Space time travel through the fascinating world of nuclear particles alongside the researcher Cătălina Curceanu

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Frascati town, just some kilometers away from Rome, is known for two things. One of them is the fine quality wine. But the town also hosts one of the most important European research centers in fundamental physics: the National Institute of Nuclear Physics (LNF – INFN). The institute is a small autonomous town which employs almost one thousand people. At the entrance, visitors are warned in English that access is restricted and reserved to authorized personnel only.

Cătălina Curceanu, a Romanian living in Italy for over 20 years and one of the research team coordinators, welcomes me at the gate of the Institute and so invites us to a space time travel through the fascinating world of nuclear particles.

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We make a first stop in a smaller laboratory, where we meet some of the research team members. We silently walk into the control room, where an experiment prepared for ten months is now undergoing. Ten physicians, most of them young, have their eyes fixed on some monitors. They seem focused on following graphics whilst talking in English.

„We are five Romanian researchers in Frascati”, whispers Cătălina Curceanu, „all PhD graduates from Romania, Italy or Switzerland. We have collaborators from Croatia, China, Japan and, of course, Italy”.
The experiment is about to end and I am granted permission to step into a room with a particle accelerator, similar to the one in CERN, but much smaller. Metal tubes, colorful pipes, outlets, red buttons like you see in films and electrical wires…many electrical wires. And of course, I see the usual warning signs, in English and Italian: WARNING and PERICOLO.

I manage to climb on a ladder from where I can photograph everything. It seems that the experiment was a success, since all the team members are looking at each other and discuss with satisfaction.

I have the opportunity to talk to Florin, Mihai, Hexi, Hideyuki, Alessandro and Ivana. Mihai Iliescu stands out with his curious look and his slightly messed up hair, just like a younger Einstein. Cătălina tells me that Mihai’s stories are well known within the Institute. Like the one when he and his colleague once worked on a certain project for CERN itself, in Switzerland. They had no watch on them and worked until late, right until „dinner time”, or so they thought. They had actually lost track of time and when they went to the bus stop, they realized it was past midnight.

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Florin Sîrghi has been a researcher in Frascati for 13 years now and he has two children. He’s “the reliable one, always with the head on his shoulders” when it comes to Cătălina’s team of twenty people and to this environment which “does not lack dreamers”.

He admits to the many sacrifices required by research work. “Firstly, you have very little time which you can dedicate to your family and children. Furthermore, you do not own a house, you rent and you cannot go back to your home country as much as you would like, hence my limited number of friends, mainly young and from work.”

We also asked Florin whether Romanians are discriminated in Italy. “It happened to me before to be negatively labeled by people who did not know me, just because I was Romanian. In Italy, once negative aspects are made public, you can hardly fight stereotypes. It depends on the education and cultural background of the people you interact with, though.”

Even Cătălina stepped up in 2009, when Romanians where stigmatized by the Italian media. She wrote to Bruno Vespa, the producer of „Porta a Porta”, which is the most important evening talk show broadcasted on Rai 1 TV. She protested against the manner in which the Italian media presented her conationals… When she was invited to the studio, she asked for journalists to also cover stories on Romanians working in fields of excellence that contribute to the „made in Italy” science, like the physicists working in Frascati, for instance.

We continue our journey in the company of Cătălina Curceanu. It is a sunny day and the Institute is placed in a park designed like an open-air museum. When she is not traveling to Switzerland, Japan or other parts of the world, giving lectures or attending working sessions, Cătălina spends most of her day here, at the Institute.

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We stop in front of a round object with many metallic rings, displayed on the main entrance. This is AdA, the first particle accelerator in the world, the ”ancestor” of the world known device in CERN, Switzerland.

„This is a historical place”, Cătălina tells me. It released numerous articles promoting science. She likes beings a „guide” for all those interested and curious to learn more about the mysteries of the Universe and about the impact of nuclear physics on our everyday life.

She believes she made it to this place, a true temple of modern science, due to her curiosity about the laws of nature, which she had ever since she was little.
Born in the Romanian town of Sfântu Gheorghe, Cătălina finished the Mathematics and Physics High School of Măgurele and then she graduated Physics at the University in Bucharest as a valedictorian. The fall of the communist regime and Romania’s openness to the Western Europe gave her the opportunity to study in Switzerland, where she received a PhD.

