«Almost like a family»

From closure to international prestige: the IRSOL success story.

Don’t hold it against him, because he is not someone who drops his pen on the stroke of his 65th birthday and disappears from sight. Michele Bianda retired after heading the Istituto Ricerche Solari Aldo e Cele Daccò» in Locarno-Monti. But if you look for him, you will still find him at IRSOL, chatting with the new director, Svetlana Berdyugina. Or, finally, in the workshop, tinkering with instruments and apparatus. And rightly so: every scientist brings a history and a wealth of skills and knowledge that shall not be lost from one day to the next. We met Michele Bianda and asked him to tell us a success story: that of IRSOL. An Observatory that, unlike any other institution, starts with closure and goes all the way to international excellence.

Michele, how did you get involved with the Sun? Did it all start with a youthful interest? Or was it an accident?

Even as a child, I was interested in astronomy. I didn’t even know that the Ticino Astronomical Society existed, but the sky fascinated me. In high school, Professor Alfredo Poncini, my physics teacher and an amateur astronomer, told us stories and anecdotes that increased my interest in astronomy. I enrolled in physics at ETH-Zurich, and when it came to choosing a diploma work, I said to myself: «I’m going for it». And I chose astronomy. I had also attended some of Max Waldmeier’s lectures, but – I must be honest – I was not very impressed because it was dealing mainly with positional astronomy. Nevertheless, I went in search of the Institute of Astronomy at ETH-Zurich. I still remember the street and the shacks; it was in those shacks that the Institute was provisionally located then. There, I first met Jan Stenflo: it was also the beginning of a great friendship. Stenflo, who had recently succeeded Waldmeier, proposed a quantum mechanics topic in the field of solar physics, and I threw myself into it – I admit – a bit recklessly. It was an exciting but also deadly period of four months because I barely had time to eat, sleep and jog to keep myself fit: everything else was dedicated to working. After graduation, I looked around and observed people doing a PhD. I realised that, on the one hand, it would be exciting, but on the other, it would force me to give up something too important: my roots. I would have felt without the ground under my feet, always having to move and travel. But I was too attached to my family and my friendships. So I went back to Ticino, and at first, I got by with some substitute teaching at school. One day Edy Alge, the father of a former schoolmate of mine, Annalisa, suggested I visit the Specola Solare Ticinese. As I saw the Specola, I said to myself: «This is where I belong. Something will happen here». So I started to work with Sergio Cortesi, from whom I learnt a lot until I also started to receive a small remuneration. And then, the possibility of saving IRSOL from closure opened up.

Which, however, was not yet called IRSOL.

No. At that time, it was an astronomical Observatory of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, so it belonged to the German government and was run by the University of Göttingen. I had already visited it, accompanied by Paul Utermohlen. As I said, the Observatory was to be shut down. So the idea was to save it by keeping it open and active, a bit like what had been done a few years earlier, in 1980, with the Specola, when ETH-Zurich had abandoned it. Alessandro Rima, Paul Utermohlen and many other people did an enormous amount of work, opening negotiations that lasted several years and ended in 1988 with the German State, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft and the University of Göttingen. In the end, we agreed on a sale at a very reasonable price of around half a million francs, but with the stipulation that we would consider the interests of German researchers in our future scientific work. And finally, in 1988, we took possession of the Observatory.

Who had allocated the capital for the purchase? And by whom was IRSOL financed at that time?

Formally, the owner was the Associazione Istituto Ricerche Solari Locarno (AIRSOL), but the capital belonged to Alessandro Rima, who provided it as a loan. The money for the Foundation came from its members, i.e. the Canton of Ticino and the Municipality of Locarno, together with AIRSOL, until the debt to Rima was paid off and the subsequent financing continued.

So Göttingen abandoned the Observatory.

Legally, yes, but the German researchers were very attached to the Observatory and did everything they could to help. They had closed it to move with a new instrument to Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, to build. This was why the optics, electronics and partly the mechanics of the Locarno site had been cannibalised. However, the chief mechanic in Göttingen, Karlheinz Duensing, who had built the instrument, offered to rebuild all the main missing parts, even correcting some known defects in the removed parts. So we ended up with an instrument that was, in some ways, even better than the previous one. Many of the devices still work perfectly today. We bought a new spectrograph grating, identical to the one installed in Tenerife. We also bought a CCD camera so that we could record spectral images. And that’s when Jan Stenflo stepped in.

