Interview with Massimo Capaccioli

Massimo Capaccioli, the scientist at the farthest reaches of the universe

Massimo Capaccioli, Italian astrophysicist and scientist, one of the most authoritative figures in the world in the realm of galaxies. Honorary professor at MSU – Lomonosov Moscow State University in Russia, a position usually reserved for Nobel Prize winners, former director of the Astronomical Observatory of Capodimonte in Naples, Italy, and professor at the Universities of Padova and Naples, he is the promoter and developer of the VST project that in 2011 led to the construction of the largest survey telescope in the world in Cerro Paranal, on the Andean Mountains in Chile. Today, he is about to embark on the challenge of the century with the SKA – Square Kilometer Array – project.

Franca Severini

What is an astrophysicist and what is the object of his research?

My subject is extragalactic astronomy. It is the branch of modern astrophysics that concerns worlds having a much larger dimension than our small local universe – which is substantially the Solar System and the handful of stars surrounding it – located at enormous distances from us. We study the different ingredients of the galaxies and each galaxy’s history, which ultimately leads to life, i.e., to us. This profession constitutes an absolute privilege, teaching at its very apex.

The community of scholars of the cosmos is a small niche that extends throughout the planet: my best friends and also my best “enemies” are located in Russia just like in America. It is an international world, and my job is beautiful; I warmly recommend it to all the young people who are not afraid to take their heart, rip it out of their chests, throw it over the fence and then go look for it. If this is the kind of excitement they’re looking for, then there is no better job on the planet. Astrophysics is a rapidly evolving science that embraces several fields of knowledge and exploits the most modern technologies used both on the ground and in space. One of my tasks, for example, is to determine the age of the Universe and its current acceleration compared to the previous weakening of its initial impetus, the Big Bang. Today, the VST (VLT Survey Telescope) joins in the game, too. It is a telescope that I designed, built and set up in Chile, precisely on Cerro Paranal, considered the best astronomical site in the world. A perfect machine that since 2010 has been scanning the southern sky with its huge eye. This Italian project of global importance, in cooperation with the ESO (European Southern Observatory) and the OAC (Astronomical Observatory of Capodimonte) in Naples – now part of the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics – has greatly spurred large-scale exploration of the Universe. Credit for the enormous recent development in sky science rightly goes to the technology that nurtures all sciences. With due distinctions, this is true for the technology used for the VST, too, together with the skills necessary for its design that come from Italian industry. An excellence with a planetary breadth.

It is becoming increasingly necessary to flank science with industry in the various countries: Are astrophysics studies close to the world of industry and what are you able to propose to them? And what about vice versa?

The answer is twofold: there are requests by science for technology. We turn to the technologist for the design and manufacture of increasingly refined machines that perform increasingly difficult and precise tasks. There are a series of extreme demands both on the ground and in space. The E-ELT for example, the giant European telescope weighing 2,800 tons, will move along a 70-meter rail with the lightness of a dragonfly. And the Rosetta mission, that a few months ago allowed the lander “Philae” to achieve a soft landing on a celestial body, was like shooting a bullet 500 million kilometers into space to hit another moving target measuring 4 km by 4 km. And a weak bullet it was, because to reach the comet, it had to be pushed by a series of planetary bodies in order to gain sufficient momentum. Near the home stretch, the lander experienced a trivial, low-technology problem in the activation of the harpoon that should have anchored it to the comet and hence stop it where it had been so accurately launched. The demand for technology coming from astronomy is tremendous and stimulates the industry to always do better. And there is also a return for technology through the discoveries made by science in general, by physics, but also by astronomy. Astronomy is a special branch of physics; it is the physics of “poor people” because while the physicist needs money to build a laboratory for experiments, the astronomer already has a laboratory – one that the Almighty had a hand in creating, hence well equipped with every... phenomenon, I would say. Phenomena that must be seen and understood. When the astronomer succeeds in understanding them, he or she passes the information to the physicist, who then passes it to the engineer and then to industry. We have extraordinary examples of things that we use every day that come from this succession: not only digital watches or liquid crystal display TVs coming from quantum mechanics or from the solid state. When we go through security check at the airport, we should remember that the X-ray detector was invented by astronomers for astronomical purposes, just like CBCT software was originally developed for celestial studies. Science and technology hence share a symbiotic relationship, and I couldn’t say which of the two came first. I couldn’t say whether Galileo Galilei was first a technologist and then an astronomer, although of course he was first a technologist, rebuilding the telescope invented by the Dutch and then pointing it to the sky. But then he realized that what he had created was not good enough and had to perfect it. So science called in technology, and from technology came science because with his invention, Galileo spurred minds throughout the globe, including the Jesuits, even that world that was strongly reactive in the face of these discoveries. The relationship between science and technology is very close-knit and circular: from science to technology and from technology to science. The problem is money, i.e., the way this relationship is managed. If industry only wants to make money, then this relationship cannot work. And if scientists are so obtuse that they don’t realize that they must help technology out and not be interested exclusively in the scientific issue, the relationship falters.

