‘Enmity, mockery, secret banning, career hindrance. You name it, I’ve had it’

With wit and frankness, rebel scientist Tommaso Dorigo has spent a dozen years telling it like it is in his blog about research life. He speaks to Karen Shook

January 20, 2017

Tommaso Dorigo, whose new World Scientific title Anomaly! Collider Physics and the Quest for New Phenomena at Fermilab is Book of the Week, is a particle physics researcher working on the CMS experiment at Cern in Switzerland.

Based at the Padua department of INFN, Italy’s National Institute of Nuclear Physics, he was born and raised in Venice. Asked where exactly he grew up in the fabled Adriatic city, he shrugs, “It’s not a very meaningful distinction, as Venice is just 3km across, but I lived in the sestiere of Santa Croce in my childhood, and I now live in Cannaregio, just 500m away.” 

Is he a Venetian through and through – and what does that mean? Dorigo replies: “I do think there is a character trait of mine that you could trace back to my place of birth and early education. Venetians are known to always speak their minds regardless of the consequences. In some respects this shows itself in my blog [Quantum Diaries Survivor] and in the style of writing of this book, which contains material that many would have preferred not to have unearthed. In fact, I had to have an extensive critical review of the book after writing it, to explicitly assess the potential of some sections to be inflammatory to the people involved.”

Invited to tell us a secret about Venetians, Dorigo says, “Well, something that is very likely not a secret if you’ve visited Venice is that we hate tourists. We feel invaded because the city has gradually become a place for tourists and not for citizens. There are heaps of hotels, bed and breakfasts, bars and restaurants, and no services for inhabitants, and the cost of living is twice as high as inland.”

Dorigo studied at the University of Padova for his laurea (undergraduate and master’s study combined, in pre-Bologna Process Italy). As a student, he says, he was “distracted. In fact I studied more chess than physics, and this caused my studies to be significantly delayed.”

One academic reader of his blog, a sociologist, observed that the author was quite unlike “most scientists [who] just drink the Kool-Aid and say what they are supposed to say”.

Why, in Dorigo’s view, is he different? “I am a rebel deep within. If I don’t agree with the reason for a rule, I will try to hack it or bend it – although admittedly I am not heroic enough to stand up and overtly fight it.

“I was first asked to blog about my research and life in 2005, the International Year of Physics, for a thing called Quantum Diaries. I soon found out that I liked the opportunity to speak openly about what I thought. Of course I also appreciated the chance to do outreach, which is something I was convinced is a primary duty of every scientist. I tried to write things in a way that could be appreciated by outsiders and engaging to them.

“However, my style has definitely caused a lot of problems for me. It is very difficult to keep the balance when you are an insider who speaks about science. You can piss off your colleagues for a number of reasons – because you failed to mention their contribution to some science you’ve talked about, or because you named them when they’d prefer to be left alone, or because you’ve said something you believe is innocuous and somebody has a different view,” Dorigo admits. 

“Your colleagues, in general, will not like the fact you have this powerful megaphone in your hands, once you’ve worked at the medium enough that it has indeed become a high-traffic thing. They will find it unfair that you get attention from what you write, in writing about things they worked on. They will be envious because the media contact you rather than them to fish for quotes or explanations. Envy is a hard thing to cope with. 

“And then there are the bad judgement moments. When you have a blog, you are constantly under pressure to publish something interesting and entertaining, and sometimes you will let rip with something that you should have not talked about. Distributing internal information is not really the issue – it is quite easy to stay away from that blunder. The issue is to avoid writing something that may appear to be the view of your research group, and attracts the interest of the media, when in fact it is just your personal two cents. I have run into all sorts of problems in 12 years of blogging – personal enmity, threats of being kicked out of the research group, secret banning from being allowed give talks on behalf of the collaboration, mockery, career advancement hindrance. You name it, I’ve had it.”

Dorigo was a doctoral student at Fermilab during the time he writes about in Anomaly!. Does he think his perspective was clearer because as a young and junior scientist he had the chance to observe closely without senior scientists noticing him?

“Most of the stories discussed in the book were indeed ones in which I participated directly. I do in fact keep vivid memories of the discussions and the events I write about – as you will notice, I made an earnest attempt at reconstructing in great detail the actual words that were spoken at the meetings, by interviewing many people.

“I would say that my perspective was different rather than clearer, in the sense that I did not like some of the things that happened and how the experiment was steered into acting like a corporation. That’s why I decided that it was a good idea to tell the story of the sociology of these large collaborations of people. Of course if you are young, you will be more impressed by the particularity of some internal mechanisms of large scientific collaborations – but that has stuck with me, so I am no less disturbed when I see the same things happening in today’s experiments, even if I’m 50 now.”

What, in his view, is the biggest difference between Fermilab and Cern?

“The size of the collaborations at Cern’s Large Hadron Collider is one order of magnitude larger than CDF and DZero at the Tevatron at Fermilab, and this shapes the sociology further. You will never be able to know all your colleagues at Cern. In CDF, after a while you were able to grasp the dynamics – the main experimental groups, who made the decisions, and so on. In CMS and ATLAS, this is more difficult. The setting is a bit more impersonal there.”

Dorigo’s book was launched in the library at Cern. Were those who attended the event checking to see who was mentioned and what he said about them?

“There were about 20 people there – a few friends and other colleagues interested in the stories of the book. I didn’t catch people checking the index, but I guess it would be a very normal reaction – the name index is there for a reason,” he laughs. “I found that there is indeed interest for the kind of stories told in Anomaly!, but that’s no surprise – although the book will certainly not sell a lot, as it is a kind of a niche thing.”

What gives Dorigo hope? “The fact that man is as interested as ever to understand the world.”

Karen Shook is books editor of Times Higher Education.

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