Riccardo Giacconi


In Memory of Marc Antonio Giacconi and dedicated to my wife, Mirella, and to our daughters, Anna and Guia.

I. Early years
I was born in Genoa, Italy, on October 6, 1931, but I spent most of my life until 1956 in Milano. I was the only child. My mother, Elsa Canni Giacconi, was a teacher of Mathematics and Physics at the high school level. She was the co-author of many textbooks on geometry which were widely adopted in Italy. She held that God made geometry. My father, Antonio Giacconi, owned a small business. He had a knack of seeing historical developments clearly and to perceive when the King was naked. He was an anti-fascist and suffered for it. My mother and father were legally separated when I was eight years old.

I experienced World War II as a young teenager. I was sent to live with my aunts, Giulia and Elisa Canni, in Cremona following the 1942 bombings of Milano. The son of Giulia, Giovanni Benini, of my same age, became the only brother I ever had. I had access to a large library, including classics, and I read copiously.

I returned to Milano in 1944 and lived there through 1956. My schooling was not completely conventional. I went to a German kindergarten, then first year elementary school in a Military College, then third year in Genoa, then again third year in Milano. I cut school frequently in Genoa and I was a discipline problem in Milano. I had my best learning in Cremona. I jumped last year of high school directly to the University of Milano. I obtained the doctorate in Physics in four years. Outside of school I loved climbing, hiking, and skiing. I traveled throughout Europe and I enlisted for two weeks as a trimmer on an English trawler out of Grimsby.

II. Education
Up to and including university my interaction with the educational system was always difficult. In high school I loved to point out the mistakes by our mathematics teachers. At the university, I had difficulties following the heavy burden of lectures although I was able to pass all tests with relatively high grades. My salvation was to start doing research in the very first year of university. At the University of Milano there was at the time an active group of cosmic ray researchers interested in studying muons, lambda particles, and proton interactions. A very kind and bright young professor, Antonio Mura, put me to work doing literature searches and summaries, while Carlo Succi put me in the laboratory building power supplies with surplus U.S. parts and building and operating cloud chambers.

This training was in stark contrast to the pedantic approach of many of the older teachers. The lectures in physics, chemistry, physical chemistry, and theory were of little use to me. I still loved geometry, analysis, and physics as I saw it from a researcher’s point of view.

I did my thesis work on the development of nuclear interactions by protons in the lead plates of a cloud chamber at the laboratory of Testa Grigia (3500 m). It took me two years to collect 80 proton interactions. I prepared a modest thesis confirming Fermi‘s model and I was finally out of formal schooling. I was hired as an assistant professor in the Physics Department and just before this time I met Giuseppe Occhialini. He was an extraordinary figure in Milano. His work was at an extremely high level and widely recognized internationally.

To my knowledge he never gave a lecture. He took a liking to me and I to him. I was able to follow his multiplexed way of thinking and talking, and I was able to moderate some of his flights of imagination by sober use of first principles. He approved of my choice of working with cloud chambers, though most of the young people worked with emulsions, with the remark that at least I would learn plumbing. He suggested I go the United States to work with R.W. Thompson for whom he and I had the most profound esteem. I obtained a Fulbright Fellowship and sailed for the U.S. in 1956 and have lived here until now, except for a seven-year period (1992-1999) in Munich.

III. Fellowships
I spent 1956 to 1958 in Bloomington, Indiana, working on the analysis of data previously obtained by Thompson and on the construction of a new and bigger cloud chamber for cosmic ray research. Thompson was a painstaking experimentalist as well as brilliant in data analysis and theory. He was the closest in the U.S. to the ideal of the Italian school of physics as embodied by Fermi, who was both a great experimentalist and theoretical thinker. Thompson had committed a blunder in research when young and this fact haunted him for the rest of his life. He never received the recognition he deserved for his discovery of the qo mass and this troubled him greatly.

It became quickly apparent that Thompson’s group was not the place for me. The search for the anti-lambda particle was unsuccessful and the new cloud chamber would take 10 years to build. I moved to Princeton University in 1958 to work in G. Reynolds’ laboratory. There I conducted research in m mesons and carried out an unsuccessful search for a new type of particle whose discovery had been claimed by Russian scientists. This search was a collaboration between Fred Hendel (a senior Austrian scientist), Herbert Gursky (a post doc), and myself. We built equipment, worked like fiends, analyzed data, and declared failure. In the meanwhile I had learned a lot about scintillation counters and image intensifiers to be used for elementary particle research at the then-envisaged Princeton-Penn accelerator.

