Monday, July 11, 2005

Post Number Thirty-Seven: Cosmic Rhapsody

Of my Fixation with Science

I spent a long time in University, for various reasons, majoring Physics. Taking for granted no one among my readers is going to take me for a normal person, I won't digress on what my peers think of me for the simple fact that I chose to major Physics. Physics is very much like a part of my inner self: the human attempt to find a logical path lurking beneath the chaotic superficial appearance of reality.
We have been lucky to live in a universe where natural phenomena can be described through mathematics. If you think about it, mathematics should be a consequence of the way our mind works (when it works), and it should come as an astounding marvelous surprise that equations can predict the course of natural events. I have no intention to waste my (and especially your) precious time digressing in the old argument whether God exists or not and whether He created the world or not. Personally, I shall be honest: I don't care if God exists or not. I have no reason to believe the Christian God (as described in the Bible) exists for real, and I admit that a different kind of God (a-la Immanuel Kant) could exist, or could not as well. Anyway God is not the point here.
In fact, what I am concerned with in this moment, is that I can tell you precisely how long a stone will take to fall from my hand to the ground. I can even tell you what kind of curve a missile will draw in the sky before falling on the head of the next enemy of the American interests. I am not going to tell you this by watching in a crystal ball or uttering magical syllables. I will just write down a few equations and there you go: I give you the answer. And it's gonna be right (unless I make likely mistakes while computing of course).
We live in a universe where, for some incredible coincidence, mathematics are not just a puzzle for absent-minded nerds, but a tool to describe the effects of natural phenomena. Isn't that amazing?
Of course, the charm of this fascinating universe was completely lost in the University, where everything gravitates around grades, exams, tests and whatnot. Things that have little to nothing to do with the natural phenomena we should be studying.
Italian teachers are perhaps unique in the world.

More than 1000 years ago (no typo, I mean one thousand years), the University of Bologna (central Italy) was founded. More or less in the same century another University was founded in Pavia, 60 kms south of Milan, a city that back then was the capital of a local relatively powerful kingdom. Our millenary tradition of University should guarantee for an immense amount of experience, grounded on centuries above centuries of scholarship. In fact, the University of Bologna is the ancientmost in Europe, and I presume in the world too.
Nonetheless, the Twentieth century brought a new form of evil upon our schools: a philosopher known as Benedetto Croce. Let's put aside the fact that he was the official philosopher of Fascism. He also believed, for some reason, that science and art are "inferior" to literature, and that practice is inferior to theory. As a consequence, our Universities were shaped by Mussolini according to the infamous "Riforma Gentile", a plan of Reformation created by Gentile, a Fascist minster, and based on the theories of Benedetto Croce. You can imagine the consequences. Especially because, after that Reformation, no one ever thought of reconsidering it. Well, until we got the present dwarf dictator, Berlusconi. Berlusconi believes that Universities are a sort of business company and they should be led accordingly. What was bad has become worse. But I would rather avoid discussing this kind of things in detail. My stomach is not strong enough to stand the laws imposed by Berlusconi and his bunch of gangsters.
It will suffice to say that the experience I had in University was so disappointing that, despite my natural passion for science, I just couldn't swallow the lectures and especially the teachers.

I spoke so much about these inanities, that I totally forgot why I started typing this post. It certainly had to do with the fact that I spent a long time in University, but unluckily I have no idea what it was supposed to be about. And the fact that I use cryptic titles doesn't help much.

Luckily (or unluckily, depending on my reader's disposition towards my posts) I have many interests, and a number of fixations I keep mumbling over and over again. My fixation with science has deep roots, perhaps the deepest if we don't consider classical music (Classical Music, I can say, has been a part of me since I was born).
I usually like to mark my entrance in the world of science with the day when I was given "Cosmos", a book by Carl Sagan. I presume it's widely known in Anglosaxon countries. In Italy it was almost unknown, especially because the TV program didn't go on air in the country (still thanks to Benedetto Croce's philosophy, yes). I had smallpox and I was trapped in bed. It was the year 1981 and one of my mum's pupils (my mum is a pianist and teaches piano at the Conservatory of Milan) decided, out of the blue, that I had to read Cosmos by Carl Sagan. Yes, in Italian. I might be not normal but I can assure you I spoke no English at 7 year old.
The reading was mind boggling. I admit I didn't really get the whole idea. In fact I read that book again. Five times to be precise, before I turned 12.
There was something with how Carl Sagan wrote about science that just made me dream. I don't know if you ever read anything by Carl Sagan. If you did, you know what I am talking about. It's poetry. Scientific poetry in a way, however this might sound as an oxymoron. Saying that I loved the book is a ridiculous way to put it. Ludicrous. I love an amazing number of books, but I haven't read them five times in five years before turning 12. And I read Cosmos another 4 times after the age of 12. Last time I read it I was 24 and fully aware of its meaning. But not a jot less in awe of that starry vault upon my head.
Incidentally, when I was reading Cosmos for the eighth time, I was also studying Immanuel Kant during my final year in High School. I never truly appreciated Kant's approach to philosophy, but I could never forget his statement: "I live my life with the moral law inside me, and the vault of the starry sky above me". Especially the second part. For sure, when Kant said that, he was feeling the same I did when reading Cosmos, and went out at night watching that starry sky above my head. I couldn't say it any better.

I am fascinated by space. That's why I love *certain* science fiction (that excludes completely the movie Alien, its sequels, its prequels, its latest apocalyptic epiphanies and anything remotely resembling it). In fact, my ideal science fiction show has always been Star Trek. I was desperately fond of Spock when I was young. I actually am STILL desperately fond of Spock.
But Star Trek is another of my fixations and I don't think any of my readers deserve more than one fixation per day, so I will give this post a break. Besides, I am just blabbering. I typed a lot considering I don't know what I started this post for after all. And, what counts the most, I am hungry: and since food isn't going to get cooked by itself and even fixated idealists need to feed themselves, I really think I have more mundane activities to dedicate myself to.

This much, to say: sayonara.

Note: Considering the popularity of Bozzetto's cartoon "Italy and Europe", I placed a link to the right. In case someone missed the post.