Saturday, August 17, 2013


Arizona (October 11, 2009)

You may find it hard to believe, but I never took a plane until I was in my second year in graduate school. The fact is that people in Italy don't travel very much. My family, for example, never went to a vacation abroad. Not even France, that is just a few kilometers across the border from where they live. When I was in college, I traveled mostly within Italy, and exclusively by train (the only medium I could afford). Only when I started graduate school I begin going to conferences and observation trips, and that enlarged significantly my travel horizon. The first air trip I made was to attend a conference to the Canary Islands. I still remember the feeling of exhilaration when the plane took off and I was pressed against my seat, with the ground receding away at a sharp angle. I can only imagine what it must be, feeling the power of a rocket headed to Earth orbit: well, that first flight could as well have been directed to the Moon. Since then, I never stopped flying. Being an astronomer certainly helped in finding exotic locations to go: we have this thing for deserts and volcanos, so the best telescopes are placed in the highlands of Chile, the american Southwest or the tropical Hawaii. The advent of space astronomy, and the internet allowing remote operation of telescopes, have somewhat reduced this need for physical travel. Teaching commitments also limit my ability to travel when I have classes. Still it is rare for me not having a few flights booked at any given time.

So it is quite exceptional that is being almost one year since my last flight. That after a crazy 2012 summer when I didn't stay for more than a week at home in between continuous back-to-back trips: San Francisco, D.C., Japan, Anchorage, Rome (3 days, without even being able to visit my parents), D.C. again, Baltimore. Then, since last August, nothing that required taking a plane. One of the reasons is the sequestration (the insane idea that the US government has to cut everything by a blanket 10%), that forced NASA to cancel a meeting where I was supposed to speak and converted three panel reviews I was supposed to attend in person into remote teleconferencing event (cheaper, yes, but not as efficient). So there you go, my four air trips of the summer canceled by the US Congress. The flying drought has finally ended, as I have now in schedule at least 3 new work trips in the US and Europe, but it has been an unusually long stretch in which I had been with my feet firmly planted on firm ground.

There are two things I like most when traveling (that is true for both trains and planes). The first one is that for the time I am in my seat I don't have to make any decision. Somebody else is driving. I sometimes suffer from decision overload, and a brief time in which I can just seat back and relax is like the best vacation. The second thing is related to the first: as I seat back I can tilt my head towards the window, and look at the world passing by. Trains give a more intimate view of the outside world, like watching TV. At least in Italy and US the trains are slow enough, especially when crossing cities, that you can see people living out their everyday life. Sometimes you pass close enough to house blocks that you can actually have a short voyeuristic glimpse of their private life. And then you leave the cities and immerse yourself in the landscape scrolling outside, like an alive hypnotizing screensaver. This is all lost when you are on a plane, tens of thousands of feet above the ground, isolated from the world below by a curtain of clouds. But if the clouds dissipate, then the landscape comes back with a vengeance and is converted by distance into pure abstract art. That's when I take out my camera.

The photo above was taken somewhere during a flight between Boston and Los Angeles. I am not sure where, but it was probably after flying over Arizona. It could be a closeup of a slab of marble, if it weren't for the thin wavy road crossing the flood plains coming down from the mountains on the right. It could be Mars. It has the colors and the dryness. I am left wondering what it would be like driving along that road, under the baking Sun on Earth, or the thin poisonous air of Mars freezing in the distant Sun.

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