by Rafaela Prifti/
Kristi Pance’s research work has been awarded many US, European and worldwide patents. He says that it takes some time for new inventions to find large scale applications but he is optimistic about the new antennas designed by him and a team of colleagues. Kristi believes that the 2020 pandemic will have long term social, economic, political and scientific ramifications. His advice to students and young researchers is to fail effectively and to keep it simple. In the end, he shares a special message for Albania’s Independence Day!
Read full interview in Dielli’s Special Issue of November
I am grateful for this opportunity to talk with you, an Albanian-American physicist and researcher. I will start with a question about the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics. Three Laureates shared the prestigious honor awarded last month: Roger Penrose of Oxford University for showing that the general theory of relativity leads to the formation of black holes, Reinhard Genzel of LMU and Andrea Ghez of University of California, Los Angeles for discovering methods indicating that an invisible and extremely heavy object governs the orbits of stars at the center of our galaxy. What do these achievements mean for fellow physicists such as yourself? What is their significance for science at large?
Predicting Nobel Prize individual winners is rather more difficult than anticipating the winning field at times. For example this year, astrophysics was one of the expected winning fields of science. In a classic Nobel trio, the prize was awarded to a theoretical astrophysicist, Roger Penrose and two experimental and observational astrophysicists, Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez for their ground-breaking discoveries in black hole physics. Sir Roger Penrose is a mathematical physicist, mathematician and philosopher who made significant contributions in different fields of science. One of the most celebrated scientists of our time, Penrose was a long-time collaborator of the great Steven Hawking. He and Hawking were the first to prove that black holes come out naturally from the equations of General Relativity when applied to stars or systems of stars with masses above a certain threshold. Sir Penrose invented wonderful mathematical tools to explain and further develop General Relativity and black hole physics. Looking back at the history of science and particularly astronomy, the moment of shifting from Ptolemy geocentric to the Copernican heliocentric system was a great scientific and philosophical tipping point. The significance of our Sun being at the center of the solar system gave rise to ideas and theories of possible existences of other solar systems in even greater hierarchical structures called galaxies. It serves as an analogy to the recent discoveries and advancements in the theory of super massive black holes at the center of any galaxy. The two Laureates, Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez developed very fine methods to map out with great accuracy the motions of stars near the center of our galaxy as evidence of the existence of supermassive black holes.
As a Research Fellow at the Rogers Corporations, how do you view the correlation between technological needs and the driving force for innovation and research? How do you perceive the synergy between science and technology, that is summarized in the expression: Science questions beget new technology and new technology begets new science?
There exists a great correlation between science and technology. After all technology is nothing less than science applied for practical needs. The day-to-day needs motivate research which results in a new scientific contribution followed by a novel technology, which potentially pushes further the boundaries of science discoveries and so on. For example, today’s communications speed calls for a high capacity of data transmission. Science responded by inventing and designing massive MIMO (multiple input and multiple output) systems. Their practical production requires smaller, more efficient and lower cost components, pushing the current limits of technology. Among other things, it requires developing new materials which is a longstanding traditional expertise at Rogers Corporation. To illustrate it with an example that ties in with the 2020 Nobel Prize Physics Award: the Hawking-Penrose famous paper on gravitational collapse and singularities that predicted black holes was presented in 1970. Although the methods did not exist, it fueled the efforts and pushed technological capabilities. Their work preceded Genzel-Ghez discovery by around 30 years.
You completed your college education in Albania in the late 80s. What was it like then? And what do you look forward to?
Right after finishing my undergraduate studies in 1987, I joined the faculty at the Theoretical Physics Department at the Natural Sciences College in Tirana. There I worked alongside some brilliant Albanian physicists. Five years later, I left Albania to complete advanced studies at the renown Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy. Then I had the opportunity to pursue my graduate studies at Northeastern in Boston. I consider myself part of the generation that received a very good education in Albania. We were equipped to compete successfully with well qualified peers and researchers in Europe and in the US. As an innovator, I look forward to large-scale commercialization of my inventions in widely applied or practical uses.
