Passionate about (studying) strange things: Interview with Laura Fabbietti

Virginia Greco

Laura Fabbietti, professor of physics at TUM and member of the ALICE collaboration, recently gave a talk on neutron stars studies at the latest TEDxTUM event.

Laura Fabbietti talking at TEDxTUM. [Credits:TEDxTUM]

In December 2017 the Technische Universit?t M?nchen (TUM) hosted a TEDx event called “Re-Formations of Tomorrow”, which focused on the ideas and concepts that might inspire our future and that will shape the place we will live and work in.

Fifteen speakers, expert in very diverse research fields, followed one another on the stage and shared their ideas about the reformations of the past, present and future.

Among them was Laura Fabbietti, professor of physics at TUM and member of the ALICE collaboration, who talked about her studies of neutron stars using LHC data. It is actually still not known what is inside the astrophysics objects that we call neutron stars: they might be made just of neutrons or free quarks or even hyperons, which are particles composed of up, down and strange quarks, one of each.

A nuclear physicist specialised on the study of the strong interaction and hadron physics, in the latest years Fabbietti has enlarged the scope of her research towards astrophysics, but using experimental devices placed on Earth rather than looking up to the sky.

Fabbietti was born in Bergamo (Italy) and studied physics at the University of Milan. She received her Master's Diploma in 1998, defending an experimental thesis on particle multi-fragmentation in the MeV energy range, which she developed at the INFN “Laboratori Nazionali del Sud” in Catania. Then, she moved to Munich (Germany) to work on fixed target experiments at GSI and study hadronic physics at GeV energies. After completing her PhD, Fabbietti was conferred a five-year grant for young investigators from the German Helmholtz Society, which allowed her to establish her own research group. In 2009, she won a junior professor position at TUM and, since 2011, she is a permanent associate professor.

We asked her to tell us about her work and passions, as well as about her TEDx experience.

Laura Fabbietti talking at TEDxTUM. [Credits:TEDxTUM]

Professor Fabbietti, what are the major physics topics you are working on?

I am mainly interested in better understanding the strong interaction between fundamental particles, but about four years ago I started to investigate the possibility of using experiment on Earth to make measurements that could help astrophysicists to shed light on some intriguing matters, such as the structure of neutron stars. In particular, we use the LHC and the ALICE experiment to study two-body and three-body interactions between nucleons and hadrons including strange quarks, with the aim of discovering the real nature of neutron stars. Do they include hyperons? We cannot yet prove or confute this hypothesis. Even though ALICE is not primarily an experiment for hadronic physics, it turned out to be very useful for this kind of research. We have a significant amount of data of pp and Pb-p collisions and our analysis on them is already producing interesting results. 

Another research topic I would like to delve into is antimatter. We can use the data produced with LHC collisions to make quantitative measurements of the inelastic cross-section of the interactions between anti-nuclei – light and heavy – and normal matter. I believe that the results of such study could allow cosmologists to reduce the errors in some of their models, such as those that describe the propagation of the cosmic rays in the interstellar medium, and hopefully also help them solve the dark matter puzzle. This analysis, though, is still at its first stage, we haven't published any result yet.

You are a nuclear physicist but you are looking into astrophysics problems. Why this shift of interests?

It all originated a few years ago when I started searching for new applications of my hadron physics studies. I admit that I had to strengthen the research programme of my group in order to secure funding, so at the beginning I was somehow obliged to step out of my comfort zone. But now I am glad of it, because looking around I began making connections and having new ideas. In addition, I think it is important to create a bridge between different fields of research. Astrophysics and cosmology on one side and particle and nuclear physics on the other are quite separated worlds, which is normal to some extent since it is hard to be expert in both fields. I am not experienced in astrophysics myself, nevertheless I think there is a potential that we can exploit working in collaboration.

How was giving a talk at the TEDxTUM event?

Both scary and satisfactory! I am not the kind of person who loves being on a stage. Moreover, preparing such a talk for the general public requires a significant amount of time, since you have to find a way to explain things in comprehensible terms without losing in correctness. At first, when I received the invitation to be a speaker, I was doubtful, but shortly afterwards I decided to accept, because I felt that we – researchers – have the obligation to explain to the taxpayers what we do and why we do it.

Thus, in the end I am happy that I took part in the event, also because it gave visibility to the research we pursue in my group and in ALICE. Now the video is online and I saw that more than 1000 people have watched it. If those people found it useful, I can only be satisfied.

You wore a special dress on that occasion… Where did you find it?

My sister made it for me. She is an artist and a tailor as well, so from time to time I ask her to make me a dress for talks and special occasions. In this case, when I accepted the invitation to the TEDxTUM event, I immediately proposed her to realize a dress for me painting on its front an image of two merging neutron stars. She worked on it for one month. I was very happy to be able to wear it on the day of my talk.

What do you do in your spare time?

I really enjoy biking. Actually, I often come to work by bike from home, which is in the centre of Munich: it is about 13 km. I also like running, practicing yoga, visiting museums, going to the theatre and to the church. I also enjoy cooking and knitting.

Do you find time to do all this, in addition to being the leader of a research group?

Well… I don't sleep much [she laughs].


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