Korado Korlević: Searching for stars

Marc Rowlands meets Croatia's best-known astronomer Korado Korlević and learns that not all is what it seems at the world-famous Višnjan Observatory

Written by
Marc Rowlands

'We are living in something called the dream society,' begins Korado Korlević in rather abstract fashion as we meet for lunch. Standing well over six feet tall, aged 61, it is not merely his imposing physical stature and the wisdom of his years that make you submit to his train of thought and listen intently; his incredible reputation precedes him. Korado Korlević is Croatia's most famous astronomer, the public face of the Višnjan Observatory. A relatively small facility, located in continental, northwest Istria, it no less holds a global significance, thanks largely to Korlević’s work. As a result, he is a well-known face in Croatia's media, called on to appear in TV discussion shows, offering informed opinions on science and the future. A kindly, personable soul with tremendous communication skills, he agrees to these requests. But after no short time in his company, it becomes apparent this is not his main motivation. Neither is astronomy, for that matter. Korado Korlević is an educator. 'Society is selling dreams. You can choose if you want to be the buyer or the seller of dreams. We teach that it is better to produce than buy'.

The 'we' Korlević refers to are his fellow teachers in Višnjan. For, although founded as an observatory, the facility has grown to become the Višnjan Science and Education Centre. In classic Istrian fashion, it stands outside of the regular school system and curriculum in Croatia. A privately funded centre of excellence that teaches thousands of students of all abilities between the ages of 11 and 18 from across Croatia, it also welcomes hundreds of youngsters with an aptitude for science, who travel from all over the world to take part in its internationally renowned summer schools. In recent years, over 150 students have visited the camps each summer, travelling to Istria from countries as diverse as France, India, Japan, Canada, USA, Russia, Serbia and Turkey, a much more cosmopolitan cabal even than you would find on Istrian beaches in the same period. But why Višnjan? Why Istria?
'Only stupid people make an observatory in the north Adriatic,' says Korlević, half laughing, half serious. 'You have clouds, rain and fog. But it is not the place of the observatory which is important. It is a place to which kids can travel. It would be better to make an observatory on one of our most remote islands, or on a mountain in the desert in Namibia. No clouds, no light pollution, no nothing. But it would be useless to do so because nobody could come.'

Although he uses Istria's easy accessibility as an explanation, Korlević does so modestly. For Korado Korlević, like his ancestors before him, has always been in Istria. And it is probably true to say that without his foresight, determination and independent nature of thinking, the observatory or education centre would exist here at all.
'I was living in a place where you can really see the stars,' recalls Korlević of his youth spent in the local vicinity. 'But, it doesn't actually mean anything if you just go outside and see little dots in the sky without knowing what they are. I really only saw the stars after I started to read about them. After reading, I realised just how immense space is.'
Books about the stars were not the only thing the youthful Korlević read. A gifted student with a curious mind, by the eighth grade he had read all of the books in his school library. But, in a trait he now sees mirrored in his some of his own students from the locale, his ambitions did not match his abilities. He had every intention of becoming a blacksmith or a tractor driver.
'Often, if you ask kids “What would you like to become?”, many would say “A receptionist in Poreć”, “A waiter”, “A cook”. But when you are working with these kids you see that you have the potential in your hands of a Nobel Prize winner. Their hopes are so low'

After others had to almost force him to attend a well-regarded school in Pula, where his sponge-like mind could finally get the exercise it needed, he completed his studies and shrugged off the opportunity of pursuing high academia. Instead, he returned to Višnjan to take up a post as a teacher in an elementary school.
While still a student there, in 1976, he had already co-founded an astronomical society alongside another student and his teacher. After leaving his post at the elementary school, this modest club, through his tireless endeavours, would eventually become the major observatory and educational centre it is today, its facilities bolstered over the years by donations from private supporters and admiring sectors of the international astronomical community. But it was not always an easy ride.
'In Yugoslavia, the only place where you could coat optics was at a military factory in Sarajevo,' remembers Korlević of the times of war in the '90s. His observatory had already suffered a major setback when Yugoslavia disintegrated as all of their contacts for sharing information had previously been in Russia.
'And so the telescope became an optical instrument of the Bosnia army. I received a letter through the Red Cross in '93 from a commander saying “I am wounded. And probably the telescope will be lost. Sorry”. So, we started to build a new one from scratch. It cost 75 Deutschmarks, about 35 Euros. But, at the end of the war, the Bosnian commander managed to save the optics and returned them. We no longer use them, it is just at the observatory as part of our history. But it is also a part of the history of Sarajevo.'

