Science @ Festivaletteratura 2016

In a few days will occur the 20th birthday of Festivaletteratura, a major literature festival that takes place in the beautiful Renaissance city of Mantova, in northern Italy. In this context, since quite a long time already, I have the chance to give advise on the organization of events of scientific dissemination and discussion.

As a scientist, I try to inflate the same ethos that inspires (or should inspire) scientific inquiry, avoiding fags and stereotypes, inviting real experts, asking them to go in-depth where necessary, presenting all of the doubts and weaknesses behind scientific discovery*. With time, I noticed that the public was more interested in the content matter, rather than in its narration, which prompted me to propose (among others) a series of shorter events, at the blackboard, where scientists would be able to attack one and only one concept or key technical aspect of their work that they deem important.


Gian Francesco del Giudice

Francesca Vidotto


Giovanni Bietti

It is impossible to measure whether these events are a success (they are always incredibly crowded, but they are also ticket-free in a crowded situation…), but that’s not the point. People come and listen, sitting on the staircase of the beautiful cathedral of Mantova, and despite the fact that on average they only understand, say, 1% of what is being said (which includes a handful that understands 50% and have their perspective on something completely subverted…), I believe that this event succeeds in giving them the impression that knowledge is a very, very subtle issue. This is way more important than being fascinated by 100% of the usual misleading metaphors that only serve to deceive people into supporting… science?!

In proposing this kind of events, I need to get out of the modes of the industry of mass culture, of “infotainment”, and of “science popularization”, which, using the words of one of our guests this year, most often lead to a conception of  “science-as-Hollywood with its superstars, their vanity  bolstered by the media industry, and a new style of popular science publishing.” [H. Collins, Gravity’s Ghost]. I hope, with this kind of operation, to help avoiding what could be “the fate of science – to be a secular religion servicing the economy and the entertainment industry. But science […] has the potential to lead, not just follow.” [ibid.]

On this line, this year Festivaletteratura presents a multi-faceted project on Gravitational Waves, one event on Darwinism revisited, one about science vs. humanities, and somewhat off the main track a recollection of Ivan Illich’s thought. Below, I attempt a very coarse translation of the texts I wrote in Italian into English.

THE SOUND OF GRAVITY – A new window on the universe (Alberto Vecchio & Amedeo Balbi)

At 11:50:45 (UTC+1) of September 14, 2015, three mirrors oscillate for less of a millionth of the dimensions of a proton. It is the signal of the first gravitational wave ever observed by humankind. According to Einstein’s theory, every accelerated object emits a wave that propagates through the whole Universe. The direct observation of such waves has for long eluded direct observation and deluded more than one scientist. Gravitational waves are extremely weak, so much so that to detect them it took one of the most complex scientific enterprises of all times, the LIGO-Virgo collaboration. Wherefrom comes a gravitation wave, and how do we observe it? What new prospects for the observation of the universe?

THE SOUND OF GRAVITY – Information’s long pilgrimage: from black holes to scientific discovery (Eugenio Coccia e Harry Collins)

According to Stephen Hawking not only does God play dice, but sometimes he throws them where they cannot be seen: inside a black hole, an infinitely deep well of information. Nevertheless, recently we “heard” the merging of two black holes. To finally reconstruct this piece of information we needed one of the biggest research projects of all times, the LIGO-Virgo collaboration. Physicist Eugenio Coccia (Virgo experiment) and sociologist Harry Collins (infiltrated into the LIGO-Virgo collaboration) intertwine a dialogue on several meta-levels, on what is a gravitational wave, and what is the scientific fact “gravitational wave”.

THE SOUND OF GRAVITY – Waves of knowledge (Harry Collins)

When a gravitational wave hits a detector, scientists have to decide whether that event is “real”. Its ripples then further propagate to the scientific community and to society, before it is eventually accepted. Then, is scientific knowledge a social construct?

