Valentina Forini is a theoretical physicist who conducts research in the field of mathematical physics with a focus on string and quantum field theory. She specializes in the Anti-de-Sitter/Conformal Field Theory correspondence, hence the study of space-time-matter. Her contributions to string and gauge field theory are internationally recognised.
Please close your eyes and think about your research project. What do you see at first?
I see paper notepads, or electronic ones, full of formulas at times complicated. I hear passionate discussions on Skype as well as silent moments in front of a blackboard. Eventually, I imagine the unfolding of a simple description, a couple of elegant equations or a neat diagram for a certain mathematical model that we think may help illustrating a physical phenomenon.
How would you explain your research to a child?
I would say that I am trying to understand how the world around us works – only by writing down calculations with sums and multiplications and some other more complicated operations on a simply piece of paper. Although we can nowadays describe why and how an apple falls from the tree as well as why and how the earth rotates around the sun, we are still not able to explain many things: How big is the universe of which the earth, the sun and the stars are part of? How small is the smallest existing object? If we understand this in terms of formulas written on a piece of paper we can work on those formulas and create machines based on them, which eventually will help us to live better (e.g. machines for understanding the microscopic details of a disease, or machines for letting us travel through the universe and find other planets which provide more resources for a good living.
For this kind of work I need to read what others have written in the past, as well as to invent new ways of using existing mathematics - or even invent new mathematics.
What is it that surprises people when you tell them about your research?
Theoretical physics is commonly perceived as a fascinating but technically difficult subject, and perhaps the very fact to get to know someone who deals with this on a daily basis is surprising. Most probably, the biggest surprise is to associate this kind of research with a woman. This is still a male-dominated field, and in many ways my job is still perceived as “a singularly unfeminine profession”, to cite the autobiographical memoir of theoretical physicist Mary Gaillard.
With whom would you like to swap your workplace for one day? What would you do?
For a big change, with a member of Parliament. I would like to feel the responsibility of representing a good amount of citizens, follow the process of a draft piece of legislation working together with experts in the relevant committee, then introduce it to the chamber and see it hopefully enacted.
Is there any rather unusual hobby or talent you might want to share with us?
For about 10 years I have been regularly conducting non-professional choirs.
What did your research teach you about life?
Several things, not related to my specific field of research. First examples coming into my mind: that new ideas should be examined with both, a very open mind and a good knowledge of what is known already. About method: that patience and good planning are always extremely useful whatever goal one has in mind.
What would your job be, if not a scientist?
Probably something related to journalism.
Which place in Berlin do you like the most, and why?
I cannot decide between several places. I like some for their evocative power of history of the last century (the small area around the Brandenburger Tor and the Straße des 17. Juni towards it; but also the pretty and gentrified Prenzlauer Berg, for its role before and after the second world war), some for their beauty and function(the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin at Potsdamer Platz and the Philharmonie nearby; the Berlin Hauptbahnhof and the large, open area from it towards the Reichstag, the Reichstag itself).
Is there anything about Berlin that you didn’t expect at all? And/or something that you miss here? What makes Berlin special for your research?
I probably did not expect so many Italians living here, several being scientists as well, so I actually do not miss my origins that much. Berlin is a concentrate of excellence in several fields of academic research. It has played a historic role in my field, theoretical physics (e.g. Max Planck, Lise Meitner and Albert Einstein worked here). Even today, Berlin retains a leading position in this field, and in particular the Humboldt University, together with the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in the Potsdam area, are renown centers of research for string theory.