Personal Stuff

On-the-ground Support for Ukrainian Citizens

Lifelong Carer for my Parents

Walking on Fire

An Unexpected Honour

A Prestigious Lifeless Performance

Sharing a Stage with my Heroes

The Importance of a Full-time Planetarium Manager ...

The Glasgow Science Centre Solargraph

A Single Revolution

Meeting a Human Transformed by Space

Finding the Key

Winning a Car

School Achievements

Lifelong Carer for my Parents

Most people care about their parents.

I though, was a carer for my parents from age 6 (when I learned to read), until age 55 (when my father passed away aged 92). For half a century I had to assist my parents with their day to day lives; and for a large part of that time I was directly responsible for their well-being.

My parents were poorly educated, neither of them having finished primary school. My father was Sicilian (from a small Medieval village called Piazza Armerina); and my mother was Greek (yet born and raised in Alexandria, Egypt). They met in South Africa in 1965, and I was born the following year.

At age 6 - as soon as I learned to read and speak English - I became their full-time translator. When people came to the door, I had to stop playing and sit with the adults to translate incomprehensible adult matters. At age 10, when television arrived in South Africa, I had to translate the News for my father every evening - both the English and Afrikaans broadcasts. As a teenager, I had to translate every single television programme we watched together as a family (not very pleasant for a grumpy teenager!).

One of the main reasons I emigrated to the UK in 2000, was to move my ageing parents out of South Africa and the deteriorating health system. On acquiring my first full-time job in Armagh, Northern Ireland, I purchased a suitable house (no stairs to climb), on the edge of a secluded housing estate (as my father was easily irritated by noise - plus, I didn't want my parents' incessant bickering disturbing the neighbours!). My parents arrived in the UK on 28 September 2000.

After two years I moved to Glasgow (and three years after that to Birmingham) - all the while having to cover both the house mortgage and my rented accommodation. I visited my parents as often as I could, usually twice a year.

My mother passed away in May 2012 (age 79). I created a memorial website for her, and had a QR link to the site etched on the headstone. My father is buried with her. A few months after my father passed away, their ageing cat died, and we had the cat's ashes scattered on the grave.

As firstborn, I accepted my responsibility towards my parents without questioning it. I sometimes wished I wasn’t ‘chained’ to their needs, but for the most part, this was all I ever knew from a young age and so I just did it. For most of my life my emotional needs have come second to the more pressing needs of the people closest to me.

The term for this is parentification ie. as a child I was 'parentified'. Yet as this article explains, although life is very stressful for children growing up this way, they benefit from early development of psychological and emotional skills associated with solving complex adult problems.

So I guess as with most challenges in life, this too came with a silver lining.

Walking on Fire

[LinkedIn post I published in June 2020 during the pandemic, while starting up my Honeycomb Dome sales venture]

Would you deliberately walk on fire? Can you imagine yourself walking barefoot across a bed of coals glowing at 500ºC? I’ve done just that (see me in the red shirt below) - but was it a religious rite, motivational seminar or science experiment?

For me it felt like a science experiment. Yet I found it VERY empowering.

I was manager of the Glasgow Planetarium (you can see the dome behind me) and the company we booked for the charity fundraiser emphasised the scientific aspect of walking on fire and not the more popular woo-woo nonsense.

So, if it was carefully explained to you why skin doesn't burn over short fire walks of 3 to 4 meters, would you attempt it?

Fire walking is popular because it helps us realise many of our beliefs are self-limiting ie.

🔥 if you believe the coal will burn you, you will never walk on fire

🔥 if you believe it’s necessary to conform to society’s expectations, you’ll never do anything positively disruptive with your life

🔥 if I believe I can only earn a living visiting schools, I won’t succeed selling social distancing domes to restaurants during pandemics.

I’d LOVE to know:

  ➤ have you walked on fire?
➤ would you like to walk on fire?
➤ have you ever turned down an opportunity to walk on fire?

An Unexpected Honour

On 20 October 2018 a colleague and I delivered a double dome immersive experience at the Royal Academy of Arts (London), for an evening event called Cosmic Ocean.

The Royal Academy of Arts is based in Burlington House, Piccadilly - which is also the home of the Linnean Society (established 1788), a learned society dedicated to the study of natural history and taxonomy.

Our domes were set up in the Reynolds Room, where, on 1st July 1858, research papers by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace were presented, and the world first heard about the origin of species by natural selection.

When I saw the commemorative panel in the room I couldn't believe my eyes (and my luck!), and photographed it with one of my projection boxes in front of it.

