We have chosen Professor Sorbo to participate in this month's Professor Spotlight. This is due to his research in High Energy Theory and his dedication to the study of cosmology. Please take a moment to review Professor Sorbo's website here.
What is your professional background? What did you major in and where? Where did you go to graduate school and for what? How can your educational background help you teach and mentor students at UMass?
I majored ("Laurea") in Physics at the University of Bologna, Italy, and I got my Ph.D. in Physics at the International School of Advanced Studies in Trieste, Italy. Afterwards, I got postdoctoral appointments at the Institute of Astrophysics in Paris and at the Laboratory of Theoretical Physics in Annecy, France, followed by one more postdoc at University of California, Davis.
The fact of doing my undergraduate studies in a very large university with many classmates of different levels allowed me to have a good understanding of the range of difficulties students face. And an international experience has taught me that the same problem can approached in many different ways.
Why did you decide to go to graduate school? How did you decide which grad school to go to? What advice would you have for a student who wants to go to graduate school?
During my undergraduate studies, it became more and more clear to me that I loved learning physics, and the only way to keep doing this was to do research. So, I applied to a few grad schools in Italy, where they have admissions exams a few different times in the year. I thought that the first one I was admitted to was actually the best I could hope for (good professors and good location) so, I did not even take the other admission exams.
My advice to all students is to find out what they like most, and pursue it. After all, one majors in physics for no other reason than a (slightly crazy) passion about knowing the laws of Nature.
My advice to students that want to go to grad school is to get some research experience as an undergraduate, because grad school is eventually about research, not course taking, and one should get a feel of the excitement (and the frustrations) of actual research before embarking into a Ph.D. program. By the way, any (good) research experience is good, it does not need to be exactly in your favorite field, you will have time to determine that during your Ph.D. studies.
What is your advice for a student who wants to go to industry?
Again, find out what you love and do it: you will do it at your best and you'll have no regrets later in your life.
Briefly, explain your research:
I study how our understanding of the physics of elementary particles helps us understand the history of the Universe. And vice-versa.
What class in the undergraduate curriculum is closest to your research?
Nuclei and Particles and General Relativity
Do you take undergraduates in your research group? What type of work do they do? Have you published any papers with undergraduates?
I very rarely take undergraduates for research, because usually my research needs a substantial background in general relativity and quantum field theory. But I worked with a few undergrads, mostly on finding solutions in General Relativity that can be interesting for cosmology. So, a lot of equation-solving. No papers published with undergraduates (yet!).
What is your favorite class to teach at UMass at the undergraduate level?
Electromagnetism (PHY422). It is the first theory that reached its "final" form, more than 150 years ago. And it is such a mathematically elegant construction!
I also loved teaching the Gen-Ed: Big Bang to Black Holes (PHY120). I enjoyed explaining mathematically sophisticated theories like that of general relativity without the use of any math; only thought experiments.
What do you do outside of physics? Do you have a hobby?
I used to read a lot, especially about history. But these days I dedicate basically all of my non-physics time to my family. I still try to stay a bit active though, mostly swimming and biking.
We know that you work on high energy physics, so can you tell us, without jargon, the most exciting thing in your field right now?
Cosmology tells us that 95% of the content of the Universe is mysterious "stuff" about which we know very little. The experiments of the last few years were generally expected to lead to the discovery of new phenomena that would have helped understand the origin of this extra stuff, but for the time being nothing new has been discovered. So, now we might have to change radically the way we think about new physics. However, being forced to change perspectives is very exciting… and challenging!
Of your students at any level, what do they do after they graduate? What can you do with a PHD in high energy physics?
I have been very happy to see all of my former students getting into academic careers. For those that do not want to stay in academia after a Ph.D. in high energy theory, the world of finance seems to be a (somehow surprisingly) typical career.