My Date with Virgo

I’d heard about her when helping to make the English version of a film about Cascina. She’s the Gravitational wave Interferometer, called VIRGO, which will tell us so much more about how and when things began. Einstein posited, as part of his theory of general relativity in 1916, the existence of gravitational waves in addition to  electromagnetic ones.


Marconi had famously discovered how to use the electromagnetic ones and his experiments at Poldu, Cornwall produced the first wireless signal across the Atlantic.


Yet even with powerful telescopes of both the optical and radio variety we can ‘see’ just five per cent of the universe. The remaining 95% consists of dark matter and black holes. How could anyone possibly measure and observe them? Precisely through the interferometer which picks up any gravitational wave produced by spectacular events, including the collision of binary pulsar stars and, indeed, the original ‘big bang’ itself. How does it do this? A laser beam is divided into two, each one fired through separate vacuum sealed tubes, 3 kilometres long and set in an L shape on the flat alluvial plain of the Arno near Cascina The two separate beams are then returned to a finishing point and if there is any unphasing or discrepancy in their return then this signifies that they have been ‘interfered with’ by a gravitational wave. Or have they? That’s the question. Much of the research at Virgo is spent on filtering out redundant vibrations caused by traffic, earth tremors etc.


(Virgo as seen from the air)

What happens when a gravitational wave hits our planet’s space-time continuum? There’s an infinitesimal change in our appearance and the appearance of objects. We and they oscillate the width of a hair’s breadth in length and breadth – such is the sensitivity of the measurements to be recorded. Fortunately I have yet to meet a person who confesses they know how it feels to be hit by a gravitational wave.

With the mind pulsating with space-time and waves I was privileged to join a specialist group last Saturday at Virgo.

First, we were treated to a seminar where Prof Dattilo introduced us to the concepts involved. It was nice to have two of his children participating in the event and there was plenty of time for questions afterwards.

We then ventured into the control room where scientists work out the data received from the interferometer. As the visit was after working hours the room was empty but there was some evidence of the hard work involved here.

Finally, we were given an exclusive entry into the actual instrument itself. It seemed a bit like a set from Doctor Who, I thought. Here are kept the mirrors used to divide and reflect the laser beams lengthening them from 3 to 120 kilometres in length. It’s all done by mirrors as they say. The price of setting up and maintaining this equipment, originally set up in 2002 and updated this year, goes into the millions of Euros

(Virgo’s main control room where the reflecting and dividing mirrors are kept)

(The north tunnel of Cascina’s gravitational wave interferometer showing the three-kilometre-long tube through which the laser beams travel)

Italy isn’t just about frescoes, food, fashion and fabulous scenery. It’s about a leading cutting edge in astronomy and astrophysics. The Italian VIRGO (so called because it particularly concentrates on the Virgo constellation with its dense array of binary pulsar and neutron stars) forms part of the international team which includes EGO (European Gravitational Observatory involving five EU countries including France) and LIGO (the US Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory which, exactly one hundred years after Einstein’s prophetic theory, has discovered positive evidence for the presence of gravitational waves.  As Prof David Reitze, executive director of the LIGO project stated “We have detected gravitational waves. It’s the first time the Universe has spoken to us through gravitational waves. Up until now, we’ve been deaf.”) I

To rephrase the great poet Alexander Pope’s epitaph on Newton:

Nature and nature’s Laws lay hid in Night.
God said, “Let LIGO be!” and all was light.

Except, of course that we are talking about the darkest of matter, black holes themselves.

Let us trust that gravitational waves will in the future help not only to understand the universe in greater depth but ourselves too. For that’s where the true origin of all our species lies: in the deepest mystery of the cosmos. Research carries on apace in this field and in 2034 we shall see LISA space gravitational wave interferometer launched. The principles are the same as those of VIRGO except that the ‘tunnels’ here are not three  kilometres long but five million instead! What discoveries shall be made then I wonder. Hope you can wait that long…

Thinking about which I imagined a journey to an exo-planet and came up with this:




Gigantic cliffs stand peaked like wings of gulls

and cut through sky of indigo. Two moons

lie hung upon translucent pregnancy:

this is the planet where there is no sound.


At dusk spiced crimson rocks drum granite chords

which penetrate hard entrails of stilled earth,

bronze sands vibrate with fluent overtones,

ionosphere drops ultrasonic waves.


Here is the summit and below hot seas

of sapphire circle coastlines, solarized

and drawn towards cerise-soaked longitudes:

the night is stretched out like a waking cat.



PS Cascina itself is a delightful place to visit. See my post at for more details.




Something About Cascina

From 2009 to 2010 I had a contract for teaching English classes at the then recently inaugurated Istituto Comprensivo at Gallicano. It was a fun time, the students were great and I was very glad to be teaching in a building which incorporated all the latest anti-seismic wave safety features.