Interestingly, botanist and explorer Joseph Dalton Hooker (who was present when the papers were delivered) wrote that after the presentation 'the room was awestruck and completely silent, with a lack of discussion about the papers, possibly due to the subject being too novel and ominous'.

Even more interesting, the president of the Linnean Society at the time clearly had no idea what momentous changes this discovery would bring, writing in his annual review: "The year which has passed ... has not, indeed, been marked by any of those striking discoveries which at once revolutionise, so to speak, the department of science on which they bear."

How astounding that visionary, brilliant people are so often not appreciated by those around them at the time.

A Prestigious Lifeless Performance

On the evening of 5th November 2009, I suffered a 'fatal heart attack' and a public 'autopsy' was performed on me in the Royal Institution Lecture Theatre (London) - the prestigious auditorium where Michael Faraday first demonstrated electromagnetism (1831) and where the annual Christmas Lectures have been held since 1825.

My wife Ruth was Public Engagement Manager at the Royal College of Pathologists, and I had volunteered to be the 'cadaver' at a special National Pathology Week event involving a mock autopsy. It was called Heart Attack: Behind the Scenes, was held in partnership with the British Heart Foundation, and after my mock autopsy it included the dissection of a real pig's heart.

By now I had become quite good at lying perfectly still for an hour or more (while having my body drawn on with coloured markers). Ruth had launched the very first National Pathology Week the year before, and so I'd experienced a number of 'autopsies' at the hands of various pathologists around the country before this particular event.

The secret to lying perfectly still is to 'zone out' and either focus intently on the lecture, or something else altogether (while keeping away from certain topics of course). The most challenging part is ignoring dozens of imaginary (and occasionally not-so-imaginary) itches and prickles that clamber for attention.

The following year I performed at another unique venue, London's Old Operating Theatre, Britain's oldest operating theatre dating back to 1822. As you can see from the feedback, apparently I was uncannily convincing as a corpse.

One of my first appearances was at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons

I even appeared in an article in the November 2010 edition of Funeral Service Times!

Sharing a Stage with my Heroes

In June 2006 I was invited to be a speaker on the Tea, Talk and Telescope lecture series, hosted by the School of Physics and Astronomy of the University of Birmingham.

I delivered an illustrated presentation about aliens, sceptical thinking and astrobiology, called Aliens on Earth. I developed this talk while at Armagh Planetarium and had presented it a number of times before (see below). Sceptical thinking and the possibility of extraterrestrial life have always been two of my greatest passions.

The Tea, Talk and Telescope lecture series ran from 2006-2014 and featured a number of academics and researchers I greatly admired - and even considered my heroes - like David Malin, Brian Cox, David H. Levy and Prof. John Brown.

In 1999, on making the decision to emigrate to the UK from South Africa, I very much looked forward to attending lectures by such people.

Therefore, considering my humble origins, I never expected - only seven years later - to be sharing the stage with some of these renowned science communicators.

One of the first times I delivered Aliens on Earth was in October 2001, as part of a prestigious lecture series called Life In The Universe, hosted by University College, Dublin. On this occasion I 'shared the stage' with Prof. Chandra Wickramasinghe, author John Gribbin, and astrophysicist Dr Duncan Steel. I was delighted to learn from the organiser of the lecture series (via my boss, the director of Armagh Planetarium) that he considered my lecture better than John Gribbin's and Duncan Steel's.

The Importance of a Full-time Planetarium Manager ...

...especially if your planetarium equipment costs more than £1 million.

In June 2004, due to funding challenges at GSC (Glasgow Science Centre), the CEO decided to make the critical post of Planetarium Manager redundant ... and soon I was to be out of a job.

After much protestation from both within the science centre (ie. my director and my line manager); and from without (eg. the Astronomer Royal for Scotland and the Armagh Observatory director); GSC management created a new position for me called Education Co-ordinator - Astronomy.

This new post allowed me to continue having oversight of the planetarium on a reduced salary (£27,000), YET the science centre would only cover the first three months of the new salary. After that, I could only remain at GSC if I found the money to cover my own salary!

The job description read: "A primary responsibility of this position will be to actively pursue sponsorship and fundraising opportunities, with the goal of eventually fully supporting the post through external funding".

Another critical duty was: "To supervise the day to day operations of the ScottishPower Planetarium, including all initial troubleshooting, ensuring problem-free operations seven days a week, 362 days a year."

So, aside from the stress of operating a £1 million theatre successfully 7 days a week, 362 days a year; I now also had to find my own salary!

Of course no-one believed I could do this, and everyone expected me to be gone by November.

Boy were they surprised (I remember the look on the CEO's face), when just a month later, I had raised £12,200 towards my salary!

