- Written by Marco Cirilli
Field of activity: Geochemistry of Fluids
If there is a researcher in Rome with whom it is practically impossible to argue, it is him. Smile and joke (h24/365 days a year) unlined faster than John Wayne with that "S" as slippery as it is amazing, which he persists in straightening out…but which we like so much. He doesn't sleep at night when he has to prepare the seismic bulletin (now he's going like a sword, better than Bernacca) and he's a rather anxious subject but God bless him: full of life. He has a passion for trains and meteorology. He feels the weight of the responsibility of loved ones and although he has that angelic and clean little face… as a boy he did some mischief. I can't tell you anything, ladies and gentlemen, today we dig deep into Luca Pizzino.
What or who brought you closer to the world of science?
None, mine is an innate passion for natural phenomena in general. Trying to understand them and provide a scientific explanation of their occurrence has always been my biggest challenge.
As a child, what did you dream of becoming when you grew up?
Train manager or station master. I've always been in love (and still am) with the train as a means of transport, a real obsession! I remember when as a teenager, during my holidays by the sea, around dinner time, I used to go to the Palo Laziale station (Rome-Turin railway) to see the "Palatino", the historic train that connects Rome to Paris go by. I was "kidnapped" by the maneuvers of the station master who rang the bell announcing the passage of the train and gave the green light to the train itself with the green light. After the train, I said goodbye to the station master and went home for dinner.
Do you also have a passion for model trains (mini trains)?
As a child/teenager I had a huge model that faithfully reproduced a railway route complete with tunnels, traffic lights, level crossings, etc. On the occasion of my birthday and the Christmas/Easter holidays, I got some money as a gift and I spent it all on buying myself transformers, locomotives, passenger cars, sleeping and restaurant cars, freight cars, etc. I spent hours and hours playing with my trains imagining a possible use on the railways once I grew up…
What subjects were you passionate about at school?
I was very fond of foreign languages and geography; the latter remained a true passion even as an adult.
What teenager were you?
Very (too) quiet. I never gave my parents any problems…basically a model teenager (today it would be called in another way…I think loser, nerd or something like that)!
Give some "header" you will have had it ...
I must say that there were two episodes that concentrated on an epic holiday that I spent, at the time twenty years old, on the Ferrara beaches with a group of friends.
I'm still ashamed of the first one today: one evening we drank alcohol based on Martinis and Coca Cola...we were so drunk that the neighbors called the carabinieri who gave us such a bullshit that I still remember it...I feel ashamed because I'm a total teetotaler, but that evening I wanted to keep my friends company so as not to always act "different"... sins of youth that today I would never do again!
Also on the same holiday, a friend and I staged a fake theft at our apartment. The problem is that, before we could warn the others in the group that it was a joke, they had already warned the police who, obviously, came to make the appropriate findings, complete with a complaint filed against unknown persons. Of course, my friend and I didn't say anything to anyone because we were too ashamed of what we had done!
Was there a reference "myth" that inspired you?
Not one in particular, but I admire all those who have carried out and continue their research with passion and tenacity. Anyone who firmly believes in research, who puts all of himself into an activity, whatever it is, and who always puts himself on the line, always assuming his own responsibilities, will always have my respect.
A researcher of whom you have a lot of respect (if you feel like answering and it doesn't put you in difficulty)
But do you mean from the institute or in general? In both cases, I would prefer that this question not be asked. I don't want to evade any questions, I only believe that I have identified the main characteristics of a researcher who deserves my admiration and respect. Associating names with this professional figure would only be an extra, which does not bring any benefit to the discussion. It's clear that in my heart I know the names, but they remain tightly closed there, double-locked!
Where did you graduate and what memories do you have of your university career?
I graduated in Geology at the "La Sapienza" University of Rome. What I keep in my heart from those years is the light-heartedness with which I faced the whole university career. I left home in the morning and returned in the evening, without any thoughts other than studying, following courses and having fun at the legendary "tables" of the faculty. Little did I know yet that the problems and responsibilities would start years later…
What problems and responsibilities are you talking about?
The problems related to my mother's long illness and how my family's life (until then peaceful and serene) was turned upside down for long, interminable, eight years. The responsibilities are to face life "when you grow up" trying to take a path as independent and rewarding as possible with respect to your expectations and ambitions, become independent from an economic point of view by entering the world of work, look for the soulmate with whom to share the long journey as an adult, become a father and always be present, as far as possible, when the everyday needs (accompaniments / collections at school, sports activities, various parties, etc.) and above all, the moral ones of your family members require your constant presence. A beautiful, but terribly complicated and tiring journey, in which you always have to be at your best even when, sometimes, you need a shoulder to cry on, why not, or a good friend to let off steam with!
