Giorgio Parisi, Nobel Prize in Physics: “Knowing how the flight of starlings works can help to understand fashion”

Giorgio Parisi poses last Friday after being recognized with the Nobel Prize in Physics.Domenico Stinellis (AP)

Giorgio Parisi, born in Rome 73 years ago, is the first Italian to win a Nobel Prize in physics in two decades. Are 21 Italians, two of them women, who have managed to win the award, among which there are five other physicists. However, Parisi is the only one who has developed his career entirely in Italy, a country that, like Spain, has historically not been very generous with R&D. In 2019, last year whose statistics are available, invested only 1.45% of its GDP in science (Spain that year stood at 1.25%), when in Europe the average was 2.2%.

Parisi has obtained the Nobel “for the discovery of the interaction between disorder and fluctuations in physical systems from the atomic to the planetary scale.” But he is also known in Italy, and not only among physicists, for his presence in social and political spheres. In addition to his participation in the defunct left-wing Sinistra e Libertà party, his battles for the secularism of the La Sapienza University of Rome are known (in 2008 he faced the same Pope Benedict XVI). The Baobab Experience association, which assists migrants in Rome, also congratulated itself on the award with a Tweet: “Theoretical physics, but practical solidarity always at the service of the community defending the most fragile. Happy and proud of our Giorgio Parisi ”. Meanwhile, at the University of Rome they hung a banner from the balcony of the historic Faculty of Physics (where another Nobel laureate, Enrico Fermi, studied) that said: “It’s coming Rome [vuelve a Roma, el lema de la selección italiana ganadora de la Eurocopa] – congratulations Giorgio ”, while the students they cheered.

“It is really very exciting to see how they have celebrated me,” says the recently awarded EL PAÍS. “The call from Stockholm is an emotion, sure, but it is more intellectual. Seeing the students applaud you is more emotional, there is a contact that is not only intellectual, it comes from a sympathy that you feel they have for you, because what you have done is emotionally important to them ”.

Question. Be honest: were you expecting it this time?

Answer. A little bit I was expecting it. I had commented to some friends that, being very optimistic, there would be a 20% probability. Just in case, I had left the phone charged and close to me.

P. Why have you never left Italy like many others?

R. In Italy I have always felt good. And as a theoretical physicist, he didn’t need big gadgets to do research. Also a physicist like Enrico Fermi: if it hadn’t been for the racial laws [promulgadas por el fascismo en 1938], would have stayed.

P. He has not wasted time: in the celebration set up in the university’s Aula Magna, it asked the research minister Maria Cristina Messa for more resources for science and for Italy to be more welcoming to researchers.

R. This is the most important thing: that there is adequate funding, that it changes the music completely. Although I know that the minister, who is a researcher, agrees. The problem is that the Minister of Finance and the Council of Ministers are also.

Scientists are part of society and I believe that on certain issues it is fair that we take sides. And people who have a stronger voice have to do more, because their voice is heard better.

P. Unlike other scientists, you have never been shy about raising your voice.

R. Scientists are part of society and I believe that on certain issues it is fair that we take sides. And people who have a stronger voice have to do more, because their voice is heard better.

P. Since your voice is now heard better: this year seven male scientists have been honored.

R. Physics loses many female scientists. From the age of 30, it becomes difficult to reconcile motherhood with research. There should be support for researchers who decide to be mothers. For example, having postdocs or a small network to help you carry out your research. Then there are problems that are of society as a whole, such as that, if you have to move for work, it is easier for the wife to follow the husband than the opposite. Not to mention the lack of resources for day care centers, for example. These and others are societal problems that are also reflected in the world of research.

P. You have worked in very different fields: spin glasses, computing, neural networks, quantum information, stochastic resonance, markets, and even the flight of birds. How do you get such a wide look?

R. First, you have to be curious to study other things. The problem is not opening up to other fields. If you want to work in immunology, you have to study immunology books first, or have a good immunologist by your side who will explain the essential things to you. It is important to have the desire to invest your free time to study new things. It is also true that sometimes you do it just out of curiosity to know them.

The typical glasses of Physics to look at the world are also fundamental for other sciences

P. This year’s award has recognized the application of the physics of complex systems to climatology and its models. Thinking of La Palma, can your physics also be applied to geology to make forecasts?

R. Yes you can, but it is not easy. More than the little ones, it would be interesting to be able to foresee the big earthquakes, which happen every many years, fortunately; but on the oldest there is very little information. It is a field in which a great deal can surely be done and a lot of research is already being done. However, earthquake forecasting is practically a newborn science.

P. Unlike other theoretical or mathematical physicists, he has many times expressed his satisfaction when his equations find practical applications. It is not usual.

R. Indeed, among mathematicians it is not so. A famous English mathematician, Godfrey Harold Hardy, author of Apology of a mathematicianHe boasted that the things he had done had no practical application. That is not even true: he worked on number theory and this is fundamental today for encrypted conversations, such as WhatsApp. Encryption is a very sophisticated application of number theory. Often times, things that were not thought to apply do. Until my first studies in spin glasses, and later in neural networks, years later, they had very important applications in artificial intelligence.

Metaphors are very important in science. Because they help people to reason

P. And your research on the flight choreographies of the starlings?

R. Well that has no application, it seems. But here I want to say something else. Metaphors are very important in science. Because they help people to reason. Understanding how the flight of starlings works can help you understand other related things. The original idea was that the flight of these birds had to do with the idea of ​​fashion. As we have been able to find out, a few birds start to turn around, and the others follow. More or less the same way a new fad starts.

P. And can this be applied to other areas?

R. There are times when one thinks so, although it is impossible to control everything. For example, him first job What we did 40 years ago on stochastic resonance and climatology, I know that it has been applied, for example, to the communication of neuron systems of some animals or to improve the quality of the cameras. The other day I saw that there were more than 40,000 scientific articles that spoke of stochastic resonance: the applications must be very many. Some are even funny, although this one I doubt works: someone used the principle of stochastic resonance to talk to ghosts.

P. When it started, physics and biology didn’t talk much. Now, partly also thanks to you, they work better together.

R. Certain. This is also due to the fact that biology today handles a very important amount of data. Then there is the problem of managing all this information. Physicists have developed ways to handle large amounts of data. Many of the biological phenomena can be interpreted with probabilistic laws, or with statistical mechanics. And all of them have been highly developed and used by physicists. These are the typical glasses of Physics to look at the world that today we know are fundamental for other sciences as well.

Correcting too much is not good: each one must learn to be autonomous and, when necessary, know how to lay a cable. But that’s only when the difficulties are important.

P. You are one of the physicists most cited to the world, has collaborated with more than 300 people and his students love him. What is the trick to having so much love?

R. Try to pay attention to your collaborators and put yourself in their shoes on the one hand, and guide them, but without being too on top. Everyone has to learn from their own mistakes. Correcting too much is not good: each one must learn to be autonomous and, when necessary, know how to lay a cable. But that’s only when the difficulties are important.

P. He has also written many children’s stories that he later read to his grandchildren.

R. No, not many: I have only written three. They are all in me Web page. I don’t think I will write more. At that time, I had read the Folk tales by Italo Calvino and the Morphology of the story by the Russian linguist Vladimir Propp. It was entertaining to put together various topics and see what happened. But now I don’t think I will dedicate myself to it. Actually, at this point in life I was thinking of writing some books to tell the history of science, but I don’t know if I will now have the time to do so.

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Giorgio Parisi, Nobel Prize in Physics: “Knowing how the flight of starlings works can help to understand fashion”