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I will be giving a talk at 14:17 CEST. See you there.



At the Campus Party Europe in Berlin

I am in Berlin, at the Campus Party Europe in Berlin, a geek meeting gathering about 20,000 participants. An unusual thing, I must say. I was invited as an ESO ambassador, to give a talk about astronomy. And here I am. I will be talking in an hour, about Astronomy and Emotions, in front of some 400 people.

The audience is rather different from the typical one I see at my public lectures. It ranges from high-school youngsters to people in their fifties. But the common trait is a geek-like look. There are parallel workshops and talks, about robotics, computer science, hardware, hack, bio/nano-technology, you name it… Tons of computers, weird machines, interesting demonstrations. Have a look to the web site to see more.

The keynote speakers feature a few very interesting characters. Paulo Coehlo to name one.

Meeting Alan Parsons

Alan Parsons, Munich, July 2012 (photo by N. Patat)

Alan Parsons, Munich, July 2012 (photo by Nando Patat)

In many occasions I wrote in this blog that my passion for astronomy was accompanied by a deep passion for music. It was around 1978, or 1979, when a strong link between the skies and the music of the Alan Parsons Project started to develop. Besides the “spatial” character of several pieces (especially the instrumental ones), many texts contain references to astronomical objects. And so, partially because of this, and partially because of a certain imagination on my side, the two things became strongly related. Even after the years at the university, during the runs in La Silla (Chile), I would listen to APP music while observing supernovae.

During the early days of my passion for astronomy, when returning home at the end of very cold winter nights spent with my small, self-made telescope, I would turn on my Sanyo tape recorder (remember, it was the late seventies…) and listen to APP music in the dark. In my small bedroom there was a wood stove. The fire projected a small red dot on the ceiling through a small circular hole. And the music was pervading the room, and my dreams, as the cool star was slowly fading away. Yeah, magic times.

Some time ago, after returning from holidays in 2011, I realized that nobody less than Alan Parsons had visited Paranal. I was there only a few months before, and it really looked like I had lost my chance to meet him for a tiny bit. The only thing I could do was writing a sad post on CosmicDiary. But immediately after, Simon Lowery (old friend and colleague) posted a comment in the CosmicDiary:

Mate, Alan is one of my best friends, as soon I am back we can talk but next gig where we are both in the same place you come with me VIP and then we will take you out for dinner.”

Of course, I could not believe it. But, as it turns out, this was indeed going to happen. A few months ago, Simon came to my office, telling me that Alan Parsons and his band would be giving a concert here in Munich on July 19th.

Alan Parsons and me (July 2012). Photo (C) by Simon Lowery.

On July 18, Simon gives me a phone call. “I am going to take some footage of Alan this afternoon. Would you like to join me for a few hours?“. And there I am, waiting in front of the hotel where Alan and the band are staying. I had only seen him in pictures, but I recognize him immediately as he gets out of the hotel. “Your music has been the soundtrack of my passion for astronomy” – it is all what I manage to say. Alan is an imposing person. But what captures most of one’s attention is his eyes. Their icy look immediately dissolves into a bottomless depth as his expressions turns into a smile. I shake his hand. We follow him inside of the Circus Krone building. The stage is being set-up. Alan looks around and asks a few questions to the local manager. They will run the sound check tomorrow, in the afternoon preceding the concert. After a while we go back to the hotel, where we leave Alan.

APP in concert in Munich (July 2012. Photo by Nando Patat).

APP in concert in Munich (July 2012. Photo by Nando Patat).

Coming back to ESO I still can’t believe it. I met him. And tomorrow I will listen to the concert, and Simon will bring me to the backstage…

APP in concert in Munich (July 2012. Photo by Nando Patat).

Circus Krone is packed, and the concert is sold-out. I look around: my wife and I are amongst the youngest people. This reminds me that more than thirty years have passed since I first listened to The Turn of a Friendly Card on that Sanyo tape recorder…

But it is when the music starts that the wave of memories submerges me. The band goes through the greatest hits of the APP. “Time“, “Snake Eyes“, “Eye in the Sky“, “MammaGamma“, “Old and Wise“, the suite of “The turn of a friendly card“, …, you name them. Things that were long gone come back, brought about by the music. Sure, the voices of Lenny Zakatek, Chris RainbowDavid Paton and John Miles are now gone. And so is the great spirit of Eric Woolfson. However, the Project is still alive. And you can feel it. When the concert is over, Simon brings us to the backstage. And there I have a few words with the band. In particular with Todd Cooper, lead vocalist and sax player. “Alan wants all of us to sing“. That was something always struck me. There was never only one singer, but a series of lead vocals surrounded by backing vocals. One of the key elements of the APP’s music.