In what sense did he step in?

Stenflo, who had become a professor of astronomy at ETH-Zurich a few years earlier, made a decision that proved vital for IRSOL: to consider ours as the reference Observatory for his research. Previously, he had been working with the telescope in Arosa, but our instrumentation was much better suited to the spectropolarimetry studies that Stenflo was interested in. In addition, an ingenious engineer in Zurich, Hanspeter Povel, invented an innovative technology to measure the polarisation of light by minimising the problems generated by atmospheric turbulence. Povel’s research resulted in the first generation of the ZIMPOL system, which stands for Zurich Imaging POLarimeter. This was first used for scientific measurements at the Kitt Peak Observatory in Arizona. The problem with Kitt Peak, however, was that observation time had to be obtained and then it was necessary to go all the way to the United States each time. At IRSOL, it was possible, efficiently and economically, to develop ZIMPOL to optimise further observing campaigns on large telescopes such as those at Kitt Peak.

And with the observations came the first scientific results?

The first important scientific output of IRSOL is still of considerable importance today. It is the atlas of the second solar spectrum, i.e. the polarisation of scattered light very close to the solar limb, the result of Achim Gandorfer’s PhD work. In fact, these signals contain so much interesting physics that they have been identified as the second solar spectrum. A few years ago, I was at a scientific congress in China. I remember that some of the main fathers of the physics theory of scattering spectropolarimetry were present: Jan Stenflo, Javier Trujillo Bueno, Kanakatte Nanjundarao Nagendra, Egidio Landi Degl’Innocenti. They laughingly recalled that 20 years earlier, having seen the first results of ZIMPOL and the richness of the second solar spectrum, they said they would have at least five years to work. In reality, those signals are still being studied today, and much still needs to be understood. (Laughs.) The atlas in the ultraviolet was obtained at Kitt Peak, because the Observatory is at a higher altitude and therefore less affected by atmospheric absorption. Moreover, their instrument is also larger: 1.5 metres compared to the IRSOL’s 0.45. However, the atlas of the second solar spectrum from violet to near-infrared is the result of measurements carried out at IRSOL.

But there was more to IRSOL than just ZIMPOL.

No. In fact, before the arrival of ZIMPOL and in collaboration with ETH-Zurich, we had developed another type of polarimeter, a simpler one, which, however, allowed us to obtain high precision, up to 10-4. With that instrument, it was possible to obtain measurements still quoted in the scientific literature today. For example, measurements of the Hanle effect, which, unlike the Zeeman effect, also allow the measurement of tangled solar magnetic fields. At that moment, I realised that I could finally do my own PhD thesis. Strange, isn’t it? I graduated in the late 1980s, but got my PhD in 2003. It is quite unusual.

But at that time, you were already the director of IRSOL.

It’s difficult to speak of director when I was the only one as a researcher. IRSOL was independent of ETH-Zurich, but until 2007, i.e. as long as Jan Stenflo was a professor, it was in fact regarded as the Polytechnic Observatory. Renzo Ramelli was hired in 2003, when more funding was available, and it was possible to take on another researcher.

But then Stenflo retired.

In 2007: that was a big change. We thought we could continue the research with his successor, but as we didn’t really know what would happen to the acquired know-how, the ZIMPOL technology was acquired by the University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Southern Switzerland (SUPSI), with whom we then further developed subsequent generations of the instrument. After a few years, the instruments loaned or loaned to IRSOL became our property. But then ETH-Zurich decided to abandon solar physics. It was a tough time because there was no longer any academic institute in Switzerland dealing with solar physics. For this reason, it was difficult for a small institute like IRSOL to justify its role in Swiss academic policy, also with a view to obtaining funding from the Swiss National Science Foundation. We had, however, been able to initiate a strategic scientific collaboration with the KIS (Kiepenheuer Institut für Sonnenphysik, now the Leibnitz Institut) in Freiburg im Breisgau, directed by Svetlana Berdyugina after having already worked at ETH-Zurich. Fortunately, in 2013 IRSOL was recognised as an institute of national interest and got funded through the Federal Law on the Promotion of Research and Innovation (LPRI). But on one condition: the funding would last for four years, during which we would have to be associated with a Swiss or a foreign university to continue to be funded. We could no longer allow ourselves to be seen as some kind of stray splinter who didn’t know where to place himself. (Laughs.)

