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Giorgio Palumbo (1939–2018)

Published onMay 01, 2019
Giorgio Palumbo (1939–2018)

Giorgio Palumbo was born on September 1, 1939, in Torino (Turin), Italy, on the very day Hitler’s army invaded Poland. In his memoires he writes, “I was born one morning when the Sun didn’t shine,” quoting a song from Tennessee Ernie Ford. He died from injuries sustained in a car accident.

Giorgio Palumbo received his Laurea Degree in Physics from the University of Turin in 1962, with a thesis on cosmic muon detection at the Mont Blanc tunnel underground laboratory. After a brief period as a high school teacher, he moved to the University of Calgary, in Alberta, Canada, for Ph. D. studies on the detection of radio pulses from Extensive Air Showers (EAS) with Prof. John Russell Prescott. He earned his Ph. D. in 1967. He returned to Italy and, after a two year research fellowship in Bologna, obtained a permanent research position at the Italian Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (CNR) in Bologna. He became adjunct professor at the University of Bologna in 1970, still maintaining his position at the CNR, which he finally left in 1981 to become associate professor and, some years later, full professor.

While working on his Ph.D. in Canada, Palumbo began working on cosmic ray physics, in particular the detection of extensive air showers by their radio emission, and, after his return to Bologna, took advantage of the radio telescope facility, newly built under the supervision of Prof. Marcello Ceccarelli, at the Medicina site. As he wrote in his memoires, the final aim was rather ambitious, to cover square miles with antennas to detect EAS of energy 1020 eV or more with no need for all the particle counters. During those years he visited many groups in Italy and abroad, among those the one led by Giuseppe (“Beppo”) Occhialini in Milan, and he met Giovanni Bignami and Martin Turner, both of whom played an important role in his scientific career.

In the second half of the 1970’s Palumbo shifted his interest to the field of supernovae and their role in the origin of the cosmic radiation. He spent some time in different years in Harwell (UK) collaborating with John Jelley on the detection of microwave pulses from exploding supernovae, as predicted by Stirling Colgate. Meanwhile, he learned about the discovery of the Gamma Ray Bursts (GRB) from the Vela satellites, and his was one of the first groups to publish a paper on the coincidence of GRB events with the detection of hard X-ray emission by the OSO-6 satellite.

He was also interested in the properties of groups and clusters of galaxies, and he published in 1983 a monumental Catalogue of Radial Velocities of Galaxies with some 8250 entries. This catalogue and its subsequent updates obtained widespread attention in the field.

In 1995 his old interest in cosmic ray physics came back into his scientific life. As he writes in his memoires, “I had the opportunity to follow an experiment measuring the ionizing component of secondary cosmic particles all the way from the port of Ravenna (90 km from Bologna) to Ross Bay in Antarctica. Starting with a three week survival course before departure (one week in the Apennines to learn how to prevent disasters and fight fires, one week in the Alps to learn how to operate in snow and cold weather and a third week in Salerno to learn how to survive on a ship) to the 3 month expedition (one month navigation and two at the South Pole) on the icebreaker Italica. I class the experience as the most exciting I ever had in my life.”

Giorgio Palumbo covered many roles of responsibility and coordination, among those: he was chairman of Commission E1 (Galactic and Extragalactic Astrophysics) of COSPAR, editor in chief of Astrophysical Letters and Communications, member of the Astronomy Working Group (AWG) of the European Space Agency and AWG representative on the “International Space Station User Panel” (ISSUP), mission scientist on the Gamma Ray Observatory INTEGRAL, responsible for the Italian Space Agency (ASI) of the Astronomical Research branch in Rome, and head of the Astronomy Department at the University of Bologna.

From these notes we understand that Giorgio Palumbo has been a very eclectic scientist as far as different research methodologies and topics are concerned.

Giorgio Palumbo was a narrator as well. He liked to tell stories about science and scientists. In fact, among Palumbo’s most notable and successful outreach efforts were his initiatives for improving science education and popularizing science, astronomy in particular. He had a deep interest in teaching astronomy to non-experts, from students at universities to the general public. He took great pride in having taught science to many students, in having “supervised more than 150 master theses and several tens of Ph.D. dissertations.” He was very pleased that his students now have research positions everywhere around the world. His many friends miss him a lot.

Obituary written by: Silvano Massaglia (Turin, Italy)

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