The only snag was that because of the Institute’s wide spread of teaching locations staff meetings had to be held at Cascina which is a good hour’s drive away from Bagni di Lucca.

Cascina also comes to mind because in 2010 I collaborated in a film on Cascina which is a town a little to the east of Pisa.

I still have my English version of that film script. It starts:

Càscina is situated in the centre of an abundant, thriving and populous region, amid fertile fields and vineyards in a splendid plain, on the ducal road from Pisa to Florence, between the river Arno and the Rinònico drainage canal, two miles east of the village of Fornacétte, eight miles east of Pisa and fourteen miles north-west of Leghorn.”

So begins the reverend Francesco Conti’s book “Càscina and its environs” published in 1912

The origin of the name “Càscina” is still uncertain. Some historians believe it derives from the ancient Etruscan settlement of Càsne, others consider it comes from the river of the same name. That river is first referred to in 935, while the earliest mention of the name “Càscina” goes back to a parchment dated 26 June 750 AD, which cites the donation of a house to the church of Saint Mary of Càssina.

Four centuries later, in a parchment dated 27 October 1142, (now preserved in the archbishop’s archives in Pisa), Balduìno, archbishop of Pisa, gave some inhabitants in the Càscina territory the assignment of building the castle and town.

In medieval times Càscina was already a fortified town, with a rectangular-shaped castle, encircled by twelve towers, connected by low walls surrounded by a wide moat.

Documents from 1270, mention a bell tower and a fortified moat, excavated south of the Arno, to defend Pisan territory and allow for the outflow of water from the Arno in case of need.

In the following century the walls were again heightened, the towers strengthened and two town gates built, one towards Florence and one towards Pisa.

During the Pisan Republic the city of Càscina was a loyal supporter of the Emperor against the Luccans and Florentines.

It remained an ally of the Pisan Republic until July 29th 1364, when the Florentines succeeded in defeating Pisa in the bloody and brutal battle of Càscina, celebrated by Michelangelo Buonarroti (from whose hand just a few preparatory sketches have been preserved) and now viewable only through Vasari’s fresco of the battle, in the Hall of the Five Hundred in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio.


I won’t carry on any further except to suggest that Cascina is yet another of those Italian towns one by-passes on the way to a location one thinks is more important.

Cascina, in fact, is a delightful town with an abundance of historic sites including some of the best romanesque churches in Tuscany, a thriving market, a very interesting furniture museum. (In the sixties it became the apex of Italian furniture manufacturing), and some very lovely surrounding countryside not least of which are the Pisan hills.

The script concluded with the following:

Toward the end of the 20th century, the National Institute of Nuclear Physics chose the ideal site for a study it was involved in for some time with the similar French Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique in the Càscina area. “Virgo” was born from this study on July 23rd 2003. Not far from the hamlets of Latignano and Santo Stefano di Macerata, in open country to the south of the heavily congested road traffic-police call the “Arnàccio”, a high-tech achievement is located. “Virgo” is an interferomètric antenna dedicated to the study (and the verification of the existence) of gravitational waves. It looks like an L-shaped structure with two perpendicular arms, each one two miles long. (These dimensions put it in first place in Europe and second in the world). Inside these two arms is a vacuum-sealed tube, within which a laser beam runs. The measurement of the movement (even though infinitesimal) of the mirrors reflecting this beam is able to confirm the presence (or absence) of gravitational waves. Scientists, from Einstein onward, have always believed in the existence of the waves and in the fact that they could contribute to an explanation of the universe’s evolution. It is for this reason that one of the most fascinating questions that man has asked himself “What is the origin of our world?” could receive an answer from Càscina and its territory.


Yesterday, in conjunction with the USA, scientists are claiming a stunning discovery in their quest to fully understand gravity by observed the warping of space-time generated by the collision of two black holes more than a billion light-years from Earth and thus opening a new era for astronomy. Perhaps we are now able to answer that question “What is the origin of our world?”.


I thought of the contribution of Cascina in Pisa in solving this conundrum and felt that two great geniuses of the past would have been over the moon with this discovery. The first breakthrough for astronomy was, of course, carried out by Galileo Galilei with his famous gravitational experiment carried out from the leaning tower of Pisa and his use of the telescope to discover the Medicean planets and, of course, to establish that the sun is the centre of our solar system and not the previous ego-centric earthling presumption. ‘E pur si muove.’ (And yet it – the earth – moves)


The second genius who would have been truly excited over the confirmed discovery of gravitational waves is Albert Einstein who predicted them as part of his now hundred-year-old theory of general (as distinct from specific) relativity. It’s again a theory which, like Galileo’s (and let’s add Newton’s apple for good measure), rotates around the field of gravitation.


