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In Memoriam

GianCarlo Ghirardi

04/06/2018 - Trieste

Ghirardi _PhotosThe ICTP community is mourning the sudden passing of long-time colleague GianCarlo Ghirardi.

Professor Ghirardi was associated with ICTP for many years as a researcher, a professor, and as the head of its Associateships and Federation Scheme. He attended the first-ever international seminar in theoretical physics in Trieste that was organized by ICTP co-founders Paolo Budinich and Abdus Salam in the early 1960s and has been a steady presence at the centre ever since.


In photos: Images of Professor GianCarlo Ghirardi at ICTP over the years (from top to bottom):

  • Winter college on nuclear physics and reactors: ICTP, Trieste, 25 January - 19 March 1982 (Scrobogna, L., photographer)
  • International conference on science in Europe: 40th anniversary of UNESCO foundation, ICTP, Trieste, 8-11 December 1986; P. Budinich, GC. Ghirardi, G. Poiani and D. Romeo. (Scrobogna, L., photographer)
  • Celebration of the 70th birthday of GianCarlo Ghirardi, ICTP, Trieste, 5 September 2005 (Silvano, M., photographer)
  • Ceremony of unveiling the plaque for celebrating the acquisition of the former primary school Giovanni XXIII by Consorzio, University and ICTP from Comune di Trieste with the help of CRTrieste, 2 March 2010. (Barnaba, R., photographer)
  • Receiving the Spirit of Salam Award, 2017
  • Visit by Trieste Archbishop Giampaolo Crepaldi (third from right), 2018 (ICTP Photo Archives)


Ghirardi is well known for his contributions to the foundations of quantum mechanics, as well as for his research, teaching and efforts to promote and develop physics. He was one of three authors of the so-called GRW theory, derived from the initials of its proponents: Ghirardi, Alberto Rimini (University of Pavia, Italy) and Tullio Weber (University of Trieste). The theory aimed to reconcile the paradoxical behaviour of quantum mechanics in the subatomic world with the more predictable behaviour of particles in the macroscopic world that we all experience.

"I remember learning group theory from his book on symmetries [Symmetry Principles in Quantum Physics] written together with Luciano Fonda," recalled ICTP Director Fernando Quevedo. In addition to the GRW theory, added Quevedo, Ghirardi made other important scientific contributions which are less known. "In particular, in an outstanding illustration of his rigour, he 'proved' the important no-cloning theorem in a referee report for an article way before the known published version," explained Quevedo.

GianCarlo Ghirardi was born and raised in Milan, Italy, and earned a doctorate degree in physics from the University of Milan in 1959. He then moved to Trieste in August 1963 where he assumed a full-time teaching position with the theoretical physics group at the University of Trieste. He became a full professor of quantum mechanics at the University, as well as director of the Department of Theoretical Physics there. In addition, he was president of the Consorzio per la Fisica dell'Università di Trieste.

Ghirardi's affiliation with ICTP was crucial to its success, according to Quevedo. From his long-term leadership of the Associates office, one of ICTP's flagship programmes, to his advocacy on behalf of ICTP with the Consorzio, Ghirardi had ICTP's best interests at heart. "He was always in a position to raise funds for ICTP to have the facilities needed to operate," said Quevedo.

"For all these reasons," continued Quevedo, "I was pleased he was awarded, just last year, the 'Spirit of Salam Award' given by Abdus Salam's family to those who have followed the spirit of Abdus Salam, going beyond their standard duties to support scientists from developing countries, which is one of the main missions of ICTP. He fully deserved this recognition."

Ghirardi had two great personal passions beyond his scientific research. The first was a deep interest in the history and philosophy of physics. He was one of the founders and first president of the Italian Society for the Foundations of Physics and authored a book on quantum mechanics, Un'occhiata alle carte di Dio, published in 1997 by Il Saggiatore in Milan, which has sold some 20,000 copies and later was translated by Princeton University Press under the title, Sneaking a Look at God's Cards.

"His intellectual curiosity went far beyond the standard scientific activities and covered popular science books," said Quevedo, "He had just finished a book on the importance of symmetries not only in science but also in art and music."

His second, deep interest was known only by his closest friends: a collection of about 350 banknotes from 70 countries on which the portraits of eminent scientists appear. It is perhaps the most complete collection of 'scientific' banknotes in the world.

Colleague and long-time friend Erio Tosatti of ICTP and SISSA recalls early and leisurely times with Ghirardi, discussing politics besides physics, and even trying some music together — among other things GianCarlo was a professionally competent musician, and an excellent impromptu guitarist. "Another of GianCarlo’s tracts that will not be forgotten is his generosity," said Tosatti. "Given any occasion to help other colleagues, he literally jumped at it, using when necessary his scientific authority and weight as the former president of the Consorzio per la Fisica for example.  One lasting legacy of GianCarlo’s leadership in a field that many considered marginal but was not, is the rich group of former students who follow up his original and hard-headed research line on the intimate nature of quantum phenomena."

Ghirardi maintained a presence at ICTP until the end, interacting almost daily not only with ICTP scientists but also his colleagues from the University of Trieste's Department of Theoretical Physics, whose offices are housed at ICTP. Trieste Professor Fabio Benatti credits Ghirardi for influencing his research direction. "With his passion and clarity of vision, GianCarlo Ghirardi guided my first steps into the enthralling world of quantum mechanics. His vast and diverse knowledge made me appreciate the beauty of science and its deep connections with what lies beyond its limits. Of some consolation in this sad moment is the thought that he may now give a full look at God’s cards," said Benatti, referencing the title of Ghirardi's 1997 book.

Benatti's colleague Professor Angelo Bassi echoed his sentiments, adding, "GianCarlo was also a passionate teacher: he educated and constantly motivated two generations of students while teaching quantum mechanics at the university of Trieste. It is thanks to him if I learnt the foundations of this theory, and if now I am working in this fascinating field of research."

Related Links:

Books by and about GianCarlo Ghirardi in ICTP's Marie Curie Library