Thanks Alan, thanks Simon.

Now I need to go back to the stars, they are waiting for me ;-)

Goodbye my friends,
Maybe forever
Goodbye my friends,
The stars wait for me.

“Time”, Alan Parsons Project, the Turn of a Friendly Card



Astronomy and wonderful people

Today was the last day of the ESO annual review. I am just back from the closing party, and I cannot wait. I need to write something about it. During these days we got a full overview of the activities carried out at ESO. It is simply amazing. However, what impressed me more is people. Those people who make all this. I think the highest moment was reached during the talk by Massimo Tarenghi, former director of the VLT programme, and now ESO representative in Chile. He was one of the key figures at ESO under the directorship of Riccardo Giacconi, ESO’s Director General during the VLT era, and Nobel Prize for Physics in 2002.

Massimo gave a vivid talk, going through the main steps of the Very Large Telescope construction, fascinating the audience with lively episodes of that great endeavor. Among many intense moments, he told us about that day when Giacconi saw one of the first wonderful images taken by VLT-UT1 and the test camera. Giacconi himself, rather well known for his tough personality, was moved to tears looking at that astonishing image.

And when Massimo was describing this, he himself was clearly moved. And he told us that we need to be enthusiastic if we want our big dream, building a 40-meter telescope, becomes true.

While listening to Massimo I could not refrain from going back with my mind eyes to the times of my youth, when I was dreaming of telescopes, and my nights were dominated by starry [and very cold] skies. Last week we were visited by the Joseph Tailor, Nobel Prize for Physics in 1993. He told us about his discovery of a binary system hosting two neutron stars, which allowed him and Russel Hulse to first confirm the prediction of gravitational waves following from Einstein’s general relativity theory. Hearing this, first hand from one of the two discoverers, was simply awesome. One of those things…

I could see the amazement in the audience, not only in the young students’ eyes, but also in some of the more senior people. People like me, whose enthusiasm time has not yet extinguished.

So, indeed, we are all fascinated by the Universe. But in the end, what fascinates me more is people. Wonderful people.

Stephane Udry gives a talk at ESO on exo-planets

Long time no see…

Many things happened in between. For instance, my boss Bruno Leibundgut joined the team led by Brian Schmidt in Stockholm, for the Nobel Prize ceremony. I already expressed my feeling related to Brian’s visit to ESO before the Nobel Prize was announced. The account Bruno gave on the Nobel Ceremony was equally stunning.

I rejoice for them, and for astrophysics in general. But I cannot hide, at least not to myself, that I envy them… all the more because I happen to be so close to these people ;-)

Speaking of great deeds, yesterday Stephane Udry gave a great talk at ESO about the exo-planet search. Stephane is one of the world-leading researchers in the field, and one of the closest collaborators of Michele Mayor, the Swiss astronomer who has initiated this whole business. Of course, what makes the field so fascinating (especially to non-astronomers, I’d say) is the philosophical aspects it entails.  But even when you look at it from a more rational point of view, the work they are doing is great. It involves a large investment in terms of telescope time, but also a great amount of stubbornness and perseverance.

When the colloquium is over, ESO astronomer and colleague Jason Spyromilio comments to me: “This is real science, not the Mickey Mouse work we are doing…”. Mind you, Jason is also part of the Nobel Prize winner team led by Brian Schmidt…

And so, what should I say? probably go and hide in some corner ;-)

Rock Star Paul Young encounters the Stars @ ESO

I am sick, at home. Stomach not working as originally designed. Therefore I find some time to blog. These last days have been very busy with the organization of the ESO Observing Programmes Committee, the board that selects the scientific projects that make to the ESO telescopes, including the VLT. I’ll tell you more about that; for the time being it suffices to say that we have received 969 valid proposals for the next semester, with all what this entails…

Today I finished the review of a PhD Thesis from the Australian National University. A very good one, a pleasure to read. It is nice to see these young researchers, emerging from the masses, with brilliant ideas. They are still naive enough (in the most positive sense) to tell us old farts that there is a lot more to learn. Amazing… at the end I was full of enthusiasm, ready to go back to my projects, which only yesterday seemed the most boring and inconclusive ones…

Paul Simon and myself at ESO (photo by Simon Lowery).