What is your advice to students and young graduates as they embark on the areas of modern sciences? What advice would you have given yourself in Albania? Have you encountered an increased interest by Albanian students in the science of physics?
I have come to know quite a number of very successful Albanian students of Science and Engineering here in the States. My advice may sound cliche yet it is worth repeating: work hard and never give up! There are no shortcuts particularly in science. To the young researchers, I would advise: “Fail efficiently!” Let me explain what I mean by that. The harder you work, the faster you are bound to encounter failure and the better you are able to manage your failures, the closer you come to the eventual success. A successful researcher or innovator is obviously knowledgeable, however his edge over the competition comes from another type of knowledge that is acquired through endless hours of hard work. The more efficiently you fail, the closer you come to the right solution, because you know more about the paths and ways that don’t work. That is a wonderful piece of knowledge that is only yours, not written or found in the books and that can make the whole difference. One more piece of advice: “Target simplicity”. Nature’s ultimate secret is simplicity, albeit elusive. A solution, or model that seems complicated, is likely wrong. We usually try to complicate things, but the ability to complicate is in fact a disability.
During the time of the pandemic, there has been resistance and even disregard for the science based approach. If one area specifically public health is ignored, what could be the repercussions for the larger science community?
It has been a difficult time for everybody. In our lifetime, I don’t remember any other period where it was so important to listen to the experts. Although, I must say here that because of the different nature and complexity of this pandemic there were disagreements in the science community stemming from the challenges of facing a new virus. Yet, almost all of them agreed on the ways of preventing the spread of the airborne pathogen. That should have been listened to. Unfortunately, it was not. From a theological point of view, I strongly believe, as do so many, that 2020 pandemic will be a turning point in world history with short and long term social, economic, political, technological and scientific consequences. We could make some historical parallels with the 14th century plague in Europe, which prompted the European Renaissance. More than five centuries have passed since then with tremendous development in sciences and technology and yet the human race remains vulnerable. The warning signs did not inform our preventive practices. Instead they were ignored repeatedly. Another illustration from science history. In 1977, famous physicist Louis Alvarez after analyzing geological layers proposed the asteroid impact theory that triggered Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction. His theory was criticized in the beginning, but bit by bit scientists accepted it and discovered even the impact site. Nevertheless, the general thinking remained skeptical. Less than two decades later, in 1994 all scientific community watched in awe the cosmic impact of Shoemaker comet colliding with Jupiter. So, we witnessed the cosmic impacts with catastrophic consequences that happened (fortunately on another planet). The same can be said for the 2020 global pandemic. It could have been, and still could be much worse if we don’t learn the lessons. It has shown the vulnerability of the human race, the risk of a possible extinction. In reaction to it, we will see humanity speeding up efforts towards the new space and technological frontiers. We will witness soon Mars exploration. Maybe humanity will seriously push towards the first considered advanced scale of civilization, called Kardashev Type 1 civilization, by harnessing, storing and using all the energy available on planet Earth. I am very optimistic that after this chaos we will see a worldwide organized response that will bring nations and governments closer together.
The city of Boston carries a special significance for us. It is the birthplace of the Pan-Albanian Federation of America Vatra and its publication Dielli, dating back in 1912, still in circulation today. The founders and leaders of Vatra like Fan Noli and Faik Konica advocated and promoted Albanian independence. Noli established the Albanian Church in Boston and much more. What features of Boston do you appreciate more?
One of the early European settlements, Boston is an intricate part of America’s history. The city is home to magnificent art museums, cultural heritage, some of the nation’s top schools, world class scientific research, as well as a global leader in entrepreneurship and innovation. My family and I have a few favorite spots in the city including the Museum of Science and Boston Symphony Hall. As you said, Boston is also spiritually special for the Albanian community in America.
Read full interview in Dielli’s Special Issue of November