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Licia Verde: a distinguished career in precision cosmology

Licia Verde, at the Faculty of Physics of the University of Barcelona.
Licia Verde, at the Faculty of Physics of the University of Barcelona.

The astrophysicist Licia Verde joined the Institute of Cosmos Sciences of the UB as ICREA researcher in 2009, when she was one of the scientists under the age of 40 with the highest number of citations. At the moment, she continues to appear among the most cited ones and receives awards for her career, focused on statistical methods in cosmology and carried out in some of the main international consortiums that guide cosmology.

Verde: “As precision increases, one may wonder if any cracks may be appearing in the Standard Model”

For many years, the study of the origins of the University was about theory, since there was not enough technology to obtain data from the distant Universe. In early 21st century, the new advances enabled researchers to gather information of the remains of the early Universe, thanks to which researchers could make advances in a journey to the past to see how the origins were and try to understand how the future would be.

Now, we know the University is about 13.8 billion years old, and that it expands rapidly at a speed of about 70 kilometres per second per megaparsec, and that is built by normal matter (5%), dark matter (24%) and dark energy (71%). Part of these answers were found thanks to the team that analysed data from the NASA Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), sent to space in 2001. This is one of the most relevant projects in this journey to the origins of the University, which shed light on the new era of quantitative cosmology. Among the seventeen authors of the study with the first results of the project was Licia Verde, who contributed to the cosmological statistical analysis. She was then postdoctoral researcher at Princeton University and has been ICREA researcher in the Institute of Cosmos Sciences of the UB (IEEC-UB) since 2007.

In the UB, she took part in the Bayron Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (BOSS), part of the Sloan Sky Survey collaboration (SDSS-III). This program allowed researchers to go back 11 billion years, only 3 billion years after the Big Bang, and measure with unprecedented precision the 1% of distance to distant galaxies, at more than 6 billion light years. At the moment, Licia Verde is taking part in some of the main international collaborations in cosmology, such as DESI and Euclid. In 2018, she received the Narcís Monturiol Medal and the National Research Award of the Catalan Government.

Now, astrophysics point to a crack in the Standard Model. As Licia Verde says in one of the papers published in Nature Astronomy, “as precision increases, one may wonder if any cracks may be appearing in the Standard Model”, and notes that “discrepancies developing between observations at early and late cosmological time, if they persist, may require an expansion of the standard model, and may lead to the discovery of new physics”.

The astrophysicist Licia Verde joined the Institute of Cosmos Sciences of the UB as ICREA researcher in 2009.

The astrophysicist Licia Verde joined the Institute of Cosmos Sciences of the UB as ICREA researcher in 2009.

Scientific career beyond science

Licia Verde’s interest in the Universe dates back to when she was a child: “When I was learning to read, I was given a book about the sky, and its last chapter talked about the Universe, and it got me hooked”, says the researcher. Reading was the determining factor for Verde to become more interested in science.

She has been asked about the usefulness of astrophysics. “There is no applied science without basic science”, she says. “Basic science creates critical thinking to solve a problem for which you do not have a solution, and you don’t know whether you will have one. This development in the way of thinking is useful to society and the industry”, notes the researcher. Statistics and probability are basic tools in many sectors of the industry and other disciplines. In fact, doctoral and postdoctoral researchers who worked in her team, have followed her career in the industry or the bank thanks to the knowledge on massive data analysis.

Although astrophysics is a discipline where there are more men than women, Licia Verde emphasizes that she never felt questioned for being a woman, and says she is able to “have a different approach to treat a problem, which can be beneficial in some cases”. However, she admits gender inequality persists and despite the taken measures that should mitigate inequality, “the situation got stuck”. Verde took part in tutoring programs for young women to encourage them to work on science, technology, engineering or mathematics despite the existing difficulties: “You have to give it a try”, she says.

Licia Verde says she became a mother when her scientific career was consolidated and she notes that, if she had been a mother before, perhaps she should have had to stop her career. “In order to keep a high level in research you have to be available and work many hours a day, and that is not possible when you have children”, she says. She also explains that the ICREA contract, based on results, gave her the freedom to manage her time and work, and even take part in the film The Laws of Thermodynamics.

Photo of the universe taken by Hubble telescope. Image: NASA/ESA
Licia Verde, at the WMAP in 2003.
Licia Verde, in the Solar Atrium of the Faculty of Physics of the UB.
Licia Verde, the day she received the National Research Award, with President Quim Torra and Minister Àngels Chacón. Image: FCRI.