Paul Young and myself at ESO (photo by Simon Lowery).

Last week I met the rock star Paul Young. Do not ask me how and why. It just happened. Well, a friend of Paul is actually working at ESO, and is name is Simon. So, for a number of coincidences, I was asked to give Paul Young an introduction to ESO, showing him a bit around, and explaining what we do here. He listened very carefully to what I said, and he asked lots of questions.  Certainly an interesting person, let aside him being a rock/soul star.

I still can’t believe this. It was many years ago that I was listening to “Come back and stay“, “Love of the common people“, “Wherever I lay my hat“, “Senza una donna/Without a woman” (with Zucchero “Sugar” Fornaciari). You know, one of those things that you would never expect to happen. All the more if you are an astronomer… But Simon has more aces in his sleeve. So, you can expect some more surprises in the future.

By the way, you remember that some time ago, with Jayant Narlikar, Ken Freeman and Vijay Mohan we tried to find traces of stars older than the universe.  Well, the saga is now over, and the Big Bang model is still safe. I’ll blog a bit more on that.

Now let me get back to “Next”, a nice movie with Nicolas Cage. Then, good night.

The Nobel Prize in Physics 2011 goes to Supernovae!

Great news! The Nobel Prize in Physics 2011 goes to Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt and Adam Riess,“for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe through observations of distant supernovae”. This was somehow in the air since 2007, when they were assigned the Gruber Cosmology Prize. But now is real. No matter what the physical explanation for the observed effect is, the finding is striking, and probably constitutes one of the most important scientific results of the past century. Truly enough there is probably another branch of astrophysics that has achieved great results in the last 20 years, and that is the one of extra-solar planets, led by the Swiss astronomer Michel Mayor. However, although it had a great impact on the public (and understandably so), its importance is somehow more philosophical than physical. On the contrary, the study of distant Supernovae and their deviating behavior have triggered a great discussion, and its implications may be very profound.

But it is no much about the discovery in itself that I like to blog about. You can find a lot on the web about this. No, I’d like to write a bit about the personal/human aspect of this.

Photo by Nick Suntzeff (C).

Photo by Nick Suntzeff (C).

I met Saul, Adam and Brian in 1995, at Aiguablava, near Barcelona, at the NATO Advanced Study Institute on thermonuclear explosions. At that time I was a PhD student, and that was my first international conference on Supernovae. I remember that Adam was a young student of Robert Kirshner, while Brian was just out of his PhD, which he also did under the supervision of Bob. Saul was a bit more senior;  I remember I had one nice dinner with him. At that time their projects were just starting. As you may remember, they followed two different paths. The two competing teams (the high-z SN Search and the Supernova Cosmology Project) were led by Saul and Brian. There is a nice picture (taken by Nick Suntzeff) that portraits Brian and Saul while they are boxing. It effectively renders the friendly competition between the two teams. They found similar results, and they both could not believe in what they had found. For some time they were convinced something was wrong with their data. I was not involved in either of the projects. However, when I was working in the team of the 3.6m in La Silla (Chile), I assisted to a couple of observing sessions. That was quite a challenge. They were visionary, in the sense that they were indeed seeing things beyond the horizon of what was, at that time, barely technically feasible. And their stubbornness is today rightly awarded a Nobel prize.

Brian Schmidt in S. Barbara - CA (2009).

Brian Schmidt in S. Barbara - CA (2009).

Among the three of them, Brian is the one I know best. Last week he was in my office here in Garching, together with his former PhD student Wolfgang Kerzendorf, to discuss the details of a future project. I still can’t believe that. Gee, I should have taken a photo… You know, when I was young, a Nobel prize meant to me some old researcher. Yes, somebody like Einstein, Bohr, and the like. But the man is one year younger than me, and I sat many times in conferences chatting with him. I am not sure what of him I admire more: his scientific skills or his personality. One of those amazing guys that make you feel comfortable, although he is several steps above you… Every time I think about him I cannot help myself comparing with some senior (especially Italian) professors, who treat you with a superiority that has no counterpart in their scientific thickness…

The more I think about it and the more astounding I find the whole thing. Sure, I had met in person another Nobel Prize, Riccardo Giacconi, when he was the director of ESO. But he incarnated more the ideal of a Nobel Prize winner, at least in my imagination, especially because he belongs to another generation. But Brian, Adam are *my* generation. And soon they will be stepping on the stage where Einstein, and other great personalities have walked. And they will go down to history. On the other hand, this also reminds me that this happens only to a few scientists. All the others will be soon forgotten.  All their struggles, and obsessions to add some word to the pages of the great book of science will vanish. A sad thought, you may think. Indeed…

Adam Riess in S.Barbara - CA (2009).