THE SOUND OF GRAVITY – Black Holes: alfa & omega of the Universe (Eugenio Coccia)

“The black hole teaches us that space can be crumpled like a piece of paper into an infinitesimal dot, that time can be extinguished like a blown-out flame, and that the laws of physics that we regard as ‘sacred,’ as immutable, are anything but.” (J. A. Wheeler).

THE SOUND OF GRAVITY – GW150914 (Alberto Vecchio)

When two black holes collide, keeping a long distance it is possible to pick up their sign. With some simple graphics and basic notions of physics it is possible to establish what is GW150914, the first gravitational wave ever observed by humankind.

Is Darwinism through a crisis? (Massimo Pigliucci & Guido Barbujani)

How can the variety of biological species be explained, with the mechanisms of mutation and selection only? Darwin himself posed this dilemma, as he dedicated a whole chapter of On the origin of species to difficulties of his own theory. His doubts propagate until today: the field of evolutionary biology is undergoing a phase of internal criticism, where defendants of the so-called Modern Synthesis, proposed in the years ’30 and ’40 of last century, face the advocates of a new Extended Synthesis that might amplify the Darwinism of the origins. Is this a scientific revolution? Or is it just a small – but due – change of route? Or else, just sheer polemics?

Human races? (Guido Barbujani)

While the concept of races looses weight among scientists, the rapid transformations that our society is undergoing are digging it out. The idea of race seems to be intuitive, yet now that we understand well the DNA we realize that there are is no such thing as distinct biological races.

Science without philosophy? (Massimo Pigliucci)

According to Albert Einstein, scientists are not intellectual unless they are also philosophers, while for Stephen Hawking philosophy is useless because it does not advance science. Where does it come from, and where it goes, the spreading variance between technical and human sciences?

Blogging as a modest exercise of intellectualism (Massimo Pigliucci)

The figure of the intellectual as a reference point on topics of social relevance is through a crisis, despite blogs and social networks are formidable instruments to broadcast their thought. The biologist and philosopher Massimo Pigliucci talks about his experience in the public arena, and about the attitude that both parts (academics and the laymen) should keep in order to make the conversation fruitful.

Ivan Illich: nemesis of modernity (Franco La Cecla and Piero Zanini)

“Societies in which most people depend for most of their goods and services on the personal whim, kindness, or skill of another are called underdeveloped, while those in which living has been transformed into a process of ordering from an all-encompassing store catalogue are called advanced.” Ivan Illich was one of the deepest and most radical and organic critics of modernity, and of the corruption of its institutions, including school, health, and religion. The anthropologist Franco La Cecla and the geographer Piero Zanini will confront with the impressive actuality of his thought, which is often abused, ignored, and misinterpreted.

Binge (Franco La Cecla)

A binge of words and images about food are devastating its sense. The mystification goes through the very  presumption that food is a cultural fact.

Welcome do Padania: the geography of landscape disaster (Filippo Minelli, Emanuele Galesi, Paola Bonora and Wu Ming 1)

[Come documentato con ironia nel progetto grafico Padania Classics, la “macroregione padana” esiste: un susseguirsi di capannoni vuoti, strade, svincoli e varianti, cantieri abbandonati, cave, discariche, parcheggi, centri commerciali, rotatorie, compro oro, piantumata a finti palmeti e insegne aziendali, costellata di spazi pubblicitari, teli forati arancioni, new jersey di plastica bianca e rossa. La decadenza paesaggistica è solo uno degli aspetti del fenomeno complesso del consumo di suolo, che divora territorio senza fine (in tutti i sensi della parola) e senza alcuna pianificazione, con ricadute in ogni ambito della geografia umana. Una chiacchierata tra l’artista ideatore del progetto Filippo Minelli, il giornalista Emanuele Galesi e la geografa Paola Bonora (Fermiamo il consumo di suolo), introdotti da Wu Ming 1 (Cent’anni a Nordest).]


* Actually, because I only invite active scientists who do not make their life out of science popularization and other “derivative values” of science [cit. Collins],  I do not have to ask them to attain to these principles. Most often, I actually have to play the devil’s advocate and try to avoid some obvious communication errors – like presenting 80 slides in a one-hour talk etc.




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