After the observatory became fully functional again following the war, Korlević more than made up for lost time. In the period just from 1996 to 2001, he discovered 947 asteroids and participated in the discovery of a further 110, placing him as the18th most productive tracer for asteroids of all time. Over 1400 asteroids have been discovered in Višnjan, making it the twelfth most productive observatory of all time. 
'We are a small observatory, run by teachers and students, yet we are the second observatory in the world in terms of support for potentially hazardous objects which might hit the earth,' says Korlević matter-of-factly. 'In the past, we did roughly 38% of the work in that field for the world. Since the beginning of 2019, we have done 54.5% of it. If you compare us with our peers, the Chinese Academy of Science, with 13 full-time employees, or the European Space Agency...'
As alien-looking within the beautiful natural surroundings of sleepy, continental Istria as the objects far from earth which it observes, Višnjan observatory, despite its significance and achievements, is viewed by Korlević as somewhat of a ploy in a greater scheme.
'The observatory for us is like the bait for a fisherman,' he says, smiling warmly. 'It is bright, shiny, sparkly, exciting. But really we only use it to attract the little fish. That is astronomy.'
Now somewhat derisive of the science of astronomy, Korlević has helped direct the educational centre into what he regards as more pioneering and prescient areas. The centre now holds a biological laboratory, a geological laboratory, a lab for advanced technologies and robotics, Korlević being of the opinion that the most valuable sciences of the future will be biology, astrobiology, artificial intelligence, robotics and genetics.

Despite the gradual shift in focus, the same ethos lies at the heart of Korlević's teaching process. Eschewing the systems of modern education, which many think of as an exercise in learning and repetition in order to pass exams, Korlević's approach is to unlock the potential of the mind and to let it run free, aided by imagination and unafraid to learn by making mistakes.
'One of our key mottos is “Best practices are stupid”,' he says. 'Because, if you follow best practices, at best you will always be second. Sometimes this works for us, sometimes it does not. But we always teach our children that they have the capacity to be the first.'
It is a modus operandi that has worked. Despite Višnjan being a quiet, 600 person village, the alumni of Višnjan Science and Education Centre can now be found as leaders in their fields in the world of science and academia. Former students now attend universities like Harvard and Cambridge and graduates include Marija Jurić, a PhD from Princeton, winner of NASA's Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Fellowship and a professor at the University of Washington. Also, Silvia Gradečak, a lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Marina Rejkuba, an astronomer at the European Southern Observatory and Marina Brozović, who works detecting dangerous asteroids in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.
Despite the far-flung diaspora of former students, their teacher remains at home in the peaceful village of Višnjan, teaching by day, watching the skies by night and venturing home for only a few hours daily to enjoy the company of his wife and the menagerie of rescued animals they keep at their home. But, having earned such a name for himself on the global stage of astronomy, had Korlević never considered travelling away from the gently rolling slopes of vineyards and olive groves that surround Višnjan, in pursuit of this science?
'If you are alone, it is simple to travel. If you have a family, it is difficult. If you have students, it is impossible,' says Korado Korlević, as a man adamant his calling was greater than the pursuit of career. 'In the '90s I had an offer to move to Arizona to take a position there, but then one of the kids asked me ‘Professor, what will happen with us when you go away?' I understood then that I had no right to go. I felt like the path of learning they were on was something I had promised them that we would do together. And so that is what I did.'

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