The team confirming this immense discovery is international and one of the centres is precisely the one in Cascina. It’s part of the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) collaboration and will ultimately lead to the discovery of the origin of the universe through the Big Bang without which occurrence I would not be at this moment be scribbling this in a remote village on a particularly misty part of a planet called Earth.

As Prof David Reitze, executive director of the LIGO project stated “We have detected gravitational waves. It’s the first time the Universe has spoken to us through gravitational waves. Up until now, we’ve been deaf.”

To rephrase the great poet Alexander Pope’s epitaph on Newton:

Nature and nature’s Laws lay hid in Night.
God said, “Let LIGO be!” and all was light.

Except, of course that we are talking about the darkest of matter, black holes themselves.

No wonder I couldn’t feel gravitational waves at the Istituto Comprensivo at Gallicano. It was too seismically protected! Let us hope, however, that gravitational seismic waves will in the future help not only to understand the universe in greater depth but ourselves too. For that’s where the true origin of all our species lies: in the deepest mystery of the cosmos.

Blood Moon

In the early hours of this morning something quite extraordinary happened in the skies which will only occur again in 2033: a “supermoon” in a total lunar eclipse.

What’s needed for this to happen and why is it so rare?

First, the moon has to be a full moon.

Second, the full moon has to be at its closest point to the earth. The moon travels in an elliptical path round the earth and has both perigee, closest, and apogee, farthest, points. The closest the moon gets to the earth is 225,804 miles (363,396 km) at the perigee and the farthest 251,968 miles (405,504 km) at the apogee… That’s a difference of 25,000 miles. No wonder that at its perigee the moon looks almost a third larger!

Third, there has to be a lunar eclipse. This means that earth is exactly aligned in the middle between the moon and the sun.


A blocked-out moon does not occur here for the sun’s rays can penetrate the moon’s shadow and create a rusty red colour much in the same way that sunsets and sunrises are reddish since the other colours in the spectrum are scattered away.

A blood moon has intimations of prophecy. It may, in the minds of some, forecast the end of the world. In the Bible’s book of Joel, for example it is written: “the sun will turn into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes”.


This year signals (for a few) the end of the world for some time to come (if that isn’t an oxymoron!) since there have been a series of four consecutive lunar eclipses which coincide with six full moons in between, with no partial lunar eclipses and all coinciding with Jewish holidays. The technical term for this is a tetrad.

Strangely I did wake up at around three (Italian time) in the morning to witness the lunar eclipse. I’m sure that those with more powerful cameras and telescopes will have produced some dazzlingly red pictures. I was only able to come up with the following however. But you can still see the first phase of the eclipse and the spreading of a reddish glow over the moon’s surface.

Blood moons have always haunted me. Here is one stanza from my poem on the battlefield of Verdun:


Spiked helmets of ghostly armies

rise up in the smoking dawn,

the pregnant moon is still red,

hanging over the new day’s uncertainty.


And here’s another of my poems on the same subject. If you know Salzburg poet Georg Trakl you’ll recognize the theme:




Pale clouds spin trails across the sky

like cotton wool upon deep wounds;

they hide the centuries’ lone cry

and wrap in silence cold earth’s sounds.


Still could you touch the inner heart

that beats against forbidden walls?

And might you ever feel apart

from something vast that never palls?


Your skin, pellucid as dried bells

that inked a fertile alpine grass,

feels like the velvet twists of shells

cast up in folds high on the pass.


That light which takes from night’s false dawn

sings like an unknown eastern bird

and sees a life that’s yet unborn

and hears a music still unheard.


While wolves amass by freezing trees

a dark red moon hangs by a star:

with memories of summer bees

my sister comes both near and far.


When very young and on an autumns twilight in Lewisham Park London, I remember being scared by the vision of a red moon rising above the poplars. My brother and mother were with me and they said it was a strange apparition but nothing to worry about. Let’s hope that this time round, even with the supermoon, there’s still nothing to worry about!





Camera Oscura

If anyone wants to know where the Camera Oscura, Bagni di Lucca’s Arts Festival new poetry space, is then it’s practically the first ex-shop one comes to on the right as one enters Ponte a Serraglio from Bagni di Lucca Villa.

Alternatively, it’s almost the last ex-shop one comes to coming from Ponte a Serraglio to Bagni di Lucca Villa on the left.

Why is the space called camera oscura? It’s not that dark anyway!

It’s because it used to be a photographer’s studio at the time when all those empty spaces were living shops giving life to a community which sadly has diminished or has gone elsewhere for their daily goods.

We’ve seen this sadness in the crisis that’s hit the English high street but it’s all the more poignant for a small and beautiful place like Bagni di Lucca, Ponte.

