The shepherd who counted stars

The tiny village of Kerastari hosts some of the greatest minds in radio astronomy each year thanks to Dr Tassos Tzioumis

“It all started by accident. While travelling around the world and attending conferences, I often used to tell my colleagues about my village, Kerastari. When in 2002 we started discussing organising our first international congress, I suggested we host it in my village. They accepted the idea wholeheartedly

Every five years, in the village of Kerastari in the ancient region of Arcadia in Greece, experts in radio astronomy from all around the world meet to discuss their latest scientific discoveries and astronomical techniques.
With the last three international radio astronomy conferences being held in the picturesque Kerastari, nestled in the mountains of ancient Arcadia, in the Peloponnese region of Greece, one question inevitably comes to mind – what has this village done to find itself on the global map of radio astronomy?
The name Anastasios Tassos Tzioumis says it all. It was the village of Kerastari that nurtured and gave to the world today an internationally renowned radio astronomer, researcher at the CSIRO’s department of Australia Telescope National Facility and the Australian Government representative at the International Telecommunication Union in Geneva.
Apart from all the titles that come with his name, for Sydney based Tzioumis it is equally, if not more important to mention his native village of Kerastari Arcadias.
On the CSIRO website, where its researchers and scientists have their own space to write few words about themselves, the page of Tassos Tzioumis first reads:
“My village is called Kerastari and it is located almost precisely in the middle of Peloponisos. It is not marked on most maps. It is at an elevation of about 1000 metres above sea level.”
Born and raised as a ‘peasant’ and shepherd in a tiny village in Greece, like many other villagers he decided to migrate. Since 1970, he has called Australia home. The homeland will always be just Kerastari.
So attached to his homeland was he that on his initiative, the three last International Radio Astronomy and Astrophysics Conferences were held there, attended by the most renowned names of this field from around the world.
“It all started by accident. While travelling around the world and attending conferences, I often used to tell my colleagues about my village, Kerastari. When in 2002 we started discussing organising our first international congress, I suggested we host it in my village. They accepted the idea wholeheartedly,” Dr Tzioumis tells Neos Kosmos.
So successful was the conference, and so mesmerized were the attendees with Kerastari, that two more conferences – in 2007 and 2012 – followed. And it is most likely there will be a sequel to it, as the native of Kerastari Mr Tzioumis had the unreserved support of his fellow villagers and Municipality of Tripoli.
Making it possible for the conference to take place in a tiny village was a hostel – built by another Kerastari native from the diaspora – with a function area to host around 200 people, and enough rooms to host international scientists.
In June last year, a workshop ‘From Antikythera to the Square Kilometre Array: Lessons from the Ancients’ was held, linking modern and ancient astronomical technology through the Antikythera theme, exploring the evolution of astrometry and computing from ancient Greece to the present. Technologies used to unravel the secrets of the Antikythera mechanism, an ancient computer from about 100BC which used bronze gears to make astronomical calculations based on cycles of the solar system, were compared at this conference.
It seems that from the pastures of Kerastari, Tassos Tzioumis found himself on the chaotic pathways to the universe. Born in Kerastari, he migrated to Australia in 1970 having finished his second year of Tripoli Gymnasium.
“The choice of radio astronomy was random,” he says.
“In the village, I used to help my father with sheep flocks. Often I used to take the flock and pasture them. At the age of 18, I migrated to Sydney. I worked for two years, made money, learned the language. I was accepted at the University of Sydney with scholarship, and studied Physics, Maths and Electrical Engineering.”
After working as an assistant professor, and completing his doctorate, it took Mr Tzioumis another five years for a masters degree in astronomy.
“I have three degrees and I confess that the Australian government helped me to achieve this,” he says today.
The shepherd turned astronomer doesn’t forget Greece and his village easily. He renovated his family house in the village, voted at last year’s Greek elections, while his son served in the Greek army.
He works with Greek colleagues and says he is willing to help Greece in any way he can in the field of science.
The passion for stars and physics of a child from Arcadia paved his way to become a brilliant scientist.
In the Greek province of ’70, with poverty and non-existent opportunities, he went on a search for greener pastures. With only travel tickets in his pocket, he boarded the plane and then the ship that took him to Australia.
The first of six children of a poor village family, Tassos didn’t have the money for a return ticket in case the atmosphere in Australia didn’t suit him.
“My father told me: ‘Go and see. If you do not like it, I’ll borrow money for you to come back.’ “
In Australia, he found his maternal uncles and aunt. His aunt, a dynamic woman who had overcome all the obstacles that the time she lived in carried for women, and managed to become an English teacher thousands of miles away from home, was the one who encouraged Tassos to make the long journey to success.
Today, the six children of the Tzioumis family, who soon after followed in the footsteps of their brother Tassos, are economists, computer engineers, lawyers, doctors, and biologists.
He explains that “radio astronomy deals with the study of electromagnetic radiation, emitted from celestial objects at radio frequencies. The sources of radio emission include stars and galaxies, the sun and interstellar matter, and can be detected through radio receivers.”
When you listen to your radio, use a mobile phone or watch TV, you are using a device that receives radio waves.
And on our question “what is it good for?” he replies: “It can be used in many ways. Radio astronomy will perhaps one day answer the question of whether there is life in other galaxies. Even the wi-fi, which is an Australian patent, was accidentally discovered through radio astronomy.”
Wi-fi, as Mr Tzioumis tells Neos Kosmos, was discovered by a CSIRO researcher where he holds a managerial position.
“And this discovery and patent brought to our organisation $ 400 million,” he adds.