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People: Marco Ajello Explores New Worlds

Ajello poses on his bike at Streets of Willow Spring, where he was attending the California Superbike School. (He wore a helmet and other protective gear for the actual riding).
(Photo courtesy Marco Ajello.)

Marco Ajello can easily avoid boredom; he has a long list of unanswered questions handy. Since coming to SLAC two years ago, the KIPAC astrophysicist has studied mysteries related to galaxy clusters, black hole-powered active galactic nuclei and high-energy plasma jets.

Recently Ajello worked on a team that used the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope to analyze the gamma-ray emissions from sources outside our galaxy. The team found that jets from active galaxies, a known source of gamma-ray emissions, could account for less than one-third of the total emissions. The origin of the other two-thirds remains a mystery, and a perfect source of more unanswered questions for Ajello's list.

"Finding explanations for the extra emissions is like putting a puzzle together," Ajello said. "It is challenging and interesting at the same time."

The wide-open field of astrophysics, with its many fundamental mysteries, seems like a natural fit for Ajello. Throughout his life he has ventured into the unknown. He earned a master's degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Palermo, but toward the end of his studies he realized he preferred the big questions of science. He earned another master's degree, this time in particle physics, and completed his doctoral work at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany.

The career switch has offered Ajello many opportunities to explore more terrestrial environments. He has collaborated with colleagues around the globe and travelled to conferences across the U.S., taking in the natural beauty of states like Utah and Hawaii. In 2008, Ajello flew to La Silla, Chile, where he was given the chance to use the 3.6-meter Max-Planck-ESO Telescope for six moonless nights.

"The night sky was incredible," he said. "There was a completely clear atmosphere and you could not see a light for hundreds of kilometers."

Ajello's openness to trying new ventures even extends to his hobbies. He skis, scuba dives and rides a motorcycle, this past year travelling more than 7000 miles around the California countryside on his bike. Ajello has also tried surfing, although from what he says, he is not the biggest fan of the Pacific's cold water. He found his latest sporting hobby, squash, almost by accident, with fellow KIPAC researcher Rolf Büheler.

"We normally went rock climbing every week," he said. "But one day the rock climbing gym was closed, and the squash courts were open." Ajello and Büheler now play squash regularly.

What adventure does Ajello have planned next? "In general, I'm pretty open. I could go anywhere," he said.

But SLAC may be lucky enough to hang onto Ajello for a while longer. California's temperate weather and long coastline remind him a little of his native Sicily. "I got here almost by chance," Ajello said, "but I like it."

—Catherine Meyers
SLAC Today, December 8, 2010