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Delving into deep space

Two years ago while earning his PhD in physics, Fabio Pacucci led a team of Italian scientists who made an amazing discovery: They found two black holes that may be the most distant and oldest yet documented.

These black holes formed about 13 billion years ago, Pacucci explains, and played an important role in the development of the universe. Astronomers are now fairly certain that a massive black hole lies at the center of every galaxy. 

Pacucci, 30, is a postdoctoral associate in Yale University’s Department of Physics and a member of the Rotary Club of New Haven, Connecticut. He frequently gives talks about his research.

Illustration by Viktor Miller Gausa

Illustration by Viktor Miller Gausa

Q: How did you become interested in the stars and planets?

A: When I was five years old, my parents gave me a little telescope. When I was 15, my father and I got up in the middle of the night to observe a meteor shower. I asked him to take notes so I’d have statistics about what we saw. At one point there were so many shooting stars – 15 or 20 per second for about 10 minutes – that we were just staring at the sky without taking notes. That’s one of the best memories I have of my childhood, being with my father and watching this amazing show at night. 

Q: How do you describe black holes to a nonscientist?

A: They are extremely massive objects with gravitational fields so intense that a ray of light can’t escape. They are like a cosmic vacuum cleaner that swallows everything around it and lets nothing out.

Q: How did Rotary pull you into its orbit?

A: In high school I won a Rotary prize for my studies. That was my first encounter with Rotary. They suggested I join Rotaract in my hometown, Taranto, but I was moving to Rome to go to university. Then I went to Pisa to earn my PhD, and I was traveling a lot. But as soon as I came to New Haven I said, “I have to do this!” A few months after my arrival here, I let the Rotarians in Taranto know that I’d joined Rotary, finally, after 12 years. 

Q: What is the focus of your research?

A: I study how black holes formed very early in the history of the universe. Understanding this helps us understand how the first galaxies formed. We believe that the formation of galaxies and black holes happened at the same time and may have helped each other.

Q: Talk about your collaboration with TED-Ed, the educational video spinoff of TED Talks.

A: I collaborated with a team of animators, actors, and scriptwriters. The video describes what a black hole is, the different types, and the possibility that the planet Earth could encounter a black hole and get sucked in. That’s an extremely unlikely event, but it’s an interesting question to start teaching people about black holes.

Q: You’ve visited dozens of countries. What have you learned from your travels?

A: It’s important for scientists to meet with people who think differently, to challenge your vision of the world and of your research with the vision of other scientists. It opens up your mind.

— Anne Stein

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