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From Trieste to São Paulo

International center at Unesp institute advances research and sponsors courses and events on theoretical physics

Unesp_40_2JG6347_1LÉO RAMOSThe auditorium of the Institute for Theoretical Physics (IFT), at São Paulo State University (Unesp), has become the site of intense discussions on advanced topics in physics over the past four years. Between courses, seminars, and workshops, 25 events are scheduled to take place there during 2016. In the coming few weeks alone, two international courses will receive researchers from countries like the United States, India, Italy, the Czech Republic, Sweden, France, and Argentina, providing training to more than a hundred master’s and doctoral candidates from Brazil and abroad. The first course, slated for May 23-31, 2016, will focus on string theory, a theoretical framework that conceives of atomic interactions as involving hypothetical entities called strings, which give rise to particles. The second, to be held June 27-July 9, 2016, will explore dark matter, an unknown, invisible substance that makes up at least 23% of the Universe and appears neither to absorb nor to emit light.

Some of the scheduled workshops will address topics like the mathematical modeling of urban systems, mathematical physics, and entrepreneurship. The activities are sponsored by the International Centre for Theoretical Physics of the South American Institute for Fundamental Research (ICTP-SAIFR), a joint initiative launched in 2010 by Unesp, FAPESP, and the Abdus Salam ICTP, in Trieste, Italy. “Our programming is defined by a scientific committee that comprises top-level researchers from Brazil and abroad, who meet every February,” says Nathan Berkovits, a U.S.-born physicist and naturalized Brazilian who is a professor with IFT-Unesp and director of ICTP-SAIFR.

This is the first center to repeat the Italian experience elsewhere. The Trieste ICTP was established in the 1960s to produce world-class science and train researchers from developing nations. Its founder was Abdus Salam (1926-1996), a Pakistani physicist and winner of the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics.

In addition to organizing events that draw lecturers and students from Brazil and the rest of Latin America, the São Paulo center engages in cutting-edge research in theoretical physics. With this in mind, it is strengthening the 18-professor-strong IFT staff by adding a dozen post-doctoral fellows, mostly from abroad, along with visiting researchers. Five foreign researchers have been recruited using a somewhat novel approach for a Brazilian university. During the selection process, an international committee evaluates candidates from around the world by analyzing their résumés and conducting interviews. The winners are then accepted for a probationary period, which usually lasts two years. If the experience is successful, a competitive job opening is announced in the researcher’s field and, if he would like to, he can apply for this professorship.

Eduardo Pontón, a 45-year-old Colombian, was the first to take this path and become an IFT professor and permanent researcher with ICTP-SAIFR. Pontón holds a PhD in physics from the University of Maryland and was a professor at Columbia University from 2004 to 2012; he is a specialist in particle physics, especially as it relates to the operation of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Another four researchers are now working on probation at the São Paulo ICTP. One of them is Fabio Iocco, a 36-year-old Italian specializing in astroparticle physics who has contributed to the study of dark matter in recent years. Iocco is currently a beneficiary of FAPESP’s Young Investigators in Emerging Institutions program and also of an endowment that the center received from the Simons Foundation in New York. Chosen by a committee made up of scientists with ties to institutions in the United States and Germany – like Princeton University and the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics – Iocco has been dedicating himself to a variety of activities since moving to São Paulo in 2014. In 2015, he was first author of a paper that demonstrated the existence of so-called dark matter between the Sun and the inner Milky Way, published in Nature Physics. Iocco and his collaborators discovered with unprecedented precision that the true rotation speeds of the stars around the center of the galaxy are greater than what would be expected, given the gravitational force wielded by the visible mass of stars. The difference is attributed to the presence of dark matter.

Iocco also organizes events and advises students. He is currently involved in preparations for the International School on Dark Matter, which expects to bring as many as 100 attendees to the IFT in June 2016. “The educational concern of this course is to present the most advanced topics on the subject to master’s and doctoral students. The students come from all over South America and given the range of their backgrounds, it’s vital that we choose professors who not only have in-depth knowledge of the subject matter, but also know how to translate this information to the students, sustaining the level of excellence that ICTP-SAIFR wants to generate,” Iocco says.

