Professor Antonino Zichichi, born in Trapani and now Research Director at CERN, Geneva realized that Erice, sited on a hilltop, 751 m above sea level, could represent an ideal place for specialised meetings with a limited number of participants. Isolation, a wealth of archaeological sites, and the echoes of 3000 years of history and prestige are the main attractions on this mountain town, dominating Trapani and the extreme north-western edge of Sicily (photos)
In 1963 Professor Zichichi began organizing yearly meetings on Subnuclear Physics, bringing together young and famous physicists. Later he founded the "Ettore Majorana" Centre, named after a young and promising Sicilian physicist working in the thirties with Fermi. He disappeared in 1938 under mysterious circumstances, during an overnight ferry trip to Naples where he had just been appointed full professor of Physics.
The Centre, which has become a Foundation in 1998, is a non-profit organization which has gained wide reputation for its excellent facilities; each year hundreds of scientists are invited or selected by those responsible for meetings in more than 100 disciplines, named "International Schools" (a misleading and unfortunate title). Each School organizes advanced study institutes or - more rarily - workshops ( officially called "courses" ) at intervals of one to five years. However, new activities have recently begun: each year, near the end of August, the international press has reported on the peace talks among top nuclear physicists - mainly from China, Russia and USA - invited to Erice by Prof. Zichichi with the aim of discussing and encouraging a nuclear weapon ban.
In Erice, a progressive effort at restoring ancient monasteries and churches has produced very agreable places where scientists and their meetings can be hosted. Of course, it is a difficult task to transform the buildings to attain modern standards and yet preserve their original atmosphere. There is a large main lecture hall (see below) with 250 seats, three halls with 100, 80 and 60 seats respectively and a few smaller ones. The maximum number of participants, in order to hold an effective meeting in Erice, would be 120. This number includes about 20 invited speakers, chosen amongst the leaders in each particular topic. They are promised just a waiver of the subsistence costs and the travel reimbursement, which ever so often some of them agree to bear themselves in order to favour support for young promising researchers. No honoraria are foreseen. Accommodation is provided mainly in twin-bedded rooms with bath or shower. The few single rooms available are reserved to lecturers and aged scientists.
The idea of including Crystallography (acronym ISCoC) amongst
the disciplines at the Centre was suggested in 1972 by Professor Michael
M. Woolfson, FRS, York University, UK to Lodovico Riva di Sanseverino,
now at Bologna University. Since 1974, crystallographic meetings at Erice
have been held each year (except 1979) and have dealt with a variety of
topics (see the summary of activities).
The scientific Directors of a Course, who are nominated by Professor Blundell, are dynamic leaders in the topic indicated by the course title; they should be able to contact crystallographers as well as experts from other fields. Non-crystallographers are required when - as it is often the case - the meeting deals with frontier topics. The Directors of a Course are responsible for inviting the lecturers and for planning an attractive scientific programme. Fifteen invited lecturers have been awarded the Nobel Prize after they had been invited (some of them repeteadly alike Thomas Steitz and Ada Yonath) at Erice Crystallography courses. Ever so often women Directors and speakers are asked to join. Continuing collaboration is assured by the Executive Secretary of the ISCoC, Lodovico Riva di Sanseverino till 1994, Paola Spadon since. From 1998 John Irwin, now at the University of California at San Francisco, has joined the Local Organizing Committee as IT expert.
Thousands of posters announcing each meeting are circulated a year in advance to personal addresses and it is customary to receive 2 to 3 times as many applications as there are places available. The selection is not only based on qualification but also on geographical distribution. The most cosmopolitan course, in 1977, was attended by 81 participants from 33 countries; there were 35 nationalities present amongst the 149 participants in 2005 and amongst the 117 participants in 2007.
In 1988, 206 scientists (an exceptional number - as ever with Molecular Biologists) came from 37 countries. In April 1990, two crystallographic courses were run simultaneously in two different halls. During the spring 1996 only 19 days had elapsed when a second course started, while in 1997 and 1999 two courses have again been held simultaneously. The same has happened in May 2000 when the Molecular Biologists reached the record number of 227; again in 2004 (click on the gem Past Activity, first page).
English is the sole language for all events during the courses.
The general policy for producing teaching material consists of requesting each invited lecturer to write a 5-10 pages summary of his/her contribution, including a comprehensive list of references. The collected lecture notes are distributed to participants on their arrival; in 1987 the book was mailed to home addresses well in advance, without any positive effect: only 5% participants had opened the book before arriving at Erice……
Lecture notes provide a general guide, but the extended bibliography is a unique tool for those stimulated to increasing their acquaintance with the topic after attending a meeting. Thirty six such photoset reproduced volumes and thirty proper books, published by international printing companies, have appeared in the past thirtyfive years. Proper monographs play an essential role when the subject of a meeting is a pioneering initiative. Quite often, earlier students have later returned as invited speakers and as Course Directors.
