Autobiography of Enrico Costa
I was born in 1944 in Sassari, a small city on the island of Sardinia. My brother and I were educated by my grandmother and three uncles. I had the opportunity to ride horses and drive (illegally) cars since I was very young. At the age of ten I moved to Rome to live with my father and be close to my mother, where I have lived ever since. Until I was twenty I maintained links with Sardinia, continuing to participate (with some success) in horse shows, while still saving some time to play guitar.
My father was a judge, my mother was teaching Education at University but I haven’t followed them. I studied 8 years of Latin and 5 years of Greek and still today I can read texts. I was greedy for knowledge, especially of archeology, history and astronomy. I still cultivate an interest in history, philology, anthropology, different civilizations, movies and the arts. In my house, books and humans are in a perpetual fight for territory.
I had too many passions spanning humane and scientific disciplines. At university my first choice was chemistry as I was aiming to become a biochemist, but after one year I switched to physics. The Rome Institute was permeated with a spirit of excellence and severe discipline. Yet I was not attending too regularly. I was also doing politics and leading the Youth Movement of the Republican Party, a small radical party with deep roots in Italian history. But becoming a professional politician was not that attractive: I went back to science, finished my classes and went for a thesis at the Institute of Space Astrophysics (IAS). Under the supervision of Giulio Auriemma I worked to prepare rocket experiments X-rays and various detectors. These years were the most important in forming my scientific personality.
In 1975 I completed my studies and in 1976 had a first position at the IAS. Later I worked on stratospheric balloons: a great school to image, build, perform and analyze an experiment. In 1981 I was part of a team, led by Livio Scarsi, that proposed to the Italian Space Agency the “Satellite per Astronomia X”(SAX), aimed to broad band on a narrow field combined with Wide Field Cameras (WFC), provided by the Dutch Institute. Within SAX I joined the Phoswich Experiment (PDS) led by Filippo Frontera: this collaboration was the basis for the future discoveries on Gamma Ray Burst (GRB). He proposed to convert the anticoincidence of PDS into a Gamma Ray Burst Monitor (GRBM), so that we could steer the search for bursts in the Wide Field Cameras. The encounter was crucial from another point of view: during a campaign to launch a balloon to test phoswich technologies, I met Alda who was working on the electronics. She is the woman of my life, my wife, my expert in electronics and the mother of my children. When the elder child, Ettore, was born in 1987 I was in Brazil, trying to grasp gamma rays from the SuperNova. Elettra, the second one, was more lucky: when she was born in 1991 I was in Rome.
SAX, launched in 1996, was dedicated to Beppo Occhialini. Before the launch, a worldwide announcement was issued for data. In the PDS group we decided to submit a proposal, led by myself, to observe GRBs with the WFC, on GRBM trigger. This proposal was selected. We prepared a procedure for a fast determination of the coordinates and a repointing of the telescopes. Since the data center had no remote access, then in cooperation with the Mission Scientist Luigi Piro, we set up a team from our institutes that, in connection with duty scientists and satellite operators, manage all needed operations at the center itself. On 28 February 1997, the GRBM detected a burst, Wide Field Camera localized it and Narrow Field Instruments were re-pointed in 8 hours. A decaying source was detected and localized with arcminute precision: the first afterglow. Many optical telescopes were pointed and Ian Van Paradijs was the first to announce the optical afterglow ten days later. Two months later, on another burst, the radio afterglow was detected and the first red-shift measured. After 25 years, the origin of GRBs was no more a mystery: they come from remote galaxies.
Since 1999, I have contributed the X-ray Instrument to the Italian gamma-ray mission AGILE, that is still producing results: first of all, the detection of unexpected flares from the Crab Nebula.
X-ray polarimetry is another passion of mine. With Novick we built an instrument for the SRG mission - but that was never launched. With Ronaldo Bellazzini we built a gas-filled device to perform photoelectric focal plane polarimetry of X-ray sources with unprecedented sensitivity, but could not yet embark aboard any satellite. We are also developing large area experiments for timing studies of bright sources.
Next year I am forced to retire but I hope and plan to continue doing research. I cannot imagine my future without experiments. Ettore is studying Contemporary History. Elettra is studying Law. They will, for sure, play a great role in my future.
28 September 2011, Hong Kong