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A Northern pole

The Theoretical Physics Institute in Natal, Rio Grande do Norte State, has new headquarters and will sponsor long-term events involving scientists from several countries

New headquarters have offices for up to 70 researchers

Cyro Lucas Souza/IIFNew headquarters have offices for up to 70 researchersCyro Lucas Souza/IIF

Natal, the capital of Rio Grande do Norte, has taken a step towards becoming an international center for theoretical physics research. The March 2016 inauguration of the headquarters of the International Physics Institute (IIF) on the campus of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte (UFRN) promises to further work and partnerships on the frontiers of knowledge by bringing together researchers from all over the world to attend events lasting up to three months. With an area of 4,000 square meters, it contains a 150-seat auditorium, two rooms for seminars, a high-performance computer laboratory and offices for the institution’s staff and dozens of visitors. “Now we have offices for up to 70 researchers. This is critical to hosting physicists from Brazil and abroad properly, increasing the circulation of ideas and paving the way for collaborations,” comments physicist Álvaro Ferraz, a UFRN professor and director of the institute.

IIF was founded in 2010 and operated out of a rented house near the university campus. Its annual activities were defined by its International Governing Board, which included two recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physics, plus other Brazilian and foreign researchers. It held about a dozen workshops and international meetings lasting one or two weeks on topics related to the frontiers of physics, such as string theory, turbulence, cold atoms, quantum information, and high-temperature superconductivity, which took place at the UFRN Department of Theoretical and Experimental Physics or in rented auditoriums in local hotels. Now, with the new facilities, they intend to host more robust meetings. “At the most recent meeting of the International Governing Board, we decided that we will hold longer meetings, some up to three months long,” says Ferraz. “I have already benefited greatly from the institute’s events, which always bring together the top researchers working on cutting-edge questions,” says Mucio Continentino, a representative of the Brazilian Center for Physics Research (CBPF) who serves on IIF’s International Governing Board. “We hope to promote greater academic collaboration with longer events,” says the researcher. UFRN’s president, Ângela Cruz, stresses the impact that the institute has had on the university. “In just the last few years, IIF has brought about 300 scientists and 900 graduate students to UFRN, and held 32 international scientific events. To these results are added the organization of about 100 research seminars and the growth of publications with international impact,” he notes.

Sources of inspiration
The idea of founding IIF arose in the late 2000s, at the suggestion of physicist Sérgio Rezende, who was then the Minister of Science and Technology. He proposed the establishment of an institute that, although connected to a university, would have the status of an autonomous entity linked to the ministry. Because of this autonomy, it would have its own budget and ability to sponsor both events and high-level researchers, often recruited from other countries. The sources of inspiration were theoretical physics centers such as the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara (USA), the Yukawa Institute, linked to the University of Kyoto (Japan), or the International Center for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste (Italy). These centers also promote events that involve researchers from several countries.

Postdoctoral researcher Fabio Novaes conversing with Professor Dmitry Melnikov

Cyro Lucas Souza/IIFPostdoctoral researcher Fabio Novaes conversing with Professor Dmitry MelnikovCyro Lucas Souza/IIF

The group of permanent IIF researchers is still being formed. In addition to Álvaro Ferraz, there are another two research area leaders: the Russian Dmitry Melnikov, a specialist in string theory, and the Italian Pasquale Sodano, a statistical physicist. There is also the Russian Mark Minieev-Weinstein, a visiting researcher, and 11 postdoctoral researchers of various nationalities. Seventeen scientists from other countries spend up to three months at the institution each year, participating in events.

The relationship between the institute and the physics department at UFRN is becoming stronger. “Until last year, I had advised only one PhD student. This year I began advising two PhD students and one master’s student,” says Dmitry Melnikov, a researcher at IIF since 2010. “The distance between the old building and the campus was a deterrent.”

Melnikov organized a major international event on string theory at the institute in 2013 and is preparing to host another. He also coordinated meetings to bring together all researchers and students from universities in the Northeast interested in this research area. The Russian researcher obtained his undergraduate degree from a university in Moscow in 2003 and his PhD from Rutgers University, in the United States. “I heard about IIF for the first time when I was doing postdoctoral research at the University of Tel Aviv, Israel, and was looking for a new place to work. I decided to compete for a visiting researcher position and I was selected in 2010,” says Melnikov.

Soon, three new professors will join the institute, after passing through a selection process with 99 candidates. Two are Brazilian: Rodrigo Pereira, a researcher in condensed matter theory, from the São Carlos Institute of Physics at the University of São Paulo; and Rafael Chaves, who is in Germany and is a specialist in quantum information. Another researcher who will move to IIF is the Italian Riccardo Sturani, currently at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics/South American Institute for Fundamental Research (ICTP-SAIFR) at São Paulo State University (Unesp). Sturani has ties to the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), in the United States, which recently recorded the first passage of gravitational waves through Earth (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue nº 241). “My contract with ICTP-SAIFR ends in 2017 and I began looking for a new position. The institute in Natal interested me because its international visibility is increasing,” he says.

In order to operate, IIF must overcome obstacles related to funding. The idea is for it to become an autonomous institute with funding guaranteed by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation and by the Ministry of Education. According to Álvaro Ferraz, they are thinking of changing the institute’s legal status, turning it into a non-profit, and thus diversifying its sources of funding. “We hope Brazil’s economic crisis will not last too long,” says Ferraz.