1th Semester - 2003
Today probably only a few people in Italy remember the name Camille Flammarion. But in the late nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth century, this astronomer was one of the most celebrated Frenchman in Europe. His name even appeared in children's magazines. His fame was due not so much to his studies of the heavens but, arguably only, to his exceptional talent for popularising science. In the 1930s and '40s, if a university professar dared illustrate his research results in the medical field in a newspaper, he was looked on disdainfully by his colleagues for having called the profession into disrepute. Moreover, in those days a surgeon would never have agreed to speak to journalists about an operation. Only in recent years has information about science almost triumphantly become part of popular culture and much of the credit goes to television and daily newspapers, which carry some science pages at least one day a week. At this point I can mention some names, (apologising for any I may have overlooked, but here l'm only interested in illustrating a point). So we now listen spellbound to Piero Angela and his son Alberto or the engineer-philosopher De Crescenzo in their TV programmes dedicated to science and also - until 1997, when he died - those of the archaeologist Sabatino Moscati. We avidly read the articles by the ethologist Danilo Mainardi, from the University of Venice, as well as others who have no need of barely-clad dancing girls to win audiences. Alongside this albeit still small group of worthy popularisers, the collaborators of Ligabue Magazine also deserve a place. From the outset, following the example of the first articles by Giancarlo Ligabue, the magazine espoused scientific rigour and the kind of plain language that would win the approval of our Latin teachers. Naturally, in this issue you will find more examples of clearly and simply explained scientific phenomena. The article on page 76 begins as follows: "For centuries scientists refused to accept 'fantastic' notions such as the idea that spiders are capable of thought. Human beings don't seem comfortable with the idea that each living creature on our planet has its own dose of intelligence. They find it unsettling. They also continue to consider spiders to be insects, when they are special beings, capable of invention and even creativity." This is the starting point for Mirella Delfini's look into the world of spiders. After years as a special reporter for various newspapers to the world's hot spots, from which she sent major articles, Mirella Delfini turned to the study of ecology and ethology. Among some of her an unforgettable books are those with titles like "Interviews with Animals" and "Who's the insect now?" (a book illustrated by satirical cartoonist Giorgio Forattini). Here is just one of her stories from this article: a spider placed in a very tall narrow vase seemed destined to die. For a day and a half the unlucky creature sat still and thought. Then it began to make a horizontal thread. By adding another two, it created three steps. It went on working until it had made eighty-two steps, thus completing its ladder to freedom.
A first-rate populariser well known to our readers, Maurice Leigheb is a writer and documentary-maker who has travelled to various region is the world. On page 134 he takes us to the remote island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean. After having been a British protectorate, the island is now under Yemenite sovereignty, while at the time of the Ancient Greeks and Romans it was known as Dioscorides. Its 2,240 square kilometres have not yet been overwhelmed by tourism and it is still an unspoilt enchanting paradise. The inhabitants, mainly fishermen and herdsmen, grow and export incense, myrrh, dates and marvellous trees. One such tree, the Dracaena cinabari, or dragon's blood palm, provides the red colour for decorating clay pottery and is the symbol of Socotra.
On page 44 we are introduced to a quite remarkable man - Bertrand Piccard. In 1999 he set several world records after flying around the world in a hot-air balloon. The flight lasted 19 days, 21 hours, and 49 minutes. Previously, no one had ever travelled the 45 ,755 kilometres non-stop in a balloon only driven by the wind. His biography begins with his grandfather, August Piccard, who
invented the legendary bathyscaphe, a submarine designed to explore the depths of the ocean. Bertrand's father, Jacques, on the other hand, invented the mesoscaphe, used to explore the Gulf Stream. A graduate in medicine, specialised in psychiatry and psychotherapy, Bertrand devised and taught a method making use of his experience as a balloonist to provide a deeper understanding of psychological life. The list of his achievements is almost endless, but I should like to mention the fact that the balloon Breitling Orbiter 3, used for his round-the-world flight is now in the Smithsonian Museum, Washington, alongside Lindbergh's Spirit of St Louis, the Wright brothers' plane, and the Apollo 11 space capsule.
Lalibela, sounds like the first word in a lullaby. