Early Saturday’s thoughts of a [mature] astronomer

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Every year here in Garching there is a workshop organized by the International Max Planck Research School for Astrophysics (IMPRS for short). The purpose is to give the chance to brilliant undergraduate students to participate to the IMPRS programme and get a PhD in Astrophysics in one of the most active campuses in Europe and in the world. This year the IMPRS received almost 140 applications, out of which about 50 candidates were invited to a 3-day workshop, where they could give a presentation on their scientific interests, meet other students and potential supervisors for their PhD Thesis.

As I am member of the selection committee for the European Southern Observatory, which is a partner of the IMPRS, I had the privilege to participate to the workshop, and to meet lots of young, brilliant people. I must say a great experience. I would have loved to have something similar proposed to me when I was at that stage in my career.

But then come some considerations. If I look at the quality of these young researchers, I cannot help myself feeling overwhelmed. In my times I could have never matched their level, their already professional way of presenting themselves, their ability of establishing links with senior researchers, their open-mindedness. And, of course, their enthusiasm. It is just astonishing.

It is maybe because I am starting to loose the freshness of the youth, the genuine desire to get into real science, to do it “hands on”. All sad thoughts.

But there is an episode I wish to mention here. During these last days I had the chance to chat with a number of students, coming from all over the world. And there is one who impressed me particularly. He got fascinated by the personality of Jayant Narlikar (whom I had already the chance to talk about in this blog), and since then he has always been dreaming about becoming a professional astronomer. This wish became more and more serious, and with big sacrifices, he finally managed to start a career in astrophysics. I could see the enthusiasm in his eyes, which were betraying the feelings he had. He could not believe he was where he was; he could not take for real he was given the opportunity of becoming a real part of the game. He said: “I am like a kid brought to a large toy store, and I do not know with which toy I should start playing…“.

During one of our chats he told me that in his home country, he has to bike 12 km from his house to the institute to have internet access. Something which is a forgotten thing for us, here in the rich West. But something which makes me deeply think. This is certainly something I will recall and consider during those days when nature is mute, there are no progresses, the research is stagnant, and the enthusiasm is running low.

There are still many things we can learn from young people.

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