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After witnessing the eruption of the Mount Vesuvius in the bay of Naples, Italy, on 24 August, 79 C.E., ancient Roman scientist and writer "Pliny the Younger" documented how the volcano mouth spit burning rocks and ashes upon the nearby region. The ruins of the ancient Roman cities Pompeii and Herculaneum, and the perfectly preserved shapes of inhabitants who perished in the ashes, offer an unequivocal expression of the destructive power of volcanic eruptions.

The last time the Mount Vesuvius erupted--with less dramatic consequences, thankfully--was in 1944; the volcano has since entered a "closed-conduit" or quiescence phase. Yet the volcano's apparent inactivity is only part of a cycle that is punctuated by an "open-conduit" state and violent eruptions. Predicting when that will happen, and protecting the Neapolitan population, is the hefty remit of the Vesuvius Observatory. The job requires constant development of innovative technology, and has proved to be the perfect place for Massimo Orazi (pictured above) to utilise his scientific knowledge and his huge appetite for technical advances.

A Talent Unfolds

Orazi graduated from the University of Naples in 2002 with a Laurea degree in physics, the Italian equivalent of a combined B.Sc. and M.Sc. Although he had started his degree with the objective of specialising in astrophysics, "my passion changed" on taking the first classes in electronics, which he eventually chose to specialise in.

It soon became clear that he had not only a passion but a flair for developing electronics for scientific instrumentation. After whizzing through a first final-year undergraduate project--building electronics for a nuclear particle physics instrument-he decided to take on another one. "I wanted something more difficult, so I started to collaborate with another group of researchers on experiments about nuclear particle [physics] in space." The researchers were working on the PAMELA (Payload for Anti-Matter Exploration and Light-Nuclei Astrophysics) project in collaboration with the Italian National Institute of Nuclear Physics, ( Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare, INFN ,) to develop a magnetic spectrometer that would allow the measurement of matter and anti-matter in cosmic rays from a satellite.

A Natural Researcher

The experience challenged him to think independently and ingeniously. "I developed the electronics for the telescope [that was to detect] cosmic rays," says Orazi. "For example, researchers would tell me to find a way to regulate temperature in the instrumentation, and they wouldn't say how." While collaborating closely with researchers and space engineers, Orazi learned not "only [about] developing electronics, but also [about] the way to start a project in electronics and the management of a project."

But when Orazi finished his work on the PAMELA project, he found himself in limbo. He wanted to do a Ph.D., but the Italian academic system--where students have to be selected through nationwide exams--wasn't flexible enough for people like him with cross-disciplinary experiences. He believes his expertise--a mixture of electrical engineering and particle physics--did not make him competitive for entry into Ph.D. programmes. So Orazi took a job at a small company in space applications of electronics, but he wasn't happy with that kind of work. "After 2 months, I understood that my big satisfaction is to work in research, not in industry."

A Perfect Fit

Orazi started to look for a suitable position when luck struck and the job found him. "I had a call from Marcello Martini from the [Vesuvius] Observatory," says Orazi, sounding as though he still can't quite believe it. "Martini told me he wanted to develop instrumentation for geophysical science." The Observatory was in need of a technologist for the Monitoring Centre, a support role to "develop something that is needed by researchers, but that the researchers don't really have the competence to develop." For Orazi, such a position was a perfect fit for his expertise and research career aspirations. "This is exactly what I want to research."

Sensing Vesuvius's Seismic Activity

The research of Orazi and his colleagues has a specific objective. The Vesuvius Observatory, which is part of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, has the task of "monitoring all the physical [parameters] that show volcanic activity," explains Orazi. Measurable variations in geochemistry, geodesy, and seismology in volcanic areas are signs of what is going on in the heart of the volcano, and allows researchers to predict when an eruption is about to happen. The Observatory keeps a close watch not only on the Mount Vesuvius, but also on the volcanoes of the nearby regions of Campi Flegrei and the Island of Ischia.

Orazi's work falls within the seismic monitoring unit, which relies on a seismologic network of stations situated very close to the volcano. "A seismologic station is an instrument that collects data from seismologic sensors, calculates and in some cases compresses these data, and finally [sends them] to the data centre" in real-time, says Orazi. "My job is to develop all the electronics, from the sensors to the data centre. They gave me very big responsibilities."

There is also a logistical side to Orazi's work: some of his most important work occurs outside the lab, because the instruments he develops have to work in the field, where they are exposed to heat and other environmental threats. "I collaborate with other researchers for the implementation of the seismologic network," He says. The fieldwork, in turn, informs his work in the laboratory. "Our work [in] the field gives me many ideas to develop new instrumentations that respond exactly to what [the other researchers] want."

Protecting people

Orazi's detection systems must function correctly. "All the people in the Observatory are involved in . . . protecting the population," says Orazi. "There are one million people near the volcanoes."

The volcanoes are under 24-hour surveillance; should scientists at the Observatory detect threatening changes in volcanic activity, observatory experts would communicate the data and their meaning immediately to the local civil-protection authorities. Together they would estimate the risk and, if it is substantial, alert and possibly evacuate the local population.

Looking Toward the Future

Scientists working at the Vesuvius Observatory strive to improve the monitoring of volcanoes, and here Orazi has a lot of freedom to pursue his own ideas. "My chief wants to start new ways of thinking about the instrumentation," says Orazi, a task that will involve developing new electronics. Orazi has already proposed the creation of a new multi-channel data logger that would allow seismologic, geochemistry, and geodesic data to be collected all at once; this proposal has already been accepted. Orazi considers this broad scope to develop and pursue new ideas as a very positive aspect of his career at the Observatory.

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for Europe.