Science @ Festivaletteratura 2017

Festivaletteratura, one of the most important literary events in Europe, took place last week (6th-10th) in the beautiful renaissance city of Mantova (where incidentally I was born). Ever since 2005 I’ve been organizing some scientific events in this context (here some impressions from the previous edition).

I hate to call these events “divulgation” for the reason that, in a way, I find that scientific popularization most often serves the purpose of  exposing people to science without involving them in a process of reasoning.  As if science were a sort of very advanced commodity, a cultural product whose need is induced by social pressure, and that can be picked in those supermarkets of ideas that are festivals. Or, in the worst cases, as if science were just another piece of infotainment, akin to sport news.

I hate the assumption that because people do not understand science in any case, it’s better to serve them some very inaccurate metaphors that they will swallow and immediately forget. For this reason at Festivaletteratura I try to raise the bar several inches above: I want to provoke people by giving them factual elements of that huge complexity of things people call “science”. Over the years, myself (and Festivaletteratura as a whole) have come to prefer more creative formats than the usual frontal event, where an author is interviewed by a journalist plus time for questions from the audience. I find that this sort of events are not best to transmitting ideas, expecially in science. I still organize a few of them, but just as advertisement or as conclusion of something bigger and deeper that has been going on behind.

My main project this year was Hackspace Festivaletteratura, a place to learn about the fundamentals of informatics, for young boys and adults. Here the presentation on the Festival’s program [rough translation from the Italian version]:

Today we’re born “digital”, but how many of us are conscious of what happens inside the integrated circuits under the screen of their smartphones? To understand the mechanisms of informatics and learn how to govern them, it’s necessary to start an historical travel back in time to the first steps of electronics, and, at the same time, a physical travel within the computer: opening the box, disassemblying the microprocessor, looking at the single transistor, dismembering the algorithms. In other words: hacking! No worries, nothing illegal: a hackspace is just a permanent laboratory, a community space where informatics and technology lovers meet to share experiences. At Hackspace Festivaletteratura there will be an active community of experts that will give rise to spontaneous trails into the heart of informatics. It will be possible to give new life to old rickety PCs, put one’s own hands on a single bit, and see and touch with hands some fo the calculators that made the history of informatics, made available by the Museum of the History of Informatics of the University of Verona and by some passionate friends who have actually seen the computer born and grow (them, truly “digital natives”).

There we (myself and a great group of volunteers headed by Emanuele Penocchio) organized several laboratories and other mini-lectures, plus various activities revolving around Arduino, all of which were a great success. The logic of the laboratories was incremental: first, by building their own marble adding machine with lego, people would have to reason how binary mathematical operations can be made mechanical; then, with some relè and cables they would have to understand logical gates; third step was to use Commodore 64 to understand the interface between man and machine, and finally Scratch provided the perfect coding language to understand what programming is all about. Here some pictures:


The local newspaper also featured a very nice video presenting the hackspace, it’s nearly the first time that some of the scientific contents I propose make it to the news:


Another format that is very successful at Festivaletteratura are the blackboard talks, where we invite experts to give challenging lectures, that are intended to be exemplary of academic discussions and teaching. This year we had computer scientist Scott Aaronson, one of the major experts on quantum computation, delivering a fun blackboard lecture on very big numbers (here he blogs about it), and physicist Fabrizio Illuminati, expert on quantum information and quantum optics, giving a lecture on quantum-to-classical transition. The two of them finally dialogued on the future of quantum computation and related themes.


Finally, every year Festivaletteratura gives large space to environmental issues et similia. When talking about the interaction society-environment, it’s impossible not to go into the subtleties of what is innovation, what is technology, whether technological fixes are possible and even desirable, and more at large what are scientism and antiscientism. This year I interviewed sociologist of science Massimiano Bucchi on these themes. There came out a deep and challenging discussion that made critical points about the rhetoric of innovation, avoiding easy discourse. To the point where, when at the end of the conversation a person from the audience asked a very vehement question (well, a sermon more than a question, that always happens) about the responsibilities of science in the disruption of the world, I believe we commented in such a placid way that there are no easy answers to complex questions, that he himself was sort of disoriented: after all, we scientists are not the reductionist social engineers that so much anti-science fears and loathes. A friend who liked the discussion said it was a bit too challenging, but I think that’s fair. I only expect a 1-hour-something talk to give impressions and stimuli, not to convey a very celar and precise message, cause in that case it could only be a slogan.





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