Whilst talking, we arrive to the modern Daɸne/ DAFNE, one of the high-end accelerators worldwide. It is used in nuclear physics research and also in the physics of elementary particles.

„We study here not only the processes occurring in the stars, but also applications for the day-to-day life, useful to medicine and industries”.
„Isn’t it dangerous to be at the entrance while the device is working? Aren’t there any radiations?”, I ask Cătălina while standing two steps away from the entrance to the accelerator’s room. „No, we are constantly monitored and radiation detectors are in use. Moreover, the accelerator is controlled from the outside”.

Cătălina wrote a book that she published in 2003, in Italy. The book, named Dai buchi neri all’adroterapia (From black holes to particle therapy) was published by the prestigious Springer publishing house. It is a book on the applicability of modern science, so useful to our society.

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The book is a collection of answers to „those questions you have always wanted to ask, but never found someone to give you a scientific answer in an accessible language”. The reader can find explanations to the way in which the universe is structured, but can also find out about the most recent applications in nuclear physics, such as the new methods of radiotherapy used to treat tumors.

Cătălina’s scientific activity is enriched by her special and continuous interest in promoting the laboratory’s mysteries. She works with numerous magazines and publications from Romania and Italy, and tries to offer answers to the most curious readers.

Which are the most frequent questions you receive from the readers? „Those related to the end of the world or end of mankind and those related to aliens”. From her answer, I could understand that the end of the world will eventually come. As for the latter questions, she says: „I do not believe we will deal with apocalyptic scenarios in which we are visited by aliens. It is more likely that we, the human race, will contribute to the destruction of our planet”.
The future seems dark when a researcher makes such bitter claims. However, the future is partly in the hands of new generations which hold the power to acknowledge the dangers of human actions.

Talking about young people, we were told that the Institute organizes training courses on a yearly basis for students around the world. These courses are greatly supported by the Romanian researcher: “This year we organize the third edition of an International Master class in English, dedicated to 40 high school students from Spain, Denmark, Italy, Croatia and Romania”.
Cătălina confesses to me that she sees herself in many of the students, although she is aware of the decreasing level of education in Romania: “I see the same thirst for knowledge in many of them, the same wishes, dreams and fundamental values. We succeeded in bringing here many disadvantaged Romanian children, thanks to our very generous sponsors. My joy was completed not only by seeing them interested in finding out more, but also by their ability to make efforts in their scientific improvement”.

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Many of the students attending the first editions are now studying in prestigious universities and Cătălina Curceanu hopes they „will be the foundation and the structure of a new generation, slightly different than the current one and therefore a true European generation”.
Throughout the morning spent with Cătălina Curceanu, I also had the opportunity to know her through the eyes of her co-workers.

Hideyuki Tatsumo, a Japanese contracted to work in Frascati, said that one of the most important ingredients for scientific knowledge is, perhaps, the „international cooperation between researchers with different visions and cultural backgrounds”.
For Ivana Tucakovic for instance, Cătălina is „a true professor”.

Towards the end of our meeting, Cătălina introduces her colleague who has just arrived from Vienna, researcher Johann Zmeskal. We are talking about the New Year, about restrictions on the job market, about the way in which science unites researchers around the world and other current topics. I finally find the opportunity to address the question I meant to ask since my arrival at the Institute: “How many are those praying or having a religious belief, in a community of physics researchers?”. Cătălina and Johann look at each other and respond in a similar manner: „this depends on each individual, doing scientific research does not exclude being religious”.

Before saying goodbye, I ask our Frascati tour guide, how she would describe herself in a few words. She replies without hesitation, „Hard working, ambitious, optimistic…a woman that never gives up!”

Cătălina Curceanu is a senior researcher at the National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN) in Italy. She published around 200 journal articles and has constantly been present in the Italian media and society, as well as in Romania and Canada, promoting science. She has coordinated two pilot projects in nuclear physics, the DEAR and SHiDDHARTA experiments, as well as many research projects at European level.

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