Indeed, the names given to the other exhibition spaces reflect their old uses: La macelleria (butchers) Spazio Daddo (old shoe shop) La Mesticheria (ironmongers).  (I still remember that shop in use back in 2005, and treasure the hammer and paintbrush I bought from it.)

“My” space has a little back room, presumably the old dark room (camera oscura), and a lovely alcove with a contemporary marble statue, comfortable seating and even a projector.

Decoration is minimal but you can enrich it by adding your own words about poetry on the walls and join company with greats like Wordsworth, Shelley and, last night, Mara Mucci, who will recite her poems tomorrow Thursday at 7 pm.

For a few days a year this space will resound to the words of that quintessential art form, poetry, and then relapse into silence like an ancient Roman triclinium which once heard the odes of Horace or revelled in Petronius’ Satyricon but which now only has bare, ruined walls which not only hide frescoes but also echoes of words which have become faint shadows of those who uttered them.



What pictures emerged from these whitened walls

what portraits of newly-weds or daughters?

What parents faded in their yellowed shawls?

What years forgotten in icy waters?


And will these words also crumble away

written in a summer’s evening stilled heart?

And will our memories also decay

Like this shop’s long-lost photographic art?


Obscure room lighten up for me all your past clients,

bring me into the centre of your heart.

Show me both red dwarfs and hypergiants

mid the stars that set our planets apart.


The film projects upon a blanched background

 where nothing is lost and nothing is found.

O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon

“O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon

Irrecoverably dark, total eclipse

Without all hope of day!”


I have always been rather disappointed when observing eclipses. I’ve tended to either be in the wrong place or in the wrong weather. In 1999 I motor-biked all the way down to Cornwall from London to sit in a field and feel a slightly darkened earth at around 11 am beneath all those clouds which tend to descend on that Island at the most inopportune times.

Although it was a total eclipse over Cornwall and parts of south Devon (at least the trip was worth it for visiting an old school friend who lives down there) it was almost totally clouded out where I was. My wife, who remained in London where the eclipse was partial, told me she actually got a better view of the phenomenon. I’m told that I should have gone to Newquay where the clouds did clear for a while and would have allowed me to see the totality in all its darkest glory.

Apart from the actual astronomical phenomenon there are allied natural ones. Birds are supposed to fall silent and temperatures fall. Certainly the temperature fell and the birds became silent in Cornwall – a very eerie effect.

A local friend of mine was lucky enough to be in Hungary at the time of the 1999 eclipse and told me that it was one of the most spectacular things he’d ever seen. At the time of the sun’s aura emerging from the moon’s circumference he said that the whole landscape was suffused with twilight and dawn merging into one strange crepuscular light which completely encircled the landscape from the east to the west, quite unlike our standard sunrises and sunsets.


Another eclipse, of which I have only the vaguest memories, due to my age at the time, was the eclipse of the 5th February 1961. Perhaps it was because it occurred so early in the morning that it was not so immediately noticeable but 95% of the sun was covered by the moon in south-east London, where I lived at the time.

The eclipse of a couple of days ago was remarkable in that it combined three major astronomical phenomena into one. Apart from the actual eclipse itself, the full and reddish moon was seen at its largest dimension at its perigee, being the closest distance to the earth, and it was also the spring equinox.


As far as the eclipse affected Longoio I experienced a dimming of the sun at around ten-thirty but much spookier was the sudden drop in temperature which was amazing. The cats were sleeping on my bed, but then they usually spend most of their time sleeping on my bed. The ducks seemed unaffected and continued pecking for titbits on the lawn and the gold fish didn’t bat an eyelid, (if they had any).

A local man remarked to me that the end of the earth would come soon but then he belongs to a sect that strongly believes in pre-determined dates for this event.

A photograph was pasted on facebook by an acquaintance in Brandeglio.

The lines from Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra

There is nothing left remarkable beneath the visiting moon.

came to mind more than the great lines from Milton’s Samson Agonistes which prefaces this post.

Anyway, the partial eclipse started in our part of the world at 9.23 am reached its maximum coverage of the sun, which was 60.1%, at 10.31 and ended at 11.43.  The local astronomical society of Lucca set up a telescope on the city walls from which this picture was taken:


I didn’t feel like taking a flight to the Faroe islands to get a better view of this eclipse although I might well revisit that lovely country, Vietnam, which is due to receive a good partial eclipse on the 9th of March 2016 with little hope of clouds as it’s outside the rainy season (although Palangka Raya in Borneo might be a better bet as the eclipse there will be total.)

In the meanwhile, I suppose I could always re-watch that iconic Antonioni film “L’eclisse” from 1962, with its breath-taking silent final ten minutes showing an eclipse in progress….