The most exciting moment of your career?
There are three that are very important to me:
The first was in 2000 when, as a simple scholarship holder, I illustrated the results of the research I was conducting in the Colli Albani to the then Undersecretary of Civil Protection, Franco Barberi. I was summoned to the historic headquarters in via Ulpiano the day after the death of some cows which occurred in the natural gaseous manifestation of Cava dei Selci (near Rome). At that time I was a scholarship holder paid by the Municipalities of Ciampino and Marino and I had been commissioned to carry out a detailed study of the distribution of CO2 in groundwater and they were the only updated data of a certain detail in the area affected by the episode; The second bears the historic date of 21 September 2017: I was the winner of a competition that put an end to a 21-year long path of precariousness and that brought me so much uncertainty and instability (in the form of waste still present) in the best moment of my life. my research career; The acquisition of the PhD at the tender age of 47 years. An impossible challenge (travelling around Rome for 4 years looking for wells and water sources) with the city, the traffic, the bureaucracy and with myself, passed with flying colours. The most important achievement (so far) of my research career second only to overcoming the status of historical precarious.
But the most emotional moment in your private life?
The birth (live in the delivery room) of my two jewels: Emilia, in 2005 and Giovanni, in 2015. In comparison, everything else disappears!
What do you think you would have become if you hadn't been a researcher?
I have to repeat myself: train conductor or station master or any other professional figure in the world of railways (including the announcer of arrivals and departures at Roma Termini, when they still existed).
How long have you been at INGV?
From 1993 as a graduate student, from 1996 to 2002 as a scholarship holder, then until 2017 as a fixed-term researcher and then… Paradise!
What's the first thing you do when you get home?
I try to relax by watching some television. Unfortunately, in the busiest working periods I get back to work almost immediately.
How did you experience this lockdown period?
I must say that I was lucky (if we can speak positively of a terrible period) because I was at my mother-in-law's house due to renovation work at my usual residence. I lived in a large house with a garden and, therefore, suffered less from forced confinement. Of course, emotionally I was down with the tragic news about the victims of the pandemic that reached us every day on television.
What is, in your opinion, the scientific discovery that would change history?
Surely the one that would free us forever from the use of oil and its derivatives as a primary energy source.
A city you've visited that has remained in your heart and one you've always dreamed of moving to?
The first I would say Vienna, a perfect mix of cleanliness, aesthetic beauty, rather recent history (but history nonetheless!) with sumptuous halls, classical music everywhere and the deeds of Princess Sissi. Furthermore, this picture is enhanced by the feeling of never being in danger even in the middle of the night. For the second, I must start by saying that I love warm climates, and I must say that Palermo, a beautiful city above all, from this point of view would be my perfect city, also to grow my succulent and tropical plants, which have always fascinated me .
What have been your best trips?
Two above all: one, as a teenager, with my parents in Spain and the other, for work in Iceland. Of the first I remember the sense of freedom and the tremendous heat (it was July) that burned the skin as we drove along the immense Spanish Meseta, of the second I still have the natural wonders of the island in my eyes, a real pleasure for a geologist. Anyone who does this job should, at least once in their life, go to one of the few places in the world where you can put your feet on two different tectonic plates…
What would you have liked to discover, among the discoveries of the past?
Penicillin certainly comes from the past, for its wide use as an antibacterial that has saved millions of human lives. I also have a dream for the future: I would really like some scientist working in the field of medicine to be able to identify and block the mechanism underlying multiple sclerosis, ALS and all progressive neurodegenerative diseases.
What is your main concern?
Not being able to be there, for reasons beyond my control, when the people I love need me.
The conversation you've never had and would have liked to have…with whom?
With spouses Pierre and Marie Curie (scientists who discovered radioactivity and radioactive substances, including radium and polonium, in the late 1800s). Giants of science who, with the few means at their disposal and a shed as a laboratory, have made one of the most important discoveries in physics and chemistry.
As a researcher, is everything always explicable?
Not all and not completely, but with an accurate collection of data, their correct processing and the use of special specific programs it is possible to provide more than realistic interpretations of the most important phenomena and processes that take place inside the planet Earth, from surface up to the core, and in its "higher" planes (troposphere, stratosphere).
Your promise kept and the one you failed to keep…
The first is what I did to my seriously ill mother, who if she had lasted a few more months I would have introduced her to the granddaughter (my daughter) who bears her name (and so it happened). I don't remember the second one…I have a sudden memory lapse!
Your love at first sight?
My children, pure love!