Like Iocco, Uruguayan Rafael Porto, 38, formerly at Princeton University, accepted a temporary position at ICTP in 2014, with funding from FAPESP and the Simons Foundation. The latest recruit is Pedro Vieira, a Portuguese-born visiting professor from the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, in Canada. Vieira was awarded the 2015 Gribov Medal by the European Physical Society for his research in the field. Rounding out the picture is Riccardo Sturani, an Italian who has been a beneficiary of FAPESP’s Young Investigators program since 2013 and who plans to leave the IFT in the second semester of 2016 to work at the International Physics Institute (IIF) of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte (UFRN) (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue nº 242). Sturani has ties to the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in the United States, which recorded the passage of gravitational waves through the Earth for the first time ever (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue nº 241).

The IFT-Unesp master’s and doctoral program received a grade of 7 – the highest possible – from the Brazilian Federal Agency for the Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (CAPES) during its last two evaluations, surpassing its previous grade of 6. This performance is ascribed to the Institute’s growing interaction with universities abroad. Established in the 1970s, the IFT graduate program has awarded some 300 master’s and 200 doctoral degrees and currently has 60 enrollees. “We once had 28 professors, a big enough contingent to guarantee diversity in the fields of research in our graduate program, but many of them retired and haven’t been replaced yet. Now there are only 18 of us,” says Rogério Rosenfeld, professor and current IFT director. The Institute does not offer undergraduate courses.

Unesp_26_2JG6295_1LÉO RAMOSThere is no doubt that these young researchers are propagating new lines of research consonant with the work being done at the finest institutes abroad, attesting to the center’s strong tradition in international networking. The IFT was founded in 1951 by a group led by civil engineer José Hugo Leal Ferreira, with the support of members of the armed forces like General Henrique Teixeira Lott, who ran for president of Brazil in 1960. “The country was going through the post-World War II period, and there was a great deal of interest in physics research, perhaps for the wrong reasons,” says Rosenfeld, alluding to the attractiveness of nuclear research. “A number of other research-related institutes were established around the same time, like the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), CAPES, and the Brazilian Center for Physics Research (CBPF),” he explains. The steep cost of setting up an experimental physics research institute prompted the group to propose a center focused on theoretical physics.

The adopted model mirrored the Max Planck Institute for Physics, then located in Göttingen, Germany, and headed by Werner Heisenberg, who was winner of the 1932 Nobel Prize in Physics, one of the creators of quantum mechanics, and one of those responsible for Nazi Germany’s nuclear program during World War II. “José Hugo Leal Ferreira even invited Heisenberg to serve as director,” recalls physicist Pedro Carlos de Oliveira, who in 2001 defended his PhD dissertation at the University of São Paulo (USP) on the history of the IFT. After months of negotiations, Heisenberg turned down the invitation, instead suggesting physicists Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker, Wilhelm Macke, and Reinhard Oehme, who came to Brazil. Weizsäcker was the Institute’s first director.

In the late 1950s, the Institute inaugurated its Japanese phase. In 1958, Mituo Taketani and Yasuhisa Katayama came to São Paulo from Rikkyo University and the University of Tokyo, respectively. This collaboration paved the way for work like the particle model known as the São Paulo Model. In 1962, Paulo Leal Ferreira, one of the children of founder José Hugo, was appointed science director; he was the first Brazilian to hold the position. Dedicated to research and researcher training, the IFT over time forged partnerships with universities in countries like Denmark, Chile, Argentina, Italy, France, the United States, Spain, and England.

In the 1980s, the Institute went through a serious financial crisis when the Brazilian Innovation Agency (FINEP), a body of the federal government, cut funding and ordered that its financing not be used to pay salaries. The suggested solution to the impasse was to attach the Institute to a university. Talks took place with USP and the University of Campinas (Unicamp), but they moved forward with Unesp, which had little history in physics. In fact, scientific production at the IFT was greater and more impactful than what was being done across all physics departments within the Unesp system.

