Pizza and Science

"Can I help you?"
"A slice with pepperoni, spinach and cheese, a diet Coke and a double espresso, please."
"We don't do espresso."

"Is Armando in?"

Armando walked in from the back of the restaurant.

"Hello my friend, how are you? What can I do for you?"
"Hi Armando, I would love one of your delicious double espressos, please."
"Of course, no problem my friend."

Espresso was not on the menu, but it was available upon special request.

When I was a postdoc at Harvard, I went to Armando's Pizza & Subs about once a week. The little restaurant was just around the corner from the Center for Astrophysics (CfA) where I worked. One day I saw Armando eat soup at one of the Formica tables. "What are you having?" I asked him. "Minestrone soup," he answered, "do you want some?" He went into the back and returned with another bowl of minestrone soup. It was very delicious, so I asked him why it was not on the menu. Surely many people would love that soup. "I would have to charge five dollars a bowl, because it is a lot of work to prepare. But nobody wants to pay five dollars for soup." Armando had a good business sense. He knew what his clients liked and how much they were willing to pay for it. Like my pepperoni, spinach & cheese slice, which cost $2.40 back then.

Armando was a local hero in Cambridge because he loved kids and avidly supported little league baseball. The walls of his restaurant were covered with pictures of happy-looking little league teams, together with many plaques and trophies. The only other thing on the wall was a picture frame with a faded photo of some Italian town.

In 1997, our research group at CfA, headed by principal investigator Tom Dame, completed a 20-year project observing the Milky Way in molecular clouds by carefully mapping the emission of interstellar carbon monoxide (CO) molecules using a small (1.2-m diameter) radio telescope which resided in a dome on the roof of our building. About 500,000 individual measurements were made and combined into a giant colorful map of our Galaxy. The color is artificial and represents (from blue to green via yellow and orange to red and white) the intensity of the CO emission which in turn is a measure of the total amount of molecular gas along a particular line of sight. We printed a few thousand posters and mailed them to astronomy institutes around the world, and to schools and individuals upon request.


The next time I was at Armando‘s, I asked him about the faded picture. "That’s Benevento, the town where I was born," he said. Benevento is about 90 kilometers north-east of Naples. "It makes me sad to look at it, because I will never return there." He told me that he had a fear of flying and that the boat trip to Italy would take too long. I suggested a solution: a beautiful poster of the Milky Way in Molecular Clouds which just happened to be the same size as the faded picture. I went back to my office and returned ten minutes later with a poster. Armando took down the picture frame and covered his faded painful memory with our crisp scientific poster. In the process of doing that, he accidentally smeared a speck of tomato sauce onto the poster, thereby virtually adding a new molecular cloud to the Milky Way.


I left CfA in 1998, but I have returned to the Boston area frequently. Each time I made sure to pay a visit to Armando's, to say hello and enjoy a delicious slice of pizza. I was very happy (and proud) to see that the CO poster was still on the wall. Two years ago, I noticed that the restaurant had been redecorated. Maybe that is too big a word, but there were all new pictures on the wall. More concerning was the fact that Armando was not there. Apparently, he was semi-retired and only came in once a week. My visit did not coincide with his one day of that week.

Last July I was back again, and this time the guy behind the counter told me that Armando was officially retired. I asked him who was running the place now, and he said that he did. Turned out he was Armando‘s grandson! I told him what my connection to his grandfather was, and he said that he remembered "that poster of the Milky Way in Molecular Clouds." I was astounded because he was not referring to 'some poster' of even 'an astronomy poster’. No, he very accurately described it as the poster of the Milky Way in Molecular Clouds. I wrote down a url ( and asked him to pass it on to his grandfather, together with my warm regards.

Last week Tom Dame informed me that Armando Paolo had died at the age of 81. It was the first time I learned of his last name. To everyone he has always been just Armando. There was an nice obituary in the Boston Globe: Armando came to the United Stated when he was 14 years old. In 1971 he started his pizza restaurant in Cambridge and ran it for 45 years. He will be remembered for his great pizza, his kindness and generosity towards little league baseball, and for adding a new molecular cloud to the Milky Way. I'll ask Tom Dame to name the next molecular cloud he discovers after Armando, in honor of his great contribution to popularize Galactic radio astronomy.

Dap Hartmann is astronoom. Hij werkt als onderzoeker bij de faculteit Techniek, Bestuur en Management.