Paolo de Bernardis and Andrew Lange

Italy - USA

2006 Balzan Prize for Observational Astronomy and Astrophysics

Balzan Prize Awards Ceremony 2006
Rome, Accademia dei Lincei, 24 November 2006

Mr. President,
Members of the Balzan Prize Committee,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great honor to receive the Balzan Prize for Observational Astronomy and Astrophysics today, as it represents the crowning achievement of twenty years of research work.
With the BOOMERanG experiment, we have been the first to explore regions of the Universe that are so far away as to reveal its oldest image to us. For the first time, we have observed the seeds of the cosmic structure, already present in the incandescent gas that filled the cosmos 14 billion years ago. These seeds were the basis of the hierarchy of the cosmic structures (masses of galaxies, galaxies, stars) that would form the universe as it is. This image has enabled us to measure several comprehensive parameters of the universe with great precision, like its curvature or the average density of its mass and energy.

The experiment has also let us develop highly advanced optical, cryogenic and electronic instruments, and to fine-tune sophisticated procedures that are also useful for very different sectors of cosmology. As an example, I can also mention that the systems of measurement developed for BOOMERanG can be also used, mutatis mutandis, in fields of medicine, in the field of non-invasive security checks for non-nuclear proliferation. Or the methods of separation of the different components that contribute to imaging the cosmic background have been used to study hidden annotations in the palimpsests of Archimedes. All of this only confirms the inter-disciplinary nature of science and the need for so-called pure research in this sector, too. Finally, in the BOOMERanG project, various young students and researchers, have been trained, and given the opportunity to confront exciting problems with rigorous experimental methods.

I feel that this threefold value (expanding knowledge, developing advanced technology, high-level training) best represents the essence of university research and I am happy that the Foundation has recognized its value and, along with it, the value of research in astrophysics and cosmology.

Carrying out the BOOMERanG experiment was a challenging and exciting adventure that involved an international group of scientists, technicians and students. It is to them that I wish to express my thanks first of all. The result that we obtained collectively would never have been possible without the effort of each and every one of us. That effort has been generous and inflexible, in the laboratories, in the workshops, in the launch campaigns and in the analysis of data. It has been a creative effort in that we had to think of innovative solutions. It has also been unflagging, because we had to overcome technical and organizational difficulties, as well as definite, because we had to produce apparatus, measures, calibrations and analyses in what never seemed to be enough time. I believe that this ought to be considered recognition for everyone’s collaboration. And here it is necessary to list the Italians: besides the Observational Cosmology group at the La Sapienza University, with the especially important contributions of Silvia Masi, Francesco Piacentini, Gianluca Polenta, the cryogenic group ENEA in Frascati, headed by Franco Scaramuzzi; the IFAC-CNR group in Florence headed by Andrea Boscaleri; the INGV in Rome headed by Gianni Romeo; the group at the University of Tor Vergata headed by Nicola Vittorio.

Secondly, I would like to thank Professor Francesco Melchiorri, who passed away recently. He got me started in observational studies in Cosmology and of the Cosmic Microwave Background. His teachings, his continual support and his style as man and researcher have been essential in my training and for all of the Observational Cosmology group at La Sapienza, and they have made a significant contribution to the success of the BOOMERanG experiment.

The experiment was made possible thanks to the financial and organizational support of three great Italian institutions. The Italian Space Agency provided the resources for producing most of our hardware, and with its activity at the base at Trapani, provided important specific training with stratospheric balloons. The National Programme of Antarctic Research, an important reality that deserves more attention on an institutional level, financed the production of part of the hardware for the experiment, and provided important logistical support during the Antarctic launching campaigns. The La Sapienza University in Rome not only let us use its laboratories in the Department of Physics to create most of the hardware (and for this I am grateful to Directors Guerra and Martinelli who always helped BOOMERanG in these years), but in a time of crisis also managed to find the necessary resources to create the main mirrors for the experiment.

With BOOMERanG, we think we have shown that relatively modest investments, if well-aimed, can lead to very important results. But things do not and cannot always go that way. Scientific research, both basic and applied, must be continuously furnished with adequate human and financial resources in order to play the central role that it should in a modern country: if allocated with rigor and coherence, these resources can represent a fruitful investment for the country.

For us, the Balzan Prize is not only recognition of the activity and results we have achieved from collaboration on BOOMERanG, but also an injection of hope for our future activity and the activity of young researchers and collaborators. In the situation contingent to a general recession of human and financial resources in the university and research in Italy, the contribution of the prize will ensure the continuity of our activity and training for more young people.

And this is why I am especially grateful to the Balzan Foundation, and more generally speaking, for its work and for its attention to Science and Culture, components I feel are essential to the development of civil society.