What's your X-Factor?
Balance, tenacity and passion in everything I do, seasoned with an (almost) permanent good mood.
How can you always be so cheerful and in a good mood?
Unfortunately the almost above sometimes takes over and I get angry too, I'm still a human being! I think constant good humor is a kind of self-defense for me, and it's a kind of profit and loss account or income and expense that you use in any company. Let me explain: when the difference between what is positive that I have and what I experience and what makes me feel bad is largely in favor of the first, good humor comes by itself. When the balance is negative, facing the days with a positive attitude helps you to reach your inner balance (especially mental) and helps you overcome the difficult moments that arise in front of you. If I hadn't had balance during my mum's illness I would have gone out of my mind and who knows what I could have done: even on that occasion (and as I often do), from the difficult moments I always tried to bring out, with great difficulty, the positive (sometimes inventing it…). And that helped me a lot!
You like sport?
I practically only follow football, and I'm a huge fan of AS Roma.
Have you ever practiced any?
No, and it shows (bitter laugh)
Listen to the music?
Always when I'm in the car, much less at home.
What's your favorite genre?
All my life the music of my adolescence, the 80s: simply unattainable (like many other things of that period). Today's music, sometimes, I don't understand it!
Unfortunately I read little, but for a geologist I think "Journey to the Center of the Earth" is the best, despite being a more imaginative than scientific story. Every time I read it I daydream hoping that one day someone, with different and more modern means, will be able to replicate the long journey undertaken by Professor Lidenbrock and his nephew Axel.
If you had to remember one of your "first days" which one would you remember?
My first presentation at a congress: 1996, Tito (PZ), congress on seismic precursors. Hands like bars of soap and zero salivation…the usual final applause from the audience was a liberation!
What do you do when you are not at work?
I love playing with my 7 year old; I believe that the game between parent and child is an absolutely necessary moment of sharing that enriches the mind and heart of both. Furthermore, I love taking long walks in nature and dedicating myself to my great hobby: meteorology.
Do you feel like a failure Bernacca?
As a child I still remember when with my little chair I stood in front of the television, after the cult TV show of the time, Happy Days, and waited impatiently to see those strange cards with lines of different colors, the letters A (high pressure) and B ( low pressure), the minimum and maximum temperatures of the day, the map with the weather symbols (first fixed and then moving) and the fascinating words, uttered in perfect Italian, that the two giants of my adolescence/youth, Bernacca and Baroni , they used to illustrate the weather. I still have chills (positive) remembering those moments ... high television that no longer exists today!
Today I'm content to cultivate this passion (I'm also registered in a national forum to share it with other weather-crazy people) and I try to make myself useful when friends and colleagues ask me for personalized forecasts for the places they have to go (holiday or work). The most gratifying part of this story is represented by the certificates of esteem I receive from those who rely on me when the forecasts are successful.
Do you have a place of the heart?
Certainly! A small town in the province of Rieti (Cantalice) where I've been lucky enough to have a holiday home since 1972. When I'm there I feel several years younger, and I especially fall in love with the silence present at all hours and the sounds of nature. I manage to disconnect from the "casino" of Rome, rediscovering some dimensions of the spirit that the city takes away from me every day.
Your best luck?
Doing the job I love, fruit of the many sacrifices made in the best moment of my life (youth). Sometimes, when I'm on a mission, in the middle of nature and my beloved waters I ask myself: am I even paid for this?
It can never be missing in your suitcase?
A warm piece of clothing…I'm extremely sensitive to the cold!
Are you more sweet or savory in the kitchen?
I would say savoury, but even sweet I don't refuse it at all!
Eggplant Parmesan: this dish is for me what donkey milk was for Poppea…
Do you like cooking?
I'm in the basic course, first lesson. When I have to, I cook to survive, nothing more.
One thing you understood “when you grew up”?
That in relationships with other people there is not only black or white… gray is almost always the best choice to live well in serenity and at peace with everyone.
Can you always find the grey?
Not always but I try, sometimes more convinced, sometimes less. In some cases (fortunately few), however, I fall back into my youthful convictions and I don't really look for gray, and black dominates my interpersonal relationships. In this case I am not looking for confrontation, but I find in the most absolute indifference towards these people the serenity and peace that I have just described.
What do you keep from your childhood?
The love from my parents and my grandparents and the absolute lightheartedness that distinguishes the pre-adolescent age.
Last question: what is the song that you would never stop listening to?
The song that mirrors who I am: Forever Young by Alphaville. When I listen to this wonderful song and repeat the words of the lyrics, the Peter Pan in me gloats like hell and takes over completely.