Where will the science-technology relationship lead us?

All this will lead us very far. With the SKA (Square Kilometer Array) project for example: a monstrously difficult technological feat, so difficult that it is currently not feasible but will become feasible, because if we give technologists enough economic resources and enough stimuli, they can create anything. At the same time, SKA is an absolutely extraordinary scientific endeavor and the two things go together. It’s natural to expect that, when concluded, we will have so many patents and so many inventions that our lives will change, just like our perception of the universe and of its history. Just think of the Internet, an invention with more far-reaching consequences than Guttenberg’s. The net has forged a new (and perhaps not better) human genre. But the first Internet was born in the scientific scenario, for data transfer. The science/technology division is artificial, like on a school report card for example, where the subjects are divided into different columns starting with Conduct. But can we clearly distinguish History from Philosophy? Or History from Physics? Perhaps not. All things are entwined because behind them, there is always the presence of man.

What teachings have you learned from exploring the cosmos?

I learned that it is possible to fool everyone except Nature, our primary partner. Perhaps it’s better to be honest, even intellectually, in order to have a good relationship with this partner.

The greatest scholar and the major discoveries.

The inventor of Tuscan bread, a champion of humanity! Joking aside, I’d say penicillin. Or Galileo’s telescope. Or Hipparcos’ measurement of the parallaxes of stars. But no. There is no one greatest discovery. What I can say is that man, that same being capable of incredible monstrosities, of destroying entire cities, of killing his own kind, is the same being capable of writing wonderful poems, composing beautiful music, sculpting marble and simultaneously representing nature in this mysterious language that is mathematics, succeeding in predicting its behaviors. This is what really strikes every man of science and this is what astounded even a man of the stature of Albert Einstein who said that, among all the things he knew, this is something that even he did not understand. We are capable of speaking a language that nature accepts and through it we predict acts of nature that then nature effectively honors.

Are there other forms of life in the universe?

The universe has existed for almost 14 billion years. The space within which we perform our observations has an alarming dimension. To cross it, to go from here to the dawn of events, we would need 50 billion years traveling at the speed of light. In this “bubble” there are 500 billion galaxies each containing 100 billion stars. Each of these stars perhaps has a planetary system; we find planets similar to Earth around stars that resemble the Sun; scientists in labs reproduce the molecules of life. Intelligent man on Earth is only a handful of years old, and the Earth is a very minuscule object, incredibly small within the cosmos.

I can’t say whether there are other forms of intelligent life. I’d be surprised and even a little anguished if there weren’t, because that would mean that our role in the cosmos is extremely important. Indeed, if we were the only spectators of this wondrous scenario, we should live under a glass dome, protected, because if we disappeared, so would the only beacon looking over these wonders. I can’t say whether there’s a Heavenly Father; but if there is a creative Intelligence, I sure hope he or she has considered not wasting this precious time, space and energy by assigning it all to a sole fragile and transient species. The human species is sub judice of killer asteroids, of ourselves, of disease, of the planet that sometimes suffers from stomach pains. We are weathering a stormy sea inside a fragile nutshell. I hope that Whoever made all this – if such an entity exists at all – has diversified the investment by creating other intelligences elsewhere so that, should a light flicker off in one place, another light is turned on in another place. But this is just wishful thinking on my part, not scientific certainty. In doubt, I say to people and to myself: “Let’s behave properly!”, because if we are alone in the cosmos then we have an enormous responsibility; if we aren’t, someone could arrive sooner or later and I’d like that someone to find us in good condition so that we won’t have to feel ashamed of ourselves. To agree with Kant, looking at the cosmos and at the intelligence of the cosmos, perhaps humanity could bring itself to behave a bit better towards humanity itself, towards the Planet and towards the Universe we look out on.


Professional career:

Department of Physical Science, Monte Sant’Angelo Campus, University of Naples, Italy Federico II,

Via Cinthia, 80126 Naples, Italy INAF - Astronomical Observatory of Capodimonte, Via Moiariello 16, 80131 Naples, Italy

Degrees: 1969, degree in Physics (summa cum laude) at University of Padova, Italy

Current positions: 1995 - today: tenured professor of astronomy at University of Naples Federico II, Italy 2010 -

today: honorary professor at Lomonosov Moscow State University, Russia

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