The money came from the German company Carl Zeiss, the manufacturer of the planetarium star projector.

On hearing about my plight, Zeiss reduced the annual £33,000 Service & Maintenance contract by 37% - on condition the savings would go towards keeping me employed. In their letter to GSC they said they felt comfortable reducing the fee because the projector was in great condition due to my 'excellent technical management of the system' as 'manager of the planetarium'.

In other words: sophisticated planetarium equipment requires the oversight of a dedicated planetarium manager if it is to operate optimally.

Unlike the relatively easy-to-operate fulldome (360° video) planetarium systems of today, traditional planetarium theatres consisted of a sophisticated array of mechanical projectors linked to diverse operating systems and computers.

This was the front page of the planetarium presenters' training manual I created:

And this was the goodbye card I gave my team when I left in November 2004:

Despite the financial support from Carl Zeiss, I decided it was time to leave this science centre that clearly had no idea how to maintain a world-class planetarium. I successfully applied for the position of Planetarium Manager of the soon-to-be-built Thinktank Planetarium in Birmingham (the UK's first purpose-built digital dome), and took up my new post in December 2004.

Many would agree it was unwise to make the full-time position of GSC Planetarium Manager redundant. In fact, soon after I left, there was a change of leadership at GSC, and the new CEO offered me a 6-month contract to provide planetarium support remotely.

Certain positions are mission-critical to the operation of a successful science centre. Yet in the three years I was at GSC (2001-2004), I saw numerous science team positions made redundant.

The infuriating thing was that the Marketing, Human Resources and Finance teams never suffered redundancies. Are such teams more mission-critical to a science centre than the scientific staff?

In the words of a perceptive member of the GSC overnight security team when I explained I was being made redundant: ‘Why is it those who work late and the longest hours that keep being made redundant?’

Museum Cutbacks

The Glasgow Science Centre Solargraph

** Purchase this original pinhole camera image as a Non-Fungible Token (NFT) **

In 2003 I heard that Tarja Trygg, a researcher at the Aalto University School of Art and Design in Finland, was giving away free pinhole cameras and creating A World Map of Solargraphs.

A pinhole camera consists of a piece of photo-sensitive paper (film), inside a small, dark cylinder with a tiny pinhole in it. The camera is positioned facing south, and when the Sun is out, it slowly burns a narrow trail across the film - with each day's trail slightly higher than the previous one (if moving toward midsummer), or slightly lower (if moving toward midwinter).

I promptly requested a few pinhole cameras, and on the Winter Solstice (21 December 2003, when the Sun was at its lowest position in the sky), I set one up facing the Glasgow Science Centre, across the River Clyde.

Six months later, on the Summer Solstice (21 June 2004, when the Sun was at its highest position in the sky), I took the camera down and sent it to Tarja Trygg for developing.

The result was the following breathtakingly beautiful - and unusually bright and colourful - solar artwork, or 'solargraph'

From left to right can be seen the IMAX cinema, the Glasgow Science Centre (GSC) and the Tower. Aside from the rich colours, this solargraph is outstanding because the Sun's tracks have also been captured as reflections on the river.

The Astronomer Royal for Scotland at the time, Prof. John Campbell Brown, was so impressed by this solargraph he included it in an article he wrote for the February 2014 edition of The Scots Magazine (the oldest consumer magazine still in print, first published in 1739). He also included the GSC Solargraph in his book Oor Big Braw Cosmos (2019)

In November 2004, on leaving the Glasgow Science Centre (where I worked as Planetarium Manager for three years), my planetarium colleagues (known as the A-team; 'A' for astronomy) gave me a signed farewell t-shirt with the GSC Solargraph printed on it.

On 30 March 2005, while on holiday in Finland, I popped in to meet Tarja Trygg, and of course wore my GSC Solargraph t-shirt.

In 2007 I captured a second solargraph from the planetarium office at Thinktank Science Museum, and both solargraphs are now part of Tarja Trygg's World Map of Solargraphs.

My favourite version of the GSC Solargraph though, is this one, worn by my wife

A Single Revolution

[Blog post I published at 21:30 on Saturday 30th December 2000, in Armagh, Northern Ireland]

Exactly one year ago, almost at this precise moment, the wheels of my Virgin Atlantic flight lifted off South African soil.

When that moment came, and I felt the thud of the undercarriage beneath me, I smiled and breathed a sigh of relief: I knew I had succeeded in finally leaving that unfortunate, deteriorating country - safe and in one piece.

Yet I knew a tremendous challenge lay before me. All on my own, I was entering a new, unfamiliar environment. A wintry world where I spoke funny and felt awkward and uncomfortable.