This put me in contact with the MIT group led by Herbert Bridge. Also with American Science and Engineering (AS&E), led by Martin Annis, an excosmic ray physicist. Both Bridge and Annis had been students of Bruno Rossi of MIT, who was chairman of the Board of AS&E.

My fellowship at Princeton expired in 1959. I went to visit Occhialini at CERN. He seemed to be in one of his emotional downturns seeing conspirators everywhere. CERN felt like an impersonal huge machine and offered me no prospects. I was therefore quite happy to receive an offer from AS&E to initiate for the 28-man corporation a program of space sciences. I joined the Corporation in September 1959 and I started a serious career in science.

IV. Outlook and personal considerations
Cosmic ray research as a tool to study elementary particles was ending just as I was doing my thesis. The work by Thompson was destined to a dead end. The MIT cosmic ray research group led by Rossi had decided to abandon almost completely cosmic ray research and to start utilizing space to study plasmas and gamma rays from celestial objects. In particular, W. Kraushaar and George Clark carried out one of the first surveys in gamma rays.

For me the problem was much more personal. I felt I had not learned any useful skills while working in Milano, Indiana, and Princeton. I desperately wanted some kind of permanent position where I could learn a trade and, moreover, I felt I owed this to my family. I had married Mirella, whom I had known in Milano since the age of 16. Guia and Anna, our two daughters, needed stability and a home. The influence of Mirella on my life has been greater than that of any other person. She brought love, calm, and stability where none had existed before. She created a home for us full of beauty and tenderness. She is brighter than I am, translated many books for the MIT press, and has an uncompromising view of reality. Through thick and thin we are still together today.

V. Early years at AS&E
Given the task of creating a space program for the company, I started discussions with George Clark, an MIT professor and consultant and shareholder in AS&E. We discussed the possibility of searching for the ratio between alpha particles and protons in the trapped radiation belts just recently discovered by Van Allen. Another suggestion came from Bruno Rossi at a party in his house. He reported discussions at the Space Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences about the potential for x-ray astronomy and suggested AS&E might undertake it. I have always been grateful for that initial suggestion.

1959 to 1962 were among the most productive years of my life. I was involved in classified research: 19 rocket payloads, six satellite payloads, one entire satellite, and an aircraft payload, as well as four rocket payloads for geophysical research. Also in this period I produced instruments for alpha – proton ratio experiments, as well as the initial development of the x-ray telescope and the first few flights of rocket payloads for x-ray astronomy. This was a tremendous challenge. My group at AS&E went from 3 people (myself and two technicians) to 70 people in two and a half years. Frank Paolini and Herbert Gursky joined the group. Frank was a great instrumentalist. Without his contributions the successful 1962 x-ray payload could not have happened. Herbert Gursky, though quite valiant in the laboratory and in the field (he actually launched the June 12, 1962, rocket), was always more of a natural scientist. The fundamental steps in the dawn of x-ray astronomy remain in my mind: the first brief review, theoretical and experimental, of x-ray astronomy (1960), the invention of the x-ray telescope (1960), and the 1963 plan for xray astronomy by Gursky and me. This plan laid out a program of experiments which went from rockets to UHURU, “Einstein,” and Chandra. We thought then it could be done in five years, but it was not accomplished until the year 2000.

Much of the history of the development of x-ray astronomy has been told by Richard Hirsh, by Wally Tucker and me, and by others in books and articles and I will not repeat it here. But my scientific life took an unexpected turn after 1980 and I will devote some space to my growing interest in the direction of scientific enterprises outside of x-ray astronomy.

VI. Center for astrophysics
I had decided by 1973 that I actually loved astronomy, at least as I was practicing it. The success of UHURU gave the members of my group (Gorenstein, Gursky, Kellog, Murray, Schreier, Tananbaum, Tucker, and Van Speybroeck) a feeling of awe and gratitude at the richness and beauty of nature. We had won the NASA contract to build the Large Orbiting X-Ray Observatory (1970-1973). The contract was canceled due to cost overruns in the NASA Viking Program in 1973 and restarted the same year for what became “Einstein,” at one-half the size. We felt that we wanted to operate “Einstein” as a national observatory open to astronomers of all disciplines. AS&E did not seem to be the right place to do this. Thus the move to Harvard (where I was named a full professor) with eight of my group. We were looking for a closer involvement with the rest of astronomy and we thought the Center for Astrophysics (CfA) might provide the opportunity.

