Monday, March 24, 2014

The Diaspora of the Italian Astronomers

The Loch, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado (May 29, 2003)

It takes about two hours to get from The Denver International Airport to Estes Park, in the heart of the Rocky Mountain National Park. It actually takes less than that, in normal circumstances, if you rent a car and drive up on Interstate 25, and then west on Route 66. That's the smart choice that avoids Boulder, and saves time. But when I went there I was a postdoctoral fellow on a budget, going to a conference on the Astrophysics of Dust. I took the bus.

In case you wonder, yeah there is plenty of dust in space. Mostly, is in the form of fine microscopic particles of sooth or quartz-like material, and fills the interstellar space. Near stars, though, it concentrates in larger particles. The ones that make shooting stars when falling on Earth. Some are even bigger, much bigger. Like asteroids. Some are humongous, like the one you are sitting on at precisely this moment. Planetary size dust grains. This is all stardust: blown out from stars as they die.

The bust was actually chartered by the conference organizers, and as such it was full of astronomers. It was an international conference, so the astronomers were arriving from all over the world. I must really look italian, though, because I didn't even have time to set my bag in the rack that I saw somebody pointing to the seat next to mine, saying: "'che รจ libero questo posto?". This inevitably proved that my nationality had been discovered, and that of all possible astronomers on the bus, the one that was going to sit next to me for the two hours trip was another italian.

Finding another italian astronomer in the US is not that rare. The diaspora of italian scientists, and astronomers in particular, is a well known fact. Italy has an excellent and free educational system, producing first class scientists at a much higher rate that it can absorb. Well, the production rate is maybe not that high: the problem is on the low employment rate side of the equation. Italy invests in science less than 1.3% of its Gross Domestic Product, which is well below the world average, and less than half than the US (2.8% of GDP). Italian scientists (and a lot of astronomers among them) get their education and leave to sunnier pastures: many try to stay in Europe (France and Germany the preferred destinations) but US is also a favorite place to go. Of all my classmates in graduate schools, none remained in Italy: three of us are in the US, one in Switzerland, the last one went back to his native China. He is the one that had the most successful career.

A not-italian ground squirrel
Of the foreign contingent in my old institution (the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) the largest community is the italian one. That is particularly true in the high energy division, the realm of X-ray astronomy. The italian dominance is not surprising, because the division was funded by Riccardo Giacconi, the italian X-ray astronomy pioneer that won the Nobel prize in 2002. It was not difficult to find italians at CfA. Among them Cesare, a true "toscanaccio". An excellent guy, always with strong and astute opinions, and colorful ways to express them, as typical in the people from the region of Dante. I remember that he was very unhappy with his run-of-the-mill Windows laptop (he didn't like Bill Gates too much) and wanted to install Linux on it to "stick it to the man". We spent hours to coerce that poor computer to run what at the time was a "rebel" operating system until we managed to have everything working properly, including the internet and Netscape (yes I am that old). Then he returned to Italy. I later learned that when he got home to Florence he sat at the dinner table with a large bowl of soup and the computer in front of him. Ready to finally browse the web without the tyranny of Internet Explorer. It didn't last long: as soon as the first page was slowly loading at dialup speed he got so excited that he bumped into the bowl, all the soup launched at orbital speed to fall back right on the laptop, seeping inside the keyword with fizzling sounds. Despite heroic efforts, the computer was pronounced dead by the time it was brought at the repair store. It is said that Cesare took it quite well, given the circumstances: "it could have been worse" it is believed he said; "instead of soup, it could have been wine".

PS: it turns out that my italian companion on the bus to Estes Park was nobody else than the old thesis advisor of Cesare. We spent the whole trip bitching about how americans do everything wrong (that's another trait of toscanacci, explaining how "everything is wrong and needs to be done over". All in a very strong tuscan accent, totally impenetrable to any english-speaking passenger on the bus (thankfully). The photos were taken after the conference ended: I stayed a few more days to hike in the beautiful rockies and try out my first DSRL. These are the first photos I took with my Nikon D100 camera, that served me well for many years since.

View from Estes Park, Colorado (May 28, 2003)

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