My best memory of Riccardo’s is related to the occasion in which he hired me as VLT Program Scientist and he told me: “When you don’t know what to do ask yourself ‘What is better for Science? Cosa è meglio per la Scienza?’”
Personal memories of collegues who met and worked with the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physics and wanted to witness it here, on the Media Inaf pages: Salvatore Sciortino, Sperello di Serego Alighieri, Gianni Zamorani, Piero Rosati, Stefano Borgani, Roberto Gilli, Maurizio Paolillo and Paolo Tozzi.
Bianucci interview with Giacconi
On the 3rd of October 2012, in the evocative frame of the INAF-Osservatorio Astronomico di Brera, the Nobel Prize Riccardo Giacconi, together with the scientific journalist Piero Bianucci, recalls the history of the beginning of X astronomy.
Media INAF interview with Giacconi
In this interview, collected in 2009 by MediaInaf Tv, the Nobel Prize Riccardo Giacconi remembers the pioneristic epoch of the first space launches that carried X-ray astronomy instruments and talks about the Nobel Prize.
The inside environment was very advantageous for research. There was a climate of mutual trust and rationality. In my opinion, this is an essential element so that research activity unfolds at its best: a rationality climate must prevail. In a feudatory, authoritarian environment, or where there is too much bureaucracy, where people are afraid of losing their job, in which personal tantrums prevail, in which the measure of success is a measure of personal judgement and not of objectivity, researchers work very badly, because at the end scientists are like children, they are curious and need a climate that is positive for their work. This is an attitude that I always try to keep in mind, I mean I try to create a consensual environment in which also sacrifices are accepted because it is understood why they are requested. It is not that I give up directing, but I try to do it by motivating my decisions. And I think that the highest peaks in research are reached when a rational research climate is locally established. It is possible that a local rational system and an external irrational environment coexist, but it is possible only for a short time.
From “L’occhio nel cielo”, 1987, R. Giacconi, Montedison, pag. 27
1931 – Antonio and Elsa’s only child, Riccardo Giacconi is born in Genova on the 6th of October. Elsa was a Mathematics and Physics teacher at Liceo Vittorio Veneto in Milan, which Riccardo himself will attend later on.
1954 – Graduates in Physics (at that time and for long afterwards the highest degree in Italy) at the Università degli Studi di Milano, joining Giuseppe Occhialini’s group and working with a cloud chamber that is still owned by the University.
1956 – Following Occhialini’s suggestion and thanks to a Fulbright scholarship, he moves to the United States, collaborating with Indiana University at first and with Princeton University afterwards, where he works on mesons and the search for new particles at the Princeton Cosmic Ray Laboratory.
1959 – He receives an offer from American Science and Engineering (Cambridge, Massachusetts) to start a space research program. Following hints from Bruno Rossi he decides to concentrate on X-ray wavelength observations. This decision de facto determines the beginning of X-ray Astronomy.
1962 – He gets the USA Ministry of Defence to launch an Aerobee rocket with three Geiger counters equipped with anticoincidence experiments. The article reporting the results – “Evidence for X-Rays from Sources outside the Solar System”, by Giacconi, Gursky, Paolini and Rossi – contains perhaps the most famous image of all: the one that shows the first extra-solar X-ray source ever discovered, Sco X-1, and the cosmic X-ray background.
1970 – With the help of NASA funding, he develops the Uhuru satellite (the word “uhuru” meaning “freedom” in swahili) and manages to use the Italian San Marco launch pad, under the direction of Prof. Luigi Broglio, in order to reach an equatorial orbit with a smaller rocket. The first sky map in the X-ray band is drawn, showing 339 different sources and the first black holes.
1973 – He moves with his group to the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysicss in Cambridge, Massachusetts (USA). As Associate Director he develops and launches, in 1978, the first X-ray Astronomy space telescope, named Einstein Observatory. The related work of planning, organization and storage of Einsten’s data becomes the “open” standard access now extensively used by NASA and other institutions.
1976 – Together with Harvey Tananbaum he proposes Einstein’s successor mission, aimed to be launched two years later. It will become the Chandra satellite and its development will take about twenty years.
1981 – As the Chandra (then still called AXAF) design was taking longer than expected, he moves to Baltimore (MD), becomes the Space Telescope Science Institute Director to manage and supervise the Hubble (by NASA/ESA) space telescope.
1991 – He accepts a clara fama professorship in Astrophysics at Università degli Studi di Milano.
1993 – He becomes ESO’s General Director, where he introduces modern techniques in managing and data sharing. Under his direction, the NTT is improved and the ambitious VLT project is started. The first two of the four 8,2m UT telescopes are built before the end of his mandate.
1997 – He collaborates to a feasibility study for a WFXT satellite, WAXS, promoted by Guido Chincarini who is the PI of the proposal, that is selected by ASI for phase A but not selected for launch afterwards.
1999 – He comes back to the the USA as a Professor at Johns Hopkins University.
1999 – He takes on the presidency of the Associated University Incorporated, where he works, among other things, on the Atacama Large Millimiter-Submillilmeter Array (ALMA).
2002 – He receives the Nobel Prize for Physics: “for pioneering contributions to astrophysics, which have led to the discovery of cosmic X-ray sources.”
2012 – He joins as guest of honour the 50-years celebration conferences for X-ray Astronomy in Mykonos and Milan.
2018 – He dies in S.Diego (CA) on the 9th of December 2018.
The asteroid 3371 Giacconi has been named after him. He received numerous prizes, awards and honorary degrees during his life.
“Secrets of the Hoary Deep”, 2008, R. Giacconi, Johns Hopkins University Press
“Revealing the Universe” 2001 W. Tucker, K. Tucker, Harvard University Press
“Exploring the Universe: a Festschrift in Honor of Riccardo Giacconi”, 2000. H. Gursky, Ruffini and L. Stella (Editors), Advanced Series in Astrophysics and Cosmology, Vol. 13, World Scientific
“L’occhio nel cielo” R. Giacconi, 1987, Montedison
“L’universo in raggi X” 1985 R. Giacconi, W. Tucker, Mondadori-EST
“Glimpsing an invisible universe” 1983 R.F. Hirsh, Cambridge Univ. Press
“Considerations on X-ray astronomy: A start in X-ray astronomy“, 2013 R. Giacconi, Mem.SAIt, Vol. 84 n. 3, 2013
In 1991 the Università degli Studi di Milano offers a clara fama professorship to Riccardo Giacconi to take on the Astronomy chair.
We report here the audio of the first lessons and a few of the slides presented.
4 marzo 1991 Introduction – The birth of X-ray astronomy – sources of X-rays – overview of the course
Voices of Riccardo Giacconi and Luigi Stella
6 marzo 1991 History of X-rays
Voice of Riccardo Giacconi
Look at the lesson slides
8 marzo 1991 History of X-ray Astronomy
Voice of Riccardo Giacconi
Look at the lesson slides
These documents from Elsa Giacconi belong to the Università degli Studi di Milano – Biblioteca di Fisica. Archivio G. Occhialini
Text edited by
Maria Elena Cianfanelli
has contributed to the English translation.