As it turned out, hardly anybody at CfA cared about what we were doing and there was less support for research than we had at AS&E. (In retrospect I have often wondered if we could have been successful at all had we started our work at Harvard). When I proposed to NASA an x-ray astronomy institute to direct the construction and operation of the “Einstein” successor in 1976 (then called AXAF and now Chandra), there was little support from CfA itself, where the institute would have been located. The proposal for AXAF was written by Harvey Tananbaum and me in 1976 and started the process which led to Chandra. Harvey was the project scientist for UHURU, the scientific manager for “Einstein,” and took on the leadership role in Chandra. His contributions to x-ray astronomy have never been sufficiently recognized. It took perseverance over almost 20 years to turn Chandra into reality. For me the delay between conception and execution was becoming too long. Also, after the glory of discoveries with UHURU, “Einstein” seemed relatively tame. I was ready for a change, which came with the unsought offer by Margaret Burbidge to become the first director of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI).

VII. Hubble space telescope
The effort at CfA to make x-ray astronomy useful to astronomers of all disciplines spurred us to provide the user with calibrated data out of a software pipeline. The development of end-to-end data management systems stems from that beginning. As the first Director of STScI, I was able to transfer my methodology for doing science in the planning and execution of science operations of Hubble.

Every aspect of the mission was examined by myself and the distinguished staff we were able to attract to the Institute. Ethan Schreier, my comrade of UHURU and “Einstein” days, and Rodger Doxey brought the physics-oriented mentality of x-ray astronomers to the new project.

Although we were quite ignorant in optical astronomy, we quickly found that operational planning for Hubble was a disaster. Guide stars could not be found on the fly as planned, the telescope could not point to planets, simultaneous reception of data from two instruments could not be achieved, and on and on.

Even more serious was the lack of tools to schedule the complex operations of Hubble and the absence of a data reduction system capable of ingesting the very high data rates. Both were accomplished by STScI. This meant developing models for the instrument defined by parameters measured on the ground and continuously verified in orbit, determining modes of instrument operations, and defining calibration routines. We also developed a software pipeline capable of analyzing data in real time and constructed an archive of calibrated data suitable for reuse by scientists other than those who built the instruments or used the Hubble through the competitive research program. We instituted, with NASA’s consent, data analysis grants and the Hubble Fellowship program. We developed an outstanding outreach program to reach the general public as well as colleagues and students.

We took responsibility for Hubble beyond the construction of glass and metal to turn it into an outstanding scientific tool.

It would be impossible to credit all of the scientists involved in creating and running the STScI and to name only a few seems unfair to the others. Many of them have continued at the Institute until today and many have gone on to prestigious positions at outstanding research institutions.

In 1991 my son Marc died in an automobile accident. STScI, Hubble, and Baltimore were continued and painful reminders of devastating grief. When the offer came to become Director General of the European Southern Observatory (ESO), Mirella and I jumped at the opportunity.

VIII. ESO and the VLT
When I joined ESO in January 1993, ESO was beginning to execute the Very Large Telescope (VLT) program. Quite a bit of progress had already occurred but the program was of such a size as to equal eight times the yearly budget of ESO and was 30 times larger than the previously built New Technology Telescope.

Massimo Tarenghi, an excellent scientist and an energetic manager, needed support from the rest of ESO to carry the project through. To help him in his task we had to fully reorganize ESO and introduce modern management techniques suitable for large programs. This was reasonably straightforward. More difficult was the introduction at ESO of the concept of a single observatory in which quality rather than quantity mattered and the introduction of end-toend software systems, calibration, and archiving, whose validity was proven on Hubble but had not yet been used in ground-based optical astronomy.

VLT became a machine to do science in which efficiency of operations and ability to use the data were as important as telescope and instrumentation performance.

Keck had the fortune of being the first to provide a 10 meter class telescope and reaped the early reward. But in a certain sense, it is operated as an old telescope for use by a restricted community. The success of VLT has placed European optical ground-based astronomy in the position to compete worldwide.

Toward the end of my stay at ESO we initiated a new cooperative program with the United States and Canada to build a large submillimeter and millimeter wave array of antennas to be placed in the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile. At the expiration of my tenure as Director General in 1999, I returned to the United States where now, as President of Associated Universities, Inc., I am working with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory as the Executive for the North American portion of the project, called the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA). The same principles and the same methods used in “Einstein,” Hubble, VLT, and Chandra are being utilized.

From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 2002, Editor Tore Frängsmyr, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 2003

This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and later published in the book series Les Prix Nobel/ Nobel Lectures/The Nobel Prizes. The information is sometimes updated with an addendum submitted by the Laureate.

Riccardo Giacconi died on 16 December 2018.

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 2002

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