Name: Pasquale Dario Serpico
Current position: Faculty
Affiliation: Laboratoire d'Annecy-le-Vieux de Physique Théorique (LAPTh, CNRS)
Field of research: Theoretical astroparticle physics
What is your career trajectory to date?
I was undergrad in Naples, Italy. I did my PhD at Max-Planck-Institut for Physics (& TUM) in Munich, Germany. Then postdoctoral stints at the Theoretical astrophysics division at Fermilab, USA and CERN Theory group, Switzerland, before being hired at CNRS in France, where I still am.
What are the most exciting open questions in your research area?
Is it possible (and if yes, how) to turn the parametric understanding of the universe at the largest scales into an understanding of its constituents and fundamental processes? Dark matter, the accelerated expansion, inflation, baryon asymmetry... are all facets of the same question.
What do you like and dislike about being a scientist?
Being a scientist is like being an explorer: Questioning the world around you becomes the raison d'être of your existence. Like an explorer, you need to train, continually challenge yourself and learn new skills... while allowing nature to surprise you at any time.
But like an explorer, this means putting a high pressure on oneself and raise the bar of expectation: personal relations as well as the attachment to a specific place are usually affected. While there are opportunities to find their own way to be a researcher, one should be aware that there is a perfectly human pressure and trend to 'normalise' your activity, to bureaucratise it, to restrict your curiosity by narrowing down your field of expertise to the point that what you do may become irrelevant (to advance scientific knowledge, that is). To some extent it is unavoidable, but we must be aware of this risk and that this is taking us away from the 'real job': thinking otherwise amounts to fooling oneself. You can't be a true explorer while filling an excel sheet or being confined alone in a room.
Which of your skills are you most proud of, or find most useful?
To have learned to approach problems or understand arguments in a hierarchical way: First, isolate the key issues or steps, then delve into details (only if/when required). It may look trivial, but took me some time to learn and it is a skill I rarely see among young researchers (and sometimes among less young ones, too ;)
In your career so far, at what point were you the most excited, and what were you excited about?
Perhaps the measurement of baryon acoustic oscillations in 2005. For me, it nailed the case for the dark matter as being a fully-fledged scientific theory (at cosmo scales, that is! Not talking of any specific model incarnation...): Once adjusting your free parameters on the CMB, it made a prediction, it could have been falsified, it was found where predicted. The ball is in the theorists camp, to find what this phenomenon means, a task we have failed to complete till now. But as a PhD student, it was like watching the scientific method unfolding under my eyes. Physical cosmology was a science!
What new skills would you like to learn in the next year?
To learn more about some non-perturbative phenomena in the early universe, which can only be seriously dealt with numerically (end of inflation dynamics via lattice tools, for instance).
What advances or new results are you excited about or looking forward to?
I am pretty sure that experiments opening up new frontiers will provide us with new questions: JWST, gravitational wave observatories or 21 cm cosmology are examples. Deeply, I hope they will revolutionise the current cosmological model, since we only advance greatly where our knowledge is shuttered!
What is the biggest obstacle that is slowing down your research field right now?
The size of the experiments is growing and with that comes bureaucratisation and longer timescales from conception to delivering results. For theorists, since the timescale between proposing ideas and testing them is growing, the risk of being trapped in a bubble and become self-referential is bigger and bigger. The risk of group thinking leading into long and expensive dead ends is the most serious obstacle in such a context. Good theoretical ideas are the ones that explain the world and make us understand/compute what was not possible before; not what a community finds fashionable or technical virtuosity at a given time. It is our duty to keep that in mind when hiring, promoting, evaluating grants...
What role do you think a community network like EuCAPT can play in developing theoretical astroparticle physics and cosmology in Europe?
I hope it will foster scientific diversity and stimulate new collaborations, notably among young people.
What’s your favorite food?
I am not sure why this is a relevant question... but to truly answer requires knowing 'where': Usually, I tend to adapt to (and search for) the culinary culture of the place I am at. If a place has no culinary culture, definitely it is a place I would not love to live at: Of course it can be an 'imported' culture (all cultures ultimately are!) but there must be a 'how and why' for the incorporation and reprocessing to have taken place. I love Japanese or Indian food, for instance, but in Naples I would never dare to go for those options: A good pizza is all I look for, and there is too little culture of those 'alien' foods to hope for a good experience. I never bought a French wine in the US, I find it a non-sense. And I was definitely surprised that corn in the US is used more to fuel cars or to produce sodas then as a food basis, as native experience should have thought the uninvited newcomers a long ago. At home, I mostly cook Italian dishes (especially vegetable and fish-based ones). Overall, I tend towards a flexitarian diet, heavily influenced by Mediterranean taste, but I rely on local, seasonal products whenever possible.
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?
Sure, Germany or Switzerland. I can for instance say that I only learned to appreciate a warm, sunny day in the spring after my first winter in Munich. It's not only Nature that blossoms, it's the whole attitude of the people that changes. Every new place I have lived at made me think about some piece of existence that I took for granted!
How do you like to relax after a hard day of work?
Depends on the season: in winter, most often reading a good book. In spring-summer, mostly open-air activities in contact with nature (walking, hiking, swimming...).
Do you have any non-physics interests that you would like to share?
I love knowing about other places and cultures. History, geography, languages, food, for instance. But also learning about the flora and fauna of the different parts of the world.
If you were not a scientist, what do you think you would be doing?
I could have very easily conceived a scientific job different from physics (notably in natural sciences: geology, paleontology, zoology...) but it's hard for me to realistically think of a job outside the scientific realm. I would have loved to be a musician and I love art and architecture in particular, but frankly I don't have the artistic skills and never considered those for a career. Most probably, I would be happy in a job related to environmental preservation: From conservationist to park ranger, I certainly could see myself taking care of trees and animals (in their environment, that is)!
What do you hope to see accomplished scientifically in the next 50 years?
To understand the origin of life, which probably will be associated to discovering it elsewhere... or to understand complex systems like the brain. Even better, to answer questions we do not even know how to formulate today.
What question would you have liked us to ask you, and what would you have responded?
Strange way to ask: "Anything else you'd like to add"? Since you asked about food, probably something along the lines: What's the most influential book you read / person you met, or what kind of music you listen to, or what is your most remarkable place you have been on Earth and why (all probably more relevant than the food-related question). The answers are reserved for interested people... if and when they'd like ask me in person. If you read till here, I already abused of your patience!