toddler and a baby (with a working spouse) I find time very scarce. I’d like to use those 15-30’ pockets of time in my workday to advance my papers and proposals.

What advances or new results are you excited about or looking forward to?

I can’t wait for the next generation of galaxy surveys to deliver data. First, to see if the cosmic tensions are strengthened or refuted, and second to see if other surprises emerge. I’m also very excited for LISA, although that will require more patience!

What is the biggest obstacle that is slowing down your research field right now?

Cosmology is advancing at a remarkable pace, set by the timescale of the observations and data analysis. However, I would like to see more ideas from the theorists, and more interest in testing non-standard scenarios from the observers.

More broadly I think there are serious structural issues in academia. One is the lack of professional stability, which makes many excellent people leave the field at their prime. Instability also incentivises giving priority to simple, straightforward projects and postponing important decisions, like having children.

What role do you think a community network like EuCAPT can play in developing theoretical astroparticle physics and cosmology in Europe?

It is essential to increase the interaction between different approaches (observers & theorists), and also between fields. It is often the case that an area undergoes rapid progress thanks to another field, like when multi-messenger gravitational wave observations ruled out large classes of dark energy models. More fluid communication will facilitate tapping these opportunities.

It is also important to offer support for early career scientists. Having an involved supervisor is a huge advantage, but there are many bright and hard working people that struggle because they lack good a mentor.

What’s your favorite food?

I love most forms of food, and I love cooking. I have a sweet spot for seafood and its applications, like paella.

Have you lived in a different European country than you do now? If so, would you like to tell us something about it, e.g. a fond memory or something you found surprising?

I’ve lived in Spain, Germany (twice), Sweden and California (United States). I have loved all these places, experiencing the little differences and appreciating different aspects of each place.

How do you like to relax after a hard day of work?

My kids take most of my after- (and pre-) work time, but playing with them is very fun and takes my mind off work. If the evening is particularly smooth I might even drink a glass of wine or watch a portion of a movie.

Do you have any non-physics interests that you would like to share?

I love to read and cook for friends and family. I’m also interested in mindfulness and meditation from a practical perspective.

If you were not a scientist, what do you think you would be doing?

Other technical work that involves problem solving, for instance in the technology or policy sector.

What do you hope to see accomplished scientifically in the next 50 years?

I’d love to learn what dark matter is. Also an explanation for dark energy that is experimentally verified and has profound implications for fundamental physics.