Seeds for the Next Renaissance October 17, 2007Posted by dorigo in news, science.
Not a guest post, but my lazyness today is triggered by a nice comment by Amara, who sent a piece she wrote for the International Herald Tribune a few years ago. It discusses Italy and research, as perceived by westerners. As I often do with comments I find interesting, I decided to elect it to an independent post…
Seeds for the Next Renaissance
by Dr. Amara Lynn Graps (Max-Planck-Institut für Kernphysik, Heidelberg, Deutschland and Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche, Roma/Frascati, Italia), October 2002
As a result of Riccardo Giacconi’s well-deserved Nobel prize award for his astrophysics research that led to the discovery of cosmic X-ray sources, an unusual discussion has emerged in Italian public life of the phenomena of Italian scientists who emigrate out of Italy to pursue their research. As a foreign (American) astronomer in the process of immigrating into Italy to continue my work, I don’t have enough deep background information of this phenomenon.
Currently to my unexperienced eye, the brain drain shouldn’t surprise casual observers, as government-supported scholarships are very low, salaries to scientific researchers are barely higher than for bus drivers, large research networks are being told they must close, so then some Italian scientists eventually become too discouraged and vote with their feet. The word ‘discouraged’ is an understatement. Scientists generally have mild and forgiving characters and do what they do for the love of their work, much more than for fortune and fame. Therefore, the conditions leading to their departure was likely extreme.
However, any situation can change, and if one adopts the stance: ‘Yes, we’ve done that, now how can we make it better?’, I think I can offer perspectives to consider during your reflection on the role of science in Italian cultural life.
Italians have much to be proud in their past scientific and cultural accomplishments. Their long cultural history displays a vast range of experiences lending to a ‘done it all’ attitude and, hence, a daily focus of living well (eternally) in the present, according to the wisdom of what it has learned. With this as one’s environment, one might think that looking towards the future and making novel changes could be difficult. Is change difficult for Italians? One needs only to stand on a Roma streetside during peak traffic times, becoming dizzy with the whirl of mosquito-scooters, to know that Italy is a society in motion. To where does the society move? To where _can_ the society move? What guideposts can the culture use from its past?
Italy had and currently has many scientists one can imagine as role models, however, I can think of no better scientific and cultural guideposts for Italy’s future than Galileo Galilei, Leonardo da Vinci and the Italian Renaissance.
Friends and colleagues have told me that Italians seem curiously nonchalant about the scientist Galileo. In our opinion, however, Galileo was one of the most important figures of the last one thousand years. He introduced mathematics into physics and hastened the separation of physical science from philosophy. Many U.S. high school and first-year university science students perform duplicates of Galileo’s laboratory experiments. Galileo’s house arrest and Pisa Tower exploits, either exaggerated or real, are prominent in the classroom stories. The NASA/ESA space mission to Jupiter and now orbiting Jupiter since late-1995, was named after Galileo. For my eight hundred planetary science colleagues at a 1999 science meeting hosted by our kind Italian colleagues, one of the most memorable events in our scientific careers was sitting in Universita di Padova’s “The Galileo Galilei Great Hall” and seeing Galileo’s pulpit, from where the great man lectured to his students.
Galileo Galilei was an astronomer, mathematician, physical scientist, and budding entrepreneur who advocated experimental evidence and individual experience over authoritarian elements. Two of my favorite quotations by Galileo Galilei are “You cannot teach a man anything, you can only help him to find it for himself,” and “In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual.” As a guidepost for the future, Galileo Galilei’s achievements could remind Italians of the value of dogged determination and scientific rigor, of listening to one’s own heart and mind, and of observing technical progress and supporting new opportunities.
Leonardo da Vinci shared Galileo’s enthusiastic love of observation, investigation and discovery. His genius was that he excelled in an astonishing variety of fields that are now considered artistic and scientific specialities. For both his wide-ranging accomplishments and the period of his achievements, the description of him as a “Renaissance Man” uniquely suits his large stature in our history books.
How can Leonardo and the Italian Renaissance be a guidepost to Italy’s future? The Renaissance was triggered, in part, by a revival of Greek ideas. The Renaissance do-ers didn’t want to just recreate again, what the Greeks accomplished, instead, the creative individuals in the Renaissance wanted to build on those ancient ideas and then take those ideas further into new directions, permeating all aspects of society. The conditions in Italian civilization seemed to be primed for the first Renaissance seeds to germinate and flower, then those ideas spread to the rest of Europe like a breath of fresh air.
In our present complex times, increasing technological advancements swirl around us demanding more of our attention. Scientific education, research and awareness is essential, not only to keep pace with our fast-paced world, but also to provide a psychological comfort zone for all people in society, showing that humans are linked with the delightful discovery traditions from our past. We are all children at heart, perhaps Italians even more so, eternally seeking answers to age-old questions, and playing in the stream of time. I suggest to use the current discussion of the role of science in Italian culture, not as a way to lament past actions, but, instead, to embrace your past and present accomplishments and channel your endless energy to create seeds for the next Renaissance to germinate and flower.