Roberto Battiston Discusses Space Research at INFN

Institutional Feature, December 2011

INFN – Istituto Nationale de Fisica Nucleare

A recent analysis of Essential Science IndicatorsSM data from Thomson Reuters identified Italy's INFN (Istituto Nationale de Fisica Nucleare) as a highly cited institution in the field of Space Science. Authors from INFN have contributed to 1,321 papers that have received 15,679 citations from January 1, 2001 to August 31, 2011, which makes INFN a world-leading organization in the field of Space Science.

At the most fundamental level the inner quantum world of the atomic nucleus and its elementary particles has much in common with the universe on the grandest scale. The full name of the Istituto interpreted literally might suggest that its focus is on nuclear physics. In fact, its overarching mission changed decades ago to concentrate on the physics of the fundamental forces and particles. Its investigations are carried out with particle accelerators and with instrumentation to observe high-energy particles and photons from the cosmos.

To find out more about INFN and its highly cited papers in Space Science, correspondent Simon Mitton interviewed Professor Roberto Battiston, President of INFN's Commission II. In addition to his duties at the INFN, Battiston is also Professor of Physics at the University of Perugia.

Battiston spoke with from INFN's section in Perugia, central Italy.

SW: Your position within INFN is described as President of Commission II. Could you explain what that means?

INFN is a large research organization which operates through five Commissions, or committees, each of which is charged with evaluating and recommending financing for a well-defined field of research. My committee assesses grant proposals for neutrino physics and particle astrophysics. This embraces underground experiments and space experiments, to the study of neutrinos, dark matter, cosmic rays, and so on. Also my own research is in astroparticle physics with an experiment recently deployed on the International Space Station.

SW: Tell me about the present aims and structure of INFN your commission, and what is its structure?

The core mission of INFN is investigating the fundamental forces and the fundamental particles. This area of enquiry has been explored for nearly 60 years since our foundation.

There are about 1,900 employees, and we work with more than 2,500 affiliated scientists employed by universities and research institutes. Our physicists are studying the phenomena in the universe as tools to probe the fundamental laws of physics. If you compare astrophysicists to the space scientists at INFN, you have two communities looking the same kind of data and phenomena, but with different points of view.

Astrophysicists are often motivated by the study of phenomena associated with stars, nebulas, and galaxies. Their telescopes produce ever-growing catalogs providing data which through modeling are used to interpret and understand the physical phenomena related to the evolution of our universe. That's not the approach we take at INFN.

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View/download three additional images from Italy's INFN.

SW: So what is that is special about the way you do the science?

As I have said, we are in the business of improving our knowledge of the fundamental properties of particle and fields. Over time our quest has benefited when different techniques are invented. A good example of that has been our success in achieving ever-higher energies in colliding particle beams. Another example is the way we examine the radiation coming naturally from the depths of the universe with the most sophisticated techniques and applications available.

SW: Our Space Science analysis has flagged up many papers on cosmic rays, which are high-energy particles, and gamma rays, which are high-energy photons. Why has INFN taken so much interest in this area of highest-energy astronomy?

Cosmic rays were discovered a century ago, and they gave birth to particle physics. Then, by the 1950s when INFN was founded, accelerators had become powerful enough to explore new fundamental particles and their properties. For nearly half a century, we learned the laws and properties of nature through accelerators.

But today we have reached economic and technical boundaries with particle colliders. So we have once again turned our attention to the highest-energy radiation coming to us free of charge from the universe itself. To exploit cosmic radiation in all its forms we have developed complex but effective detectors.

SW: What aspects of your research have driven this impressive expansion of space science at INFN?

We have grown so much in the last 15–20 years because the technical capability of the INFN laboratories has allowed the development of instrumentation at the limit of the sensitivity we require for studying the radiation coming from the farthest parts of the universe. In the last two decades we substantially increased our participation in international programs, often taking the lead.

We have built a number of satellites: FERMI is one of the most famous of these. Our instrumentation is designed to give access to particles at the highest energies, and to enable us to do high-energy astrophysics.

SW: It is clear from the citations that the Large Area Telescope (LAT) on the FERMI satellite has made a big impact in high-energy gamma ray astronomy. To what extent did technical innovation by INFN and the Italian space science community contribute to its success?

"We have grown so much in the last 15–20 years because the technical capability of the INFN laboratories has allowed the development of instrumentation at the limit of the sensitivity we require for studying the radiation coming from the farthest parts of the universe."

FERMI has obviously been a very successful international collaboration. The Italian collaboration contributed the LAT subsystem construction and test, and was funded by INFN and ASI (Italian Space Agency). Its large collecting area and the properties of its detecting subsystems were influenced by the experience of our earlier missions.

FERMI has clearly improved by more than an order of magnitude the field which was covered by EGRET in the 1990s and AGILE in the early 2000s. EGRET was a successful but much smaller detector which had limitations at high energy. More than 150 publications have already been published by FERMI and NASA is likely extending the mission by several years. FERMI has become the benchmark for judging the performance of high-energy gamma ray experiments in the future.

We should also note that Italy's Space Agency together with INFN has developed the gamma ray detector for the AGILE gamma ray satellite, which is used for point source observations such as pulsars (Pellizzoni A, et al., Astrophys. J. Lett. 695:L115-9, 2009; Tavani M, et al., Astron. Astrophys. 502: 995-1013, 2009). FERMI, by contrast, is an overall sky monitor. The two are therefore complimentary, and this has allowed AGILE to make a number of extremely important measurements. The latest one (Donnarumma I, et al., Astrophys. J. Lett. 691:L13-9, 2009) concerns the variability and outburst of the blazar Markarian 421.

SW: Can you give me an example of a FERMI making a measurement in fundamental physics?

SW: Gamma Ray Bursts (GRB) are the most powerful explosions in the universe coming from most remote objects. FERMI has measured the time of arrival of the gamma rays from the GRB at different frequencies from the lowest to the highest energies. These measurements confirm that the velocity of light is constant and is independent of the energy of the photons. This is a test of Lorentz invariance done using the universe, quite literally, as a racetrack.

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