The first two weeks were the worst. The very first entry in my 2000 diary reads: "Went to bed in a bit of a panic...asking myself 'what have you done to your life?'"

Traveling to and from work on a bicycle in the middle of winter during my first three months in the UK was no joke either. Yet I stuck it out, marking days off my calendar until things improved.

I'm really glad I didn't throw in the towel.

And tonight, sitting in my comfortable warm room, with the snow lying thick outside, I can't believe that my diary once again reads 30th December ... and that Africa is far away."

My precious one-way ticket out:

Do I miss South Africa?

The security of quality health care : when I look at my ageing parents and notice how ill-health is creeping up on them, I no longer worry about where we'll find the money to take them to a private hospital (to avoid the pressing thousands of South Africans queuing at state hospitals).

No bugs : when I switch on the kitchen light, I no longer see cockroaches scurrying for cover (vermin that are always there, despite your best efforts to keep a clean home).

No danger : when I look out my bedroom window at night, I no longer see lurking people and threatening shadows in the dark. There is absolutely no-one around - only the occasional taxi that serves as transport for the neighbour across the way.

Meeting a Human Transformed by Space

On 15 May 2000 I met Dr Edgar Mitchell, the 6th person to walk on the Moon, at a special dinner event in Belfast.

He described how in October 1957 (with the launch of Sputnik 1) he immediately wanted to be an astronaut, even before the word 'astronaut' was invented.

Just like astronauts before him - and many of those that have followed him down to our day - going into Space changed his core values, and his life, forever. This is known as the Overview Effect, and below you can enjoy a superb 17-min video describing this phenomenon (and see Mitchell put it in his own words).

"You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, "Look at that, you son of a bitch"

- Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14, on seeing the Earth from the Moon

Finding the Key

On the outskirts of the 1000-year old Sicilian village Piazza Armerina, there is a small olive grove called Sarafina. It is the oldest and only remaining plot of the once more extensive cultivated lands of the Di Maggio family. Many of the olive trees (heavily pruned in 1990) are hundreds of years old.

In August 1997, while on a family visit to Sarafina, I made a surprising discovery in one of the olive trees. Inside a knothole in a tree just to the left of the ruins of the old storehouse (below), something glinted in the sun.

On investigating, I pulled out a large, rusty key. It turned out to be the long-forgotten storehouse door key, safe in its hiding place for over 50 years.

Winning a Car

One day in mid-1988, while completing my teaching qualification in Durban, I walked into a shopping centre and saw a beautiful, new metallic grey Honda Ballade being raffled by the Durban Community Chest charity. Tickets cost R2.00 (back then the equivalent of £0.50), and so I purchased two. Yet I did so cautiously, scanning the shopping centre carefully before walking up to the competition desk, to ensure no-one recognised me.

Back then I was a Jehovah's Witness, and a ministerial servant (junior minister) at that.

As a Jehovah's Witness, I knew it was 'wrong' to enter lucky draws, lotteries, or take part in any form of 'gambling'. Yet I was about to begin my Community Service sentence later that year - meaning I'd be completely skint for the next six years, plus the car I was driving was nearing the end of its life - so I figured 'god' would understand.

I put the tickets away and promptly forgot about them.

Later that year I finished my university studies, refused compulsory military service, and was sentenced to six years of Community Service. I then moved into a new apartment very near the Durban Botanic Gardens, where I began my Community Service on 1st December 1988.

To celebrate the new apartment and the start of my sentence, I invited family and friends from Pietermaritzburg (where I grew up) to Durban; and we attended a Symphonic Rock concert at the city hall on Friday 9th December.

On returning to the apartment after a walk on the beachfront, the phone rang - which was unusual for that time of night, particularly as it was a brand new number. I answered ... and was informed I had just won a brand new motor car worth R30,000.

Interestingly, as the newspaper clipping below describes (it appeared in the press the following Saturday morning), I was the only finalist not at the big draw event that night (because I had moved address and they couldn't trace me). So after the big draw, the Public Relations Officer went to my old apartment, and discovered from a neighbour that we were originally from Pietermaritzburg. She then looked up 'Di Maggio' in the Pietermaritzburg phone directory and found my parents, who gave her my number.

Of course my great joy at winning a brand new motor car (when I needed it most), was severely dampened by some of the more extreme Jehovah's Witnesses. I received a phone call from an elder that Saturday morning, to see if I was the Di Maggio in the newspaper article, and to check whether I would be turning down the prize. Happily other elders were more supportive, and left the decision entirely up to me.