Due to their interdisciplinary character, Erice crystallographic courses are attended by specialists from various fields. This is frequently the starting point for closer scientific contacts: both lecturers and "students" are encouraged to spend the full period of the course in Erice and the person-to-person exchange of ideas and expertise often provokes and/or stimulates future collaborative research projects.
School financing is composed of fees ( about 50% ), international grants ( 35% ) and local sources while expenditure consists of subsistence ( about 65% ), lecturers' travel ( 15% ), modern Pc's rentals (10%) and organizational costs. The well known difficulty of fund raising is increased owing to the fact that the meetings are held on a yearly frequency. The organizers are involved in a continuous effort, trying to increase the number of grants: several national institutions have been convinced to share the travel and/or the subsistence costs. As an example, in addition to having paid travel for the 21 invited speakers, the organising committee for the 28th course was able to waive fees to 65 out of the 93 participants.
From June 2003, John Irwin has succeeded in overcoming several local and technological barriers and the crystallographic meetings have been web-broadcasted throughout the world. At peak hour, even seven hundred scientists were listening and watching what happened in the S. Domenico Lecture Hall. A chat room was also organized and the chair used to close the sessions asking the far-away scientists if there were questions.
Grants are commonly available for scientists under 35 of age, specially if nationals of Nato and Nato-Partner Countries. The European Community has suddenly stopped to continue support after nine years (1997 to 2005) and presently there is no call for schools or courses.
Local organisers - they all wear an orange scarf - dedicate special care to providing a knowledge of local culture and history, as well as to overcoming national discrimination. To help improve the efficiency of the course, a questionnaire is distributed and participants are invited to express (anonymously) any criticism and to make any suggestion they might feel necessary. A careful reading of a report based on the answers to this questionnaire can be of great help to the organizers of succeeding events. There is an overall figure of merit ranging from 0 to 4. Questionnaires filled by participants in the Molecular Biology Courses (May 2000) resulted in a record score of 3.18; translated into common words, 78% participants went away totally happy with all aspects of the event! The score has reached 3.21 in June 2001 and 3.27 in June 2002, 3.41 in 2004 and 3.25 in 2005, when the anonymous answer to the question in the usual questionnaire distributed at the end of the meeting "Score (0-100, 100 max.) the value of the meeting to you?" obtained an average value of 90.5 calculated after 89 indications... In 2008 this figure had increased to 91.4 after 88 indications.
A deep sense of gratitude is due to Directors and co-organisers of these meetings; without their generous, time-consuming efforts, the crystallographic activity in Erice would never have become popular. Some satisfaction can be derived from a table of statistics and from this photo.
A speaker in the very first 1974 Crystallography Course and Director in the 1995 Course, Georges Tsoucaris, has initiated in Erice a "sister-school" on Molecular Archaeology, holding Courses in 2002 and 2006; they were carefully assisted by the Crystallography staff as they were run in parallel, in a smaller lecture hall. The third event of this series is planned for the year 2010, 14 to 21 June, co-directors of the Course: Philippe Walter, C2RMF Centre de recherche et de restauration des Musées de France, Paris and David Strivay, University of Liège
From the very beginning in 1974 Pinola Savalli, a true Ericean, was assisting Crystallography events and people arriving at the Centre, cheerfully as much as carefully, efficiently, tirelessly, patiently, smilingly. A dozen or so years later, she was joined by a similarly appreciated hard worker, Dr Jerry Pilarski, a PhD in Chicago who was "forced" - husbands know the meaning of those hyphens - by his Sicilian wife to live downhill Erice, the town Valderice. Jerry had started an efficient computerization of all local items needed to run a meeting. Unexpectedly, Pinola and Jerry have suddenly been fired away from the Centre in the year 1997. However, Crystallography organizers keep a joyful tradition, in order to show a heartful sense of sympathy and gratitude to them: just before each Course they are invited at dinner with all the "orange scarves" . The photo shows - in occasion of such a dinner - the famous Restaurant owner Angelino, who had prepared a cake with their names on top (only Jerry, unfortunately, appears in the photo, Pinola being busy with an important professional commitment; indeed they continue successfully working as organizers, firstname.lastname@example.org, the meetings being held in additional restored Erice buildings). The photo below shows Pinola as the third face on the right, after Giuseppe Palladino and Maria Calefati; during the dinner, 4 June 2007