Last year, Gabriel Cuomo successfully defended his PhD thesis in theoretical particle physics at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). For this academic achievement, the Sicilian-born physicist, who now lives and researches in New York, receives the Doctoral Students Award of the Swiss Institute of Particle Physics (CHIPP). The prize will be awarded at the beginning of September in Innsbruck on the occasion of the annual meeting of the Swiss Physical Society (SPS) together with the Austrian partner organisation.
Whoever hears the name 'Cuomo' in connection with the city of New York inevitably thinks of Andrew Cuomo, until recently governor of the US state of New York. Andrew Cuomo is the grandson of Italian immigrants and has made it to a top political position in his new homeland. Might he have a family relationship to Gabriel Cuomo, the young physicist who is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Stony Brook University in New York? In response to this question, Gabriel Cuomo shakes his head in amusement: "I don't know if there is any connection, at least I don't know anything about it. ‹Cuomo› is a very common name in Naples, where my father comes from. At least the familiar namesake has the advantage for me that I don't have to spell my name to anyone here in New York state because everyone knows it."
Gabriel Cuomo has been conducting research since November 2020 as a 'Research Assistant Professor' at 'Stony Brook', a major public university with 27,000 students and headquarters on Long Island near New York. During our video call, the scientist sits in his office wearing a wine red polo shirt. Behind him, a blackboard covered with mathematical formulas. "These are the leftovers from last night," Cuomo laughs, as if he can no longer remember what it was all about - and then goes on to explain: "We theorists like to think in terms of unbounded spaces, because that's easier. However, in reality, we are always confronted with limited spaces, so we have to deal with the question of what happens when one provides the imagined infinite space with boundaries. The formulas on the blackboard serve to understand some general properties of two-dimensional spaces with a boundary."
With the instruments of mathematics
These remarks already give an idea of the worlds of thought in which Gabriel Cuomo is active. As a theoretical physicist, he does not try to understand the physical world with the help of experiments. Rather, he wants to use the instruments of mathematics to provide models of the physical world that are as accurate as possible, which experimental physicists then test for their validity with their experiments. This is what the 28-year-old scientist did in his doctoral thesis, which he completed at EPFL in the fall of 2020. For this work, he will now receive the CHIPP Prize 2021, with which the 'Swiss Institute of Particle Physics' (CHIPP) - the umbrella organization of the Swiss particle physics institutes - awards a young researcher for an outstanding doctoral thesis every year.
That the academic work is not easily comprehended is made clear by the CHIPP jury's laudation: "The CHIPP Prize jury honours Gabriel Cuomo for his outstanding theoretical studies of quantum field theories in the strongly coupled regime, which elucidated new properties relevant to a variety physical systems: from condensed matter to cosmology."
The content of the dissertation can hardly be understood without a background in physics. But to give at least an idea: Modern physics distinguishes between 'classical' phenomena, which can be described, for instance, by Newton's laws, and so-called quantum phenomena. The latter are found in the subatomic dimensions, and their description defies the vividness of the laws of nature we learn in school. 'Semiclassical' physics describes one part of a physical system quantum mechanically and another part classically.
"One of the goals of my doctoral work was to identify issues at the border of the quantum mechanical world that can be solved with a classical or semiclassical description." One example of semiclassical behavior is so-called superfluidity. In physics this describes a state in which a fluid loses all internal friction and subsequently shows very high thermal conductivity. This property has so far been demonstrated in helium and lithium. "We have been able to describe superfluidity very well over the past few years; in my work, I studied whether semiclassical descriptions could also be used for comparable physical systems," Cuomo says.
Understanding particle collisions
The theorist's thoughts could fall on fertile ground if particle accelerators are built in the future that accelerate particles to much higher energies than is the case today at the 'Large Hadron Collider' (LHC) at CERN. "After a particle collision in future extremely powerful accelerators like the Future Circular Collider (FCC), we will observe a very large number of particle tracks. We will then be confronted with quantum fluctuations that can no longer be understood in the classical way, as has been the case in high-energy physics, but which we will have to describe in a semiclassical way."
Gabriel Cuomo is only sketching a vague idea here, because the complex processes that will take place in future accelerators cannot yet be reliably described theoretically. "But at least we already have some expectations," explains the junior researcher, adding, "We assume that a semiclassical approach will help in describing the collision products."
"Everything here is ‹great!›"
Gabriel Cuomo has many good memories of the four years he spent in Lausanne at EPFL, including exciting discussions on physics problems, often combined with a ping-pong match. In his free time, he indulged in his great hobby of playing tennis or went skiing in the Alps. The relocation to New York introduced him to a new world: a young and strong research group with many postdocs awaited him there, but also a very competitive environment in which, even more so than in Europe, it is customary to quickly take up new scientific questions and sometimes completely reorient one's own field of research. "In the U.S., enthusiasm is expressed much more than in Europe; here everything is ‹great!›, ‹extraordinary!›, ‹amazing!›" Cuomo relates. "I'm influenced by the more reserved European way of working, but I'm slowly adapting to the American style..."
Born in Catania, Sicily, in 1993, Gabriel Cuomo is the son of a psychologist and an engineer who was a professor at the local university. He followed in his father's footsteps and decided to study physics. At the University of Trieste, he earned a master's degree in theoretical physics. He came to the PhD position in Lausanne rather unexpectedly: although he knew that a PhD position was available at the EPF Lausanne, the application deadline had already passed. Then Prof. Marco Serone, who had supervised Cuomo's master's thesis at the University of Trieste, met EPFL professor Riccardo Rattazzi at a conference and told him about his bright master's student. Rattazzi responded immediately, emailing Cuomo: 'The application deadline is tomorrow, you should apply!' Cuomo didn't need to be told twice. He became Rattazzi's doctoral student.
Persistence, creativity and a math ace
Where Gabriel Cuomo's next academic stop will be remains to be seen. For now, he is working on new problems in theoretical physics. It's helpful in an academic career to be able to shift your research focus into new areas, Cuomo says. He therefore cultivates exchanges with scientists at other New York universities, such as Columbia University.
When asked what qualities a student needs to have to succeed as a theoretical physicist, Gabriel Cuomo says, "For one thing, perseverance, because if you have a new idea, you're going to be with it for a long time until there's a solution. You also need creativity when solving unfamiliar problems, although you can always refine this skill through discussion and reflection. And, of course, you also need a good backpack in math."
Author: Benedikt Vogel