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A Richter you should know: Maria Civitello

Maria Civitello ’20 is a woman of many talents: she’s spent this summer learning about quantum theory while analyzing an almost 600-page novel. Civitello is working with Associate Professor of English Carla Arnell to research physics in literature.

Q: Tell us about your project.

A: What I’m working on is a broader project on physics and literature. So I’m doing an annotated bibliography of novels that take physics as their topic or where physics is a major subplot. But I’m also focusing, in particular, on the novels of Nicholas Mosley, a contemporary British writer who recently passed away. He wrote a lot, especially in his later novels, about physics, and we are particularly looking at his book Hopeful Monsters, which tells the story of these two friends, one German and the other British, who meet between the period of World War I and World War II, and each takes part in all of these political and scientific movements. It’s a really ambitious book, and it’s pretty long, almost 600 pages. I’m doing two annotated bibliographies: one on Mosley and one on physics in general. My paper will focus more on Mosley. The annotated bibliographies will probably be done this summer, but the paper will be an ongoing project. Professor Arnell and I were discussing developing the paper over this year and then trying to have it published in an undergrad journal.

Q: What exactly is the “physics” you’re looking at?

A: The overarching idea of our research has been quantum theory, which describes how atoms and subatomic particles behave. Quantum mechanics is really interesting because it isn’t ruled by traditional laws of physics. For instance, in quantum mechanics, two particles, once they’ve come into contact with each other, are always connected, no matter the distance between them. They can be light years apart, but if one is acted upon, the other will be influenced by the action. Einstein called this phenomenon “spooky action at a distance,” and cited it as a reason why he couldn’t believe in quantum theory. Yet in experiments, this theory, called entanglement, is always supported! It’s been eye-opening for me to learn that, on the very small scale of atoms, the laws of physics are so different from what we observe on a larger scale.

Q: What is the most difficult part of your project?

A: Getting everything done! It’s a pretty ambitious project with a lot of reading as well as starting a paper and getting a presentation ready, so I think it’s been a lot of work trying to meet all the deadlines. But I also think it’s been worthwhile.

Q: What is the most interesting thing you’ve learned?

A: It’s definitely been interesting to learn about some of the quirks of quantum theory. It sounds incredibly boring when you say it out loud, but I swear it’s actually interesting. For example, one aspect of quantum theory is wave-particle duality: the idea that, based on how it’s measured, matter might take the form of a wave more so than a particle, or vice versa. I’m always interested in how the perspective we take on something changes how we interact with it, so this aspect of quantum theory really stood out to me. 

Q: How will this experience help you in the future?

A: I’m looking at combining a double major and minor in business, psychology, and music. Of those three, the one that has the most intersection with this project is psychology, because that’s something that Mosley discusses. I think if I were to go into a psychological field, a big part of writing studies and synthesizing ideas from different psychologists is learning how to cite sources, how to put them together in a way that makes sense, and how to research effectively. And then I also think the chance to practice reading and writing is good for any field.

–By Tracy Koenn and Sophie Mucciaccio