I was nevertheless in a bit of a quandary, because as you can see from the Watchtower magazine article below, entering 'lotteries' is frowned upon ... let alone winning them! My standing as a junior minister would be severely tarnished if I accepted the prize and my photo appeared in the press.

Extract from The Watchtower, 15 July 1989, p30

Is it appropriate for a Christian to buy lottery tickets if the proceeds go to a charity?

Some people have reasoned that being involved in a lottery is not wrong or bad because the cost of a ticket (chance) may be small, because those participating do so willingly, and because some of the proceeds may be used for a charitable purpose, such as helping the poor. How valid is such reasoning?

While some claim that buying a lottery ticket is simple, low-cost entertainment, there is no denying the greed factor. If a Christian felt any impulse to ‘take a chance’ in a lottery, he should think seriously about the greed on which the lottery is based. Ephesians 5:3 says that ‘greediness should not even be mentioned among us,’ much less given in to by a Christian.

Even if the cost of a lottery ticket would not significantly harm someone’s personal or family finances, that does not mean that others are not harmed. Why so? Because almost anyone buying a lottery ticket would like to win. From where would his prize money come? If his ticket cost ten pesos and the prize is a million pesos, that means that he takes the ticket money from a hundred thousand other people. Does that harmonize with God’s counsel against coveting others’ valuables? (Deuteronomy 5:21) 

Moreover, his winning will probably be publicized, moving many to begin playing the lottery or buying more tickets, even if they cannot afford this.

If a Christian genuinely wants to help the poor, handicapped, or elderly, he certainly can do so directly or in a way that does not involve gambling.

Despite the above being the 'official' teaching of the Watchtower Society, the Book Study group I was in (consisting mainly of Italian Jehovah's Witnesses) all rejoiced for me. As far as they were concerned, this prize was God's reward for all my hard work in the church, and for taking a resolute stand against military service.

In fact, the young Italian elder in charge of the group came up with a solution to my quandary.

He called me up late on Saturday night and blurted out: "Who is Mario Di Maggio?!" His point being, my father (not a JW) was also called Mario Di Maggio - so he should appear in the newspaper accepting the prize, instead of me. And this is what we did (although in the follow-up article below the journalist got some of the details wrong due to the language barrier):

On receiving the brand new motor car, I promptly sold it to a second-hand dealership; and with the proceeds purchased a used Opel Ascona, a hi-fi system and other odds and ends for the apartment.

I was now all set for my Community Service ordeal - thanks to the Creator of the Universe, who clearly didn't agree with the dictates of the Watchtower Society!

School Achievements

I worked hard and did well at school. It was a welcome escape from an unhappy life at home. I particularly enjoyed secondary school, an all-boys school (then) called Alexandra Boys' High.

Academically I wasn't naturally brilliant, and English was only my third language (on my first day in primary school, aged 6, I only knew two English words: 'sorry' and 'toilet'). Nevertheless, I was a dedicated student and surprised myself when I began doing well at secondary school - both academically and in sport (basketball).

In my final year I ended up being the school Dux (top academic pupil), and I had made the provincial basketball team. The previous year I completed five years of supplementary Italian school lessons, also top of my class.

I guess the most important thing I learned from my school career is that natural talent is not a requirement for success. Hard work and dedication can achieve the exact same thing.

I couldn't attend the 40th Reunion in 2024, so I volunteered to create and maintain a commemorative website for the Class of '84 - which has been be both a pleasure and a privilege.

(my name at school was Mariano instead of Mario - an error made by my parents [who didn't speak English] when they prepared my birth certificate. I had my name changed to Mario on my passport years later)

If I had not become a Jehovah's Witness during my third year of secondary school, I suspect I may have done even better at school. Whereas in my first and second years I was top of my class academically, in my third year I came second, and in my fourth I came third. Being a Jehovah's Witness was distracting at first, and my grades suffered. I recall my concerned history teacher, Eric Frangenheim, pointing this out. The other thing that added undue stress in my third year, was being promoted to the 1st basketball team while still a junior (which adversely affected my performance). Nevertheless, in the end I rallied, finishing first academically and making the provincial basketball team.

An Afrikaans poem I composed, on the theme of having a light conscience, published in the annual school magazine

 'People ask me the key to success in business or in life, and it is this: you don’t have to be perfect every day; you just have to give your best and be really good every day and do it for years consistently. The compounding effect over time is unbelievable. Over years you’re going to be really successful if you're consistent'
- John C. Maxwell, The School of Greatness, The Art of Manliness

"Excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives - choice, not chance, determines your destiny" - Aristotle

The Girl

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