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“Modern is that which is worthy of becoming antique”: the challenge to unite culture and science

“Modern in that which is worthy of becoming antique. Modern is the spirit of the times, but its true form cannot but be classical”. In this wonderful quote by Dino Gavina lies one of the keys to pondering tradition and innovation in Italy and thus the intertwining of humanistic knowledge and scientific culture antinomy that goes beyond the traditional (and mistaken) paradoxes. Gavina was a designer (one of the “maestros” of the 1950s and 60s along side Munari and Mari, Ponti and Castiglioni) and so was used to reflecting on culture and enterprise, on form and function, words and numbers, designs and products, and to finding unique syntheses of thought and action, of an idea and its execution. This, of course, is the essence of good manufacturing and of the “polytechnic culture”, one might even say, borrowing a phrase much loved by the Pirelli Foundation. In other words, there is a close connection between “modern” and “classical”, between innovation and its roots in history, between the fundamental values of science and the humanities from which modernity draws its creative energy, and this connection is to be understood and fed. Historical and cultural heritage is our past. Science and creativity are the innovative tools used to create that which will be the heritage of tomorrow.

These words of Gavina’s come to mind when reading the thoughts of Carlo Rovelli, a theoretical physicist and recent recipient of the Merck Award, as to why Italy is a nation lacking in scientific culture (see La Repubblica, 19 July). It is an analysis of education and knowledge and of a cultural deficit tied to an underestimation of the importance of research, whether “pure” or “applied”, in producing innovation that can be used in business and that can aid in economic development (a contrast that Italy has, at times, been able to avoid, as seen in the story of Giulio Natta, a Nobel laureate for chemistry in 1954 and the father of polypropylene – a key success story of Italian industry – with his Moplen). Rovelli believes that Italian schools are among the best in the world, paradoxically so for anyone with a passion for science in that Italian students have something that other nations struggle to provide: not just creativity and flair, but also – and above all – a great depth of culture. As Rovelli writes, “I’m convinced that studying Dossena, Kant and Michelangelo provides a scientist with more finely honed tools of thought than does spending hours calculating integrals like kids do the élite schools of Paris”. And he continues, “The ability to look to the future and see key problems came out of Italian education and the breadth of its historical and cultural prospective”. What is lacking, on the other hand, is science. Italy, he claims, is “a nation dangerously lacking in scientific culture compared both to other European nations, where science in profoundly respected, and perhaps also to emerging nations, where scientific culture is seen an the key to their development”. Confirmation of this lack of culture lies in “the lack of serious science in school; the inability to hold debates in which points and counterpoints are listened to with care; the widespread ignorance of science among our élite, beginning with our Parliament; and, even worse, the tiresome airs of those who brag that they understand nothing of science”.

And yet Rovelli also writes, “Culture is the richness and complexity of knowledge, the set of conceptual tools used by a community to reflect on themselves and on the world. Classical and scientific culture are complementary sides of this whole, each reinforcing the other.

[And so] our nation’s lack of scientific culture is a grave weakness. Both wealthy and emerging nations know that, without sufficient scientific culture, a nation today falls quickly behind. And Italy has fallen behind.”

But this hasn’t always been the case. Rovelli describes Galileo as “perhaps the most extraordinary product of the heights of the Italian Renaissance, a man of music and of letters, a profound connoisseur of classical antiquity, of Aristotle and Plato […] and the founder of modern science, the first to understand how to interrogate Nature, the first to find a mathematical law to describe the motion of bodies on land, the first to look to the heavens at things that no human had ever before imagined” and as a figure to be given greater consideration. “I wish that Italy were proud of Galileo and not just of Raphael”, he writes, that Italy would rediscover Piero della Francesca, the mathematician, and not just his great skills as a painter, we might also add. In short, we could finish up with Rovelli, who writes, “I wish that Italy would move away from the idea that culture is just the antique arts or sterile knowledge of one’s past, that Italy would grant culture, and scientific culture in particular, the dignity that it must have in educating the individual.”