Dr. Laura Donnay’s Journey Into Theoretical Physics and Black Holes

Laura Dunnay. Photography: Erin McKinney
Reading Time: 3 minutes

by Edward Hunt

Every Saturday we’re spotlighting remarkable local females who could change the way we look at the world. This Saturday is Laura Donnay’s turn, a luminary, navigating the cosmos of black holes and universal symmetries.

Her academic journey, weaving through Liege and Brussels in Belgium, culminated in a triumphant ascent, earning her B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees. Remarkably, despite her scholarly pursuits, she has never been compared to the iconic fictional Belgian detective, Hercules Poirot. Instead, she immerses herself in the enigmatic world of theoretical physics, where her contributions have been recently recognized with the prestigious Cinzia Vitale Onlus Award in the spring of 2023.

Dr. Donnay’s fascination with universal symmetry aligns her journey with an uncanny parallel to Poirot’s fixation on order in the solving of crimes. However, her focus transcends the boundaries of fiction, delving into the profound mysteries of black holes and the underlying fabric of the cosmos. The journey began with her intrigue with the Maxwell equations, appreciating their elegant structure and symmetry, sparking a lifelong commitment to understanding the theoretical intricacies of our universe.

Following a transformative post-doctorate at Harvard University, Dr. Donnay joined the Theoretical High-Energy Physics laboratory at Trieste’s SISSA in 2017. Since then, she has been at the forefront of collaborative efforts seeking not merely to decipher the universe’s nature but to unveil the revelations it might hold.

Unlike some researchers who meticulously plan their careers from an early age, Dr. Donnay’s trajectory evolved organically. While her affinity for mathematics and science was evident, she also harbored a profound love for literature. Her pivot towards the less tangible elements of physics emerged early in her studies, leading her to the intricate realms beyond the practical and obvious Newtonian elements.

For Dr. Donnay, the allure lies in the challenge of adapting one’s thinking towards aspects of the universe that are observed but elude clear explanations. She finds the realm beyond terrestrial chemical compounds and study to be particularly fascinating, drawn by the need to grapple with questions that may remain unclear, yet are fundamental to advancing our understanding of the cosmos.

At the core of her work is a robust mathematical foundation that serves as a platform for the development of diverse interpretations. Dr. Donnay views this mathematical basis as the linchpin that anchors participants in a common debate. This perspective allows for various interpretations to blossom, providing a fertile ground for the exploration of highly theoretical subjects that often lack clear definitions.

The satisfaction she derives from exploring questions in the outer reaches of debate echoes the journeys of researchers like Einstein and Hawking, whose work sometimes offered verdicts ahead of evidence or proof. While Professor Adam’s Number 42 Theory is yet to secure a prominent following, Dr. Donnay’s commitment to pushing the boundaries of understanding remains unwavering.

Providing a glimpse into the intricacies of her work, Dr. Donnay shares basic examples, challenging our instinctive acceptance of a Newtonian framework for gravity and forces. She elucidates how the mighty and universal force of gravity can be seemingly “beaten by a small, €0.99 magnet.” Her emphasis on the gap in human knowledge, particularly in the field’s fundamental aspects, underscores the ongoing debate required to describe the middle point between observed outcomes and initial calculations.

Just as history or biography often hinges on contentious points, so does the application of established mathematical formulae in the realm of an Event Horizon. Dr. Donnay highlights the importance of understanding what questions to ask and the profound implications of potential answers, even when clear definitions may be elusive.

In a nod to the future, Dr. Donnay expresses extreme positivity about the next steps in her research and the field at large, utilizing Trieste as her current base. Fundamental questions surrounding the existence of gravity, the speed limit of light, and the viability of String Theory in unraveling the mysteries of the universe continue to captivate her intellectual curiosity.

Her optimism extends to the broader scientific community, with Trieste’s SISSA serving as a nurturing ground for these endeavors. The perennial questions about gravity, the speed limit of light, and the promise of String Theory are not new or old but represent a fulfilling field of effort that remains well-served at SISSA.

As she contemplates the future of theoretical physics, Dr. Donnay recommends a Netflix series on Black Holes for those intrigued by the subject. For a more accessible view, she suggests that “Interstellar was not that bad,” providing a gateway for enthusiasts to explore the profound questions she and her colleagues continue to unravel.

In a remarkable feat, Dr. Donnay’s journey is embellished with the recognition of the Cinzia Vitale Onlus Award in the spring of 2023. This accolade not only crowns her exceptional contributions to theoretical physics but also serves as a beacon of inspiration for aspiring scientists and enthusiasts seeking to delve into the mysteries of the cosmos. Dr. Laura Donnay, with her unwavering commitment and scholarly prowess, continues to be a guiding star in the ever-expanding universe of theoretical physics.

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Edward Hunt
Edward is a defence consultant working independently for various companies and governments. He has lived in Trieste since 2017 after moving with his family from London. Currently he also writes articles for various aerospace industry magazines, works with flight simulator game developers and corrects erroneous opinions in the FT comments sections like a Boss.


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