Former home of the Institute for Theoretical Physics, on Pamplona Street in São Paulo: research, human resource training, and international partnerships

Eduardo CesarFormer home of the Institute for Theoretical Physics, on Pamplona Street in São Paulo: research, human resource training, and international partnershipsEduardo Cesar

The IFT gradually became an integral part of Unesp. “We’re a complementary unit, attached directly to the office of the president, who has always given us lots of support,” says Rosenfeld. Physicist Sérgio Novaes, an IFT researcher engaged more on an experimental front than in theoretical physics, led the creation of the university’s Center for Scientific Computing, which currently provides data processing services for more than 300 Unesp researchers. “This work is an indirect result of our participation with the LHC,” says Novaes, who coordinates the São Paulo branch of an international computer network that filters the results of atomic collisions produced inside of particle accelerators. Through the thematic project known as the São Paulo Research and Analysis Center (SPRACE), Brazilian physicists have been taking part in analyzing the properties of the millions of particles that are born or die when they crash at extraordinary speeds inside the Tevatron accelerator (shut down in 2011) at Fermilab, in the United States, and in the tunnels of the LHC, which lies on the France-Switzerland border.

Novaes joined Unesp in the late 1970s and devoted himself to fields within theoretical physics until 2000, when he decided to switch to an experimental area. His work with the LHC – he spends two extended periods a year in France – has made him one of the most productive researchers at Unesp. Novaes ranks third on the Webometrics list of most cited Brazilian researchers, according to Google Scholar Citations (GSC). His articles have logged 47,500 citations. “To conduct an experiment of this size, you need substantial critical mass, with the joint participation of a large number of researchers. But production is seasonal. While the equipment was being built, we didn’t publish for a long time. When the data appeared, our scholarship grew,” he says.

Until 2009, the IFT was housed in an old mansion on Pamplona Street in the state capital of São Paulo, which is still owned by the foundation that sustains the Institute. One of the signs that the IFT was becoming well integrated with Unesp was its move to a campus built by the university, across from the bus and train station in Barra Funda, São Paulo, likewise the site of the Art Institute and the Unesp Innovation Agency. In March 2016, the IFT and neighboring Art Institute promoted their first joint event, dubbed the Meeting of Universes. It featured lectures by physicists and artists on topics like “Einstein and Picasso: Space, time, and beauty” and “Higgs Boson in the Eyes of an Artist.”

This is the third in a series of reports on the 40-year history of São Paulo State University – Unesp

ICTP South American Institute for Fundamental Research: a regional center for theoretical physics (nº 2011/11973-4); Grant Mechanism Thematic project; Principal Investigator Nathan Jacob Berkovits (Institute for Theoretical Physics-Unesp); Investment R$4,293,588.79.
2. São Paulo Research and Analysis Center (nº 13/01907-0); Grant Mechanism Thematic project; Principal Investigator Sérgio Ferraz Novaes (Institute for Theoretical Physics-Unesp); Investment R$4,645,660.87 (for entire project period).
3. An effective field theory approach to cosmology (nº 2014/25212-3); Grant Mechanism Young investigators in emerging institutions; Principal Investigator Rafael Alejandro Porto Pereira (Institute for Theoretical Physics-Unesp); Investment R$192,939.21 (for entire project period).
4. Dark matter in the Milky Way: a precision era (nº 2014/22985-1); Grant Mechanism Young investigators in emerging institutions; Principal Investigator Fabio Iocco (Institute for Theoretical Physics-Unesp); Investment R$183,616.51 (for entire project period).
5. Gravitational wave research (nº 2013/04538-5); Grant Mechanism Young investigators in emerging institutions; Principal Investigator Riccardo Sturani (Institute for Theoretical Physics-Unesp); Investment R$256,541.00.