Adam Riess in S.Barbara - CA (2009).

To regain some spirit, I’ll now close posting two photos of Adam I took in S. Barbara. On the left you see him with a bottle of wine, called “Lambda”. On the right, I had replaced Lambda with “w” (which Adam prefers). The difference is subtle, but the physics behind that are different.

Lost a chance, maybe forever

Yesterday, while digging into more than 800 emails (already excluding spam) received during my summer vacation, I realized I have lost one of THE chances of my life. Scrolling down the list, searching for the most urgent things, I stumbled upon a message with a strange subject:

From the Dark Side of the Moon to Paranal

The sender is my colleague astronomer and good, old friend  Martino Romaniello, who is well aware of some of my passions. I open the message. It starts with


followed by a web link. I click on it and I see the picture you can also see here:

That is a blow. You might not recognize him, but I immediately did. It is nobody less than Alan Parsons, audio engineer, musician and producer, sitting in the control room of the VLT. There were times in my life when I only listened to J.S. Bach, Franco Battiato and Alan Parsons. His music is full of references to astronomy, and it is certainly not a coincidence that he visited the largest astronomical observatory in the world after his concert in Santiago, last May. You can see more of this and his new group, the SubClones, here.

I had dreamed so many times to meet him. And I lost what probably was my only opportunity. I just missed the event…

All what I could do, when I got back home very late yesterday, was to play an old Alan Parsons’ Project album (The turn of a friendly card) and celebrate with a cold beer the missed opportunity, in the deepest despair.

days are numbers, watch the stars/ we can only see so far

Una serata assurda – An absurd evening

Margherita Hack

Margherita Hack

Just back from holidays. Many things happened, and maybe I’ll find the time to report about a few of them. But the funniest, and at the same time the most frustrating one was a public talk I gave together with Margherita Hack. She is the most famous Italian popularizer of astronomy, and she appears quite often on national TV channels, newspapers and magazines.

The day after I wrote a short novel about this evening. As I really needed to use many words, and my English is not good enough for that, I had to write it in Italian, my mother tongue. If you happen to understand it, here you go.

Sono appena tornato dalle vacanze. Sono successe molte cose, e forse trovero’ il tempo per parlarne, almeno di alcune. Ma la piu’ divertente, ed allo stesso tempo la piu’ frustrante, e’ stata una conferenza pubblica che ho tenuto assieme a Margherita Hack. E’ la piu’ famosa divulgatrice italiana di astronomia, e appare spesso in TV, sui giornali e sulle riviste.

Il giorno dopo ho scritto un breve racconto. Siccome mi servivano un sacco di parole, ed il mio inglese non e’ sufficientemente buono, l’ho scritto in italiano. Se ti interessa, lo puoi leggere qui.

A completely new experience

Many things happened since my last post here. One of them is that I got a new job. Well, yes, I’m still an astronomer, but after ten years of work as support astronomer in the Users Support Dept., I now moved to the Observing Programmes Office of ESO, which I am now leading.

What? Those of you who know me might indeed wonder how this can possibly be. Well, not sure… As a consequence, I changed office, building, collaborators and so on. But I’m still at the European Southern Observatory, my alma mater.

The Panel Scientific Assistants (a.k.a. secretaries) relaxing after the Panel sessions.

The Panel Scientific Assistants (a.k.a. secretaries) relaxing after the Panel sessions.

In these days, with my Department, I am going through a very interesting exercise. Twice a year, ESO summons some 80 astronomers from all over the world to judge the about 1000 proposals we receive for observing at the Very Large Telescope and the other ESO facilities. Though job, but very exciting, both from a scientific and a social point of view.

The team working with me is wonderful, very dedicated and very funny too. All the fears I had are fading away by the day. Sure enough, as somebody made me notice, there is still room for failure ;-)

The meeting lasts one week, during which the referees keep discussing the proposals and ranking them. In the end, they will deliver to us a final ranked list, which we will use to finally schedule the telescope. That’s my next task. This will start already on Saturday morning, I fear. My next concern is telling that to my wife ;-)

More on the next days.