What changed at that point?

At that point, thanks to federal funding, it was possible to create a larger team consisting of three groups: one for instrumentation and observation, one for theory and one for numerical simulations led by Oskar Steiner, who also worked with the Swiss Centre for Scientific Computing (CSCS). This way, it was possible to bring together researchers working on solar physics with different approaches under one roof and collaborate effectively. The fact that we also dealt with theoretical and numerical aspects brought us closer to the Università della Svizzera italiana (USI) and its Institute of Computational Science, now the Euler Institute. We saw the potential for collaboration and so USI decided to associate IRSOL. From that moment on, things went great. For example, Luca Belluzzi, who has been leading the theoretical group since the beginning, received funding from a National Science Foundation Sinergia project, in which groups of researchers working on the same topic but with interdisciplinary approaches have to collaborate. In this case, IRSOL, USI and the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC) are collaborating, working on a code developed at the IAC that simulates radiation, or rather radiative transport, in numerical models of the solar atmosphere. This collaboration is a success story. Mention should also be made of a major European project consisting of a large solar telescope, the European Solar Telescope (EST), with an aperture of 4 metres and to be built in La Palma, in the Canary Islands. IRSOL has been following the project for decades as Switzerland’s representative in the project and USI is now the national academic contact for the project. By also dealing with instrumentation, the collaboration with SUPSI has been able to increase, and it is conceivable that it will develop further if the EST project becomes a reality.

And today?

Today, after 35 years since our inception, we are affiliated to USI: a higher status that we obtained in 2021. Today also marks the end of my time as director of IRSOL, and I leave with the pleasure of noting that the Institute has the chance to grow further, thanks to the most recent stroke of good fortune: the directorship taken by Svetlana Berdyugina. In addition to being an excellent scientist, Svetlana has excellent international contacts and innovative scientific visions that can benefit the future of IRSOL.

How important has chance been in your professional career?

It has been a fundamental element. Sometimes I have the impression that I have been walking in a huge fog bank, and once it has cleared and I have been able to look back, I realise that I have placed my feet on top of poles surrounded by emptiness. Over the past 35 years, incredible opportunities have presented themselves, chance encounters from which important collaborations have emerged. For example, if there had not been people in Göttingen so connected to IRSOL, we would not have this equipment today. Without Jan Stenflo or Philippe Jetzer’s leadership of the Foundation, we would not be here. And I could give many other examples.

IRSOL was close to being shut down. Today, 35 years later, it has reached an international level of excellence. Who and what has counted most in this success?

To achieve anything positive, there must be the right initial idea that is worth striving for. As Alessandro Rima insisted from the outset, IRSOL represented an opportunity for cultural development for the region, understood as a chance to produce ideas and participate in the evolution of thought. Many people believed in this idea, starting with the first people who indicated in which direction and how to move, namely Rima and Utermohlen. Then there was the interest of the Canton and the City of Locarno, who dared to start an adventure that was by no means taken for granted at the time. Göttingen’s initial collaboration – I would thank Eberherd Wiehr and Axel Wittmann – was also vital, although not taken for granted. It was necessary to demonstrate that the commitment to IRSOL would not be at the expense of the work needed to enhance the Tenerife facility. Special mention goes to the collaboration with Gerd Küveler, professor at the Fachhochschule in Wiesbaden, which enabled the realisation of dozens of semester or diploma papers with themes that led to instruments for IRSOL. The work done with Jan Stenflo, Professor at the Institute of Astronomy at ETH-Zurich, proved to be central to the development of IRSOL. All activities carried out on the sidelines of this collaboration opened the Institute’s doors to the scientific community active in solar physics. The presidency of the Foundation was then handed over to Philippe Jetzer, professor at the University of Zurich, in 2000. His presence proved vital to the Institute’s strategic choices, ensuring the presence of an established academic at the head of the operation on an institutional level. I would like to point out that his unpaid work was constant and required a great deal of commitment. The work of the Foundation Board, whose targeted interventions in some cases were decisive in resolving difficult situations favourably, should also be highlighted. Over the years, it has been possible to establish scientific relationships of cooperation, and I would even say friendship that have made it possible to create an international community. We have never reasoned in terms of competition but rather of collective work with a common goal: knowledge development. As I have already said, an essential fact for IRSOL is that it has become a USI institute. This is due to the work of people within the University: I am thinking of Boas Erez, Rolf Krause, Benedetto Lepori, Piero Martinoli, Sandro Rusconi, Albino Zgraggen and the fantastic scientific work done by researchers at IRSOL.

