Name: Sunny Vagnozzi
Current position: Postdoc
Affiliation: Kavli Institute for Cosmology, University of Cambridge
What is your field of research?
Officially a cosmologist, but really I work at the boundary of cosmology, astrophysics, and astroparticle physics, often moving across these fields, and touching both theory and data.
What is your career trajectory to date?
Undergrad at the University of Trento in Italy 2009-2012, Erasmus exchange student at Imperial College in the UK 2012-2013, Master's in Theoretical Particle Physics at the University of Melbourne in Australia 2013-2014, long-term visiting researcher at the Niels Bohr Institute 2014-2015. Then I did my PhD at the Oskar Klein Centre, Stockholm University, from 2015 to 2019 with Katie Freese being my advisor. And finally in late 2019 I moved to the University of Cambridge here in the UK, where I've got roughly one more year to go (unfortunately I already need to apply for a new job in the fall!)
What are the most exciting open questions in your research area?
Without question the nature of dark matter and dark energy. Not only their nature, but also what are the best ways to detect and learn about them. From this point of view the field of searches for DM is, from my perspective, decades ahead of DE, and one important question/research direction (which I'm involved in) should aim to close or at least reduce this gap. At the cost of sounding cliche I'll also say an exciting open question is the Hubble tension, because I see it as an opportunity to learn more about our dark components (if you believe the tension is there, that is!).
What do you like and dislike about being a scientist?
I like the fact that at least in my field we ponder some of the most fundamental questions ever to be raised by humankind, such as "What are we (the Universe) made of?", "How did it all begin?", "Where are we (the Universe) going?". This is no cliche. I also like the freedom to choose what to work on, at what pace (though collaborators can put pressure sometimes!), when, and so on. I dislike the fact that at my career stage there is zero stability and job security and one has to constantly (every 2-3 years) move around and often start over again. It's nice insofar as you get to experience new places and new cultures, but for many people it may not be sustainable, at least not in the long run. If I ever get a permanent position that's something I will try to do something about.
Which of your skills are you most proud of, or find most useful?
I guess I'm pretty good at coding in Python (and somewhat less good, but still good, in Fortran).
In your career so far, at what point were you the most excited, and what were you excited about?
I was really excited when the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) released their "image" of M87*. I still find the image stunning. Besides the excitement of having been able to "visualize" a black hole (note the quotation marks), I was excited by the prospects this opened towards probing either gravity in the strong-field regime, or exotic near-horizon physics which appear either in quantum gravity frameworks or attempts to solve the black hole information paradox. I worked on some of these aspects right after EHT released their image.
What new skills would you like to learn in the next year?
Does grant writing count as a skill? No seriously there are so many things professional physicists are expected to know how to do, but were never formally trained at. So yeah I would totally say grant writing.
What advances or new results are you excited about or looking forward to?
I look forward to more results from the Event Horizon Telescope or its successor ngEHT. Then I look forward to more precise CMB polarization data, which will help us better test proposed solutions to the Hubble tension. And finally I look forward to future CMB missions failing to detect neutrino masses despite all the promises of ~3-4 sigma detections. Not because I'm a mean person, but because once you've ruled out systematics that would be unambiguous indication for new physics in the neutrino sector and/or the dark sector, which I think would be really exciting. And my bet is that this is indeed what will happen (we'll fail to detect neutrino masses), but we'll see 5-10 years whether I'm right.
What is the biggest obstacle that is slowing down your research field right now?
There are scientific obstacles I prefer not to talk about, but if I move beyond the science, then there are at least three problems. Too many useless Zoom meetings and useless emails. Too much job instability/insecurity at the postdoc level. Too much useless admin stuff to attend to. Mind you, this is my personal take! Probably somebody at a different seniority level would give you different answers (though if I am already finding admin overburdening, I can only imagine how it must be for a more senior person).
What role do you think a community network like EuCAPT can play in developing theoretical astroparticle physics and cosmology in Europe?
I think it's too early for me to make a prediction, we'll really find out once the pandemic is over. But I would say so far so good.
What’s your favorite food?
This is a tough one. As an Italian I'm used to eating very well. But if I must choose one, then I'll be very specific and say "paccheri ai gamberoni rossi". But a very specific version of it, the one which is cooked at the restaurant "Le Due Sorelle" in Terracina, Italy. Short of that I absolutely adore duck, particularly with bamboo shoots and chinese mushrooms.
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 Italy, Denmark, and Sweden. I have very fond memories of Sweden, it's really my second home. The thing I found surprising in Sweden is their obsession with coffee breaks ("fika"). Seriously, sometimes it looks to me like for admin people work is a break for fika, not the other way around (and yet when you take into account all these breaks they are rather efficient)!
How do you like to relax after a hard day of work?
I relax with my wife, play my violin, listen to music (Bach is my favorite composer) go for walks nearby, watch series on Netflix (I'm currently watching "Community"), and read a nice book. Oh, and especially cook. I love cooking and I love being creative in the kitchen. Some of my most creative cooking ideas occur to me at ~10 pm (most of them would result in my Italian citizenship being revoked).
Do you have any non-physics interests that you would like to share?
I've been playing the violin since the age of 5, and I still do regularly. It really helps with my relaxation and creativity. Besides that I also enjoy scuba diving. And I'm a Juve fan, so I pretty much watch most of their games.
If you were not a scientist, what do you think you would be doing?
When I was a child I wanted to be either a bus driver (like my grandfather) or a road tunnel builder (I still have a thing for road tunnels). My ambitions have changed now, so I think if I were not a scientist I would be either a violinist or a sports journalist.
What do you hope to see accomplished scientifically in the next 50 years?
Find evidence for life beyond Earth. Find out what dark matter and dark energy are. Detect primordial gravitational waves.
What question would you have liked us to ask you, and what would you have responded?
Given the question on my favorite food, I would have expected a question on my favorite book or writer. In that case I would absolutely go for the "His Dark Materials" trilogy (and the related "Book of Dust" trilogy) by Philip Pullman. Pullman's writing strongly influenced my choice to do research precisely in this field, and so did the writing of another renown Oxfordian writer, Lewis Carroll.