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Farewell, Gino September 6, 2016

Posted by dorigo in physics.
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Gino Bolla was an Italian scientist and the head of the Silicon Detector Facility at Fermilab. And he was a friend and a colleague. He died yesterday in a home accident. Below I remember him by recalling some good times together. Read at your own risk. 

Dear Gino,

news of your accident reach me as I am about to board a flight in Athens, headed back home after a conference in Greece. Like all unfiltered, free media, Facebook can be quite cruel as a means of delivering this kind of information, goddamnit.

I did shed a few tears for you under the sunglasses I was quick to put on, as I queued up in front of the gate. But then I felt a bit silly, thinking that in fact, the pain we feel in these situations can be a bit selfish. Was I weeping for you, for a beautiful life meaninglessly interrupted, for your great wife and marvelous kids who must now feel like they were ripped off a big chunk of their heart, and stolen many more years of happiness together? Or was I weeping for myself, thinking that some of the things we did together -a few fun moments of our life- have no other witness now, and will never be recalled again together in front of a beer or a glass of unnecessarily expensive wine? In earnest I do not know, and the thought is quite disturbing to me. So I will leave it alone, and rather make an effort to recall those moments together one more time, as my own way to say good-bye to a friend, or maybe to share them with whomever else had you in their heart.

When we first met, in 1993, you had just finished your military service, as a paratrooper. We were both working at our undergraduate theses then, and shared an extra “students office” that Dario had managed to get assigned to his group, at the second floor of the Department of Physics. That room does not exist anymore, and the physical space is now the office of Matteo and Fulvia; but as I pass by I sometimes remember that time, with a mixture of feelings. Now the mixture will be a bit harder to cope with.

I remember I did not like your attitude at first: you sounded too much of a smart-ass, alpha-male kind of guy. You never missed a chance to have fun of me for things I did or for my way of dressing. No style! You were of course right. And I rapidly got used to it, and for the next 23 years I never allowed your attitude to get on my nerves. I hope you can acknowledge that, dear Gino: I allowed you all the freedom you wanted on having fun of me. Once that bit of our interaction got fixed, we had a good time together as undergraduates. In truth, I would not say we became friends back then: not yet. Despite the laughs, the obnoxious jokes, and the constant hilarious swearing while we coded top quark search algorithms or silicon detector notes, we did not have the time to build a real connection; we only spent time together at work, and we lived in different towns.

Things changed when we met again at Fermilab, you with a post-lauream position to develop silicon sensors for CDF; and me working at my PhD on data analysis for the same experiment. The topics of our work activities never crossed, but sharing the same apartment at Brookdale, spending evenings cooking some fancy recipe you wanted to try, and going to bars in downtown Chicago, were all ways to connect. You usually kept that smart-ass attitude with me -that was a character trait that people who met you either loved or hated (I must be among the very few who hated it ahd loved it at the same time); but then there were moments when you would speak to me quite frankly about anything: your family, your father who left as prematurely as you now did, your early affairs, your motorbike adventures. I think you did realize back then that I was somebody you could count on, and I may have surprised you for never taking a chance to get even with you on the jokes.

You had a big heart, but you did not make a big deal of it. Sometimes you concealed this character trait of yours; but it was bound to emerge at some point. You were not a saint, though. Apart from not liking some of your political ideas, a bit too conservative for my taste, I had some concerns with the somewhat retrograde way of considering women you at times made explicit in words more than in acts. Or maybe it was just a joke. Or maybe it was just me.

We spent a lot of time together in the US. I remember countless evenings in the late 1990s, when you came to visit me and Mariarosa and cooked with us or for us. After dinner you would teach me Bridge, making fun of my poor understanding of the game, but teaching me a lot in the process. Or you would join us playing with my son Filippo, who was barely one year old then. I also remember when we tried to bake a créme brulée, and failed miserably! It must have been my oven not working properly, as your cooking skills were well above average. That evening we made up with that and consoled ourselves with ice cream, then got drunk with too much beer. Or rather, I got drunk, you did not; damn it, you could drink four times as much as I did without any apparent effect, if not a slight tendency to let your character traits take over a bit. Then while I would be condemned to a night of headaches and nausea, you would just crash on whatever flat surface around, with no apparent side effect.

Another time I was home alone and I insisted to have you come over. I cooked for you and two technicians you originally wanted to bring to a restaurant, to commemorate some achievement at the lab. When I served a lobster dinner to all you looked genuinely impressed, and later thanked me heartily, explaining that it had been very important for you that your guests had felt welcome and treated in the best possible way. In that occasion I got a hint that you always showed appreciation for the work of your collaborators and tried to treat them well. This is also an input I got from many other sources. At work everybody seemed to like you, Gino. What was it?

When you met Petra, who later became your wife, I thought it was a real piece of luck (and I still do). I had known her in 1996 at a Summer School in Stanford, and later she had moved to Fermilab. The moment I saw her with you I realized you were meant to be together! She had the balls to keep up with you, and the patience to be your lifetime companion. And as a physicist, one at least as good as you, this was a good way to suppress your slight gender bias. What was it, 1999? The timeline looks a bit blurred now, especially since I just drunk a quarter-liter of white wine while I’m sitting on my flight to Venice now. I drank it as if we were together – but I guess you would have had quite a bit to say about the quality of the wine served by Aegean. Yet I kind of liked it, as it brought back some more memories of our times together.

When I moved back to Italy our chances to meet decreased, but in fact the quality of our interactions increased. In 2005 we visited you at your house in Lafayette for my daughter’s second birthday, and we spent a perfect weekend together. In 2006 you came to Padova and invited us over to your mother’s house in Villatora -you always claimed it was the best place in the world, and at times I thought you really meant it. We picked apples from the trees of your neighbor’s garden, and while we ate them we started fantasizing about a trip to some exotic beach together. That thought concretized just a few months later, when we spent an absolutely fabulous 10 day vacation in Yucatan. Villa Margarita, a private beach in Soliman bay, the morning swim to greet the moray on the rock in front of our house, and the swims together to the reef and back. I remember I got you angry at me once, as you had planned to see a movie together after dinner, while I lingered in front of the house watching the night sky with our neighbor. Sorry, Gino – you know I’d always prefer the night sky to a movie, but that evening I made a mistake.

And then we had more occasions to get pissed off at one another, but it never really happened. Instead we always got along well, despite being two quite different fishes. In 2008 you came to Padola with Petra and the kids, and we skied and spent a few nice days on the snow. And in 2009 you again came to Italy with your family at the right time to participate to my daughter’s sixth birthday party. I remember that Anna lost a toy earring under my sofa that day, but we got it back to her… Ilaria (my daughter) must also remember very well when I brought her to your beautiful house in Echenevez. We felt at home there, as always with you guys.

And then we sort of stopped this habit of getting together in spite of the distance (your family at CERN, mine in Italy). That was due to my separation from my wife, something you never understood. How cruel can life be with us, Gino – you criticized me for leaving my family, and now an accident makes you do the same with yours. You did not deserve that, nor did they.

In the last few years we only spoke a few times. We had dinner together in Miami and Aix-les-Bains two years ago, and I found you still critical of my personal life choices, but more willing to forgive them and to share a few drinks (a few Piscos too many for me in Miami – I had forgotten just how much you can outdrink me, doh!). Now I do not know if you really counted me as a friend, Gino, but you were one to me. And now I miss you, damnit.

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