IRSOL has now reached an international level of excellence, which is undoubtedly a great satisfaction for you. But don’t you feel a little nostalgic for the heroic times when there were only a few of you and everything had to be created almost from nothing?

In IRSOL’s past, there have been great times and some challenging ones. Getting here was like climbing a mountain, overcoming tremendous obstacles, but also enjoying spectacular landscapes. Now, from the top, looking back at the route I have completed, I gladly see the magnificent places I have passed through, but I would not go back. I no longer have the energy, and perhaps chance would make us follow another route. (Laughs.)

The public imagines the scientist at work in the laboratory or engaged in complex theoretical reflections. But, unfortunately, the reality is often more prosaic: lots of bureaucracy and lots of paperwork. Especially for those in management roles. Wasn’t that a bit frustrating?

The bureaucratic needs relating to the management of IRSOL have increased, especially in the last decade, i.e. since the Institute has grown and acquired international prestige. So someone had to do the job, even though I am by no means cut out for it. Taking care of it, however, meant allowing the brilliant minds of other people to develop excellent science. It was perhaps a bit of a sacrifice, but I was happy to do it because I could see the results.

Don’t you think that in general scientific research would need a dedicated professional figure, perhaps an administrative director precisely to manage the bureaucracy and leave scientists time to do what should be their actual job, i.e. scientific research?

Prominent research institutes are moving in this direction. However, even such a figure will only solve some of the problems faced by a researcher. Moreover, one must have a sufficient size, which nevertheless imposes a price to pay. In fact, in big science centres, there is a lack of human relations. On the other hand, one of the great merits of IRSOL is the human dimension. Here you have the feeling of almost being family.

Now that you are retired, will you go back to real scientific research? Or are you just going to go fishing?

I appreciate the fact that I can find some time for myself again. As far as science is concerned, I think I will have to go back to study (Laughs.) Really: there are so many important things that I want to study in depth, to fill in gaps, to understand better. As far as IRSOL is concerned, I still have a lot to give, especially in the instrumental and observational areas. I know the instrument like the back of my hand, and, at the moment, there are areas where only I know where to put my hands. So the idea is to modernise the instrument and make it independent of me. In addition, there are some measurements that I have never had the time to collect. Now I will finally have this time.

Retirement is often also a time for second thoughts. Do you have any regrets? What would you change if you went back? What missed opportunities would you take? What mistakes would you avoid?

In all lives, personally and professionally, there are things that, with hindsight, one would like to change. However, even mistakes and missed opportunities have developed into possibilities, although in many cases requiring time and work. Therefore, even if it is difficult, it is a matter of knowing how to accept one’s mistakes and shortcomings because they all contribute to building the way. Think of the games Jenga: if you remove the wrong piece, you risk bringing down the whole tower.

The Institute

The Observatory was founded in the early 1960s and depended on the University of Göttingen, Germany. In 1984, the instrumentation was partially relocated to Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, and the management of the Observatory passed to the Fondazione Istituto Ricerche Solari Locarno. In the following years, the instrumentation was rebuilt, completed, renewed and improved. The Observatory dealt with spectropolarimetry to study solar magnetic fields. Since 1996, IRSOL has collaborated with Professor Jan Stenflo of ETH-Zurich. In particular, the ZIMPOL polarimeter was developed. With the closure of the chair of solar physics in Zurich in 2007, the development of ZIMPOL was transferred to Ticino in collaboration with SUPSI. International collaborations continued and in 2013 funding from the Swiss confederation were granted. Since 2015 IRSOL was associated and since 2021 affiliated with the Università della Svizzera italiana (USI). In 2022 Svetlana Berdyugina took over as director of IRSOL and was appointed as professor at the Faculty of Informatics at USI.