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Pietro Paolo Giovanni Ernesto Baracchi (1851 — 1926)
Italian-Australian Astronomer

A brief biography, on the occasion of
The First Pietro Baracchi Conference: Italo-Australian Radio Astronomy in the Era of the SKA

Compiled by Prof. Steven Tingay1

Read in English | Italiano

Pietro Baracchi was born in 1851, in Tuscany, Italy (click here to view his birth certificate, kindly provided by Filippo Manucci2). Baracchi immigrated to Australia from Italy with two friends in the early days of astronomy in the colony of Victoria, during the era of the great Victorian gold rush. An Army officer from Tuscany, he had trained in mathematics and astronomy and had taken a degree in civil engineering. Baracchi joined the staff at the Melbourne Observatory, initially in 1877, and again, after working for a period as a draftsman in the Department of Lands and Survey, in 1882. He then remained with the Melbourne Observatory until he retired in 1915.

At the Melbourne Observatory Baracchi held posts as third assistant (from 1883) in charge of the Great Melbourne Telescope, first assistant (from 1892) to Ellery, acting Government Astronomer (from 1895) replacing Ellery, and Government Astronomer (from 1900). He made successful excursions to Port Darwin to assist in determining Australian longitudes and to observe solar eclipses at Bruny Island and in the Tongan archipelago. Baracchi was deeply involved in the production of the Third Melbourne General Catalogue (of 3068 stars), reviews of southern nebulae, astrophotographic work, and meridian measurements.

Baracchi was a significant participant in the Astrographic Catalogue 1900, at the time billed as the largest international science project ever undertaken, with the Melbourne Observatory responsible for surveying the declination range -65° to -90°. This project put the Observatory under considerable pressure as the Northern Hemisphere dominated project committee dynamically increased the scope of work and divested responsibility for that work to underfunded observatories (including Melbourne).

In 1910, Baracchi was part of a party to undertake initial site testing at what would become Mt Stromlo Observatory, using the venerable (and now lost to the Stromlo fire of 2003) 9-inch "Oddie" telescope. After three years of testing, Baracchi advised in his report that the site "fulfilled the most essential requirements for any class of delicate astronomical work". Eighty years later, the refurbished Great Melbourne Telescope (that Baracchi had been in charge of in Melbourne), installed at Mount Stromlo, detected the first instance of gravitational lensing of one star by another, as part of the MACHO project.

Baracchi's actions (and sometimes inactions) are woven through the early years of astronomy in Australia and an argument can be made that he leaves a very substantial footprint on Australia's astronomical history, influencing its modern development. Moreover, Baracchi's experiences as a scientist and manager in strained financial times, while involved in large international projects, offer lessons that resonate in today's scientific/financial/political environment.

Baracchi was known as a science-driven individual and capable of consistently performing research of the highest quality. He was also known as a particularly likeable person. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society (1884). In 1897 he was appointed a commander of the Order of the Crown of Italy. He was a member of the Royal Society of Victoria from 1897, was president in 1908-09, and was a trustee from 1914 to 1922.

Pietro Baracchi had been naturalised in 1895 and died in Melbourne in 1926. His wife, Catherine Petty, died earlier in 1908. In July 2013, in the presence of the Ambassador of Italy to Australia, a portrait of Baracchi was presented to Mount Stromlo Observatory by his granddaughter Gilda Baracchi, in recognition of his role in establishing one of Australia's premier astronomy facilities.

The First Pietro Baracchi Conference: Italo-Australian Radio Astronomy in the Era of the SKA, commemorates Baracchi's contribution to Australian astronomy and illustrates the close ties between Australian and Italian astronomy. A reflection on the life and experiences of Baracchi offers us an opportunity to think about the future of international radio astronomy, in the context of large projects such as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

1Compiled from the following references:

  • J.L. Perdix, 1979, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 7
  • "Comets and Communication: Amateur—Professional Tension in Australian Astronomy", Orchiston, W. 1999, PASA, 16, 212
  • Gillespie, R. (2008) Astrographic Catalogue in Museum Victoria Collections http://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/articles/1649; Accessed 27 January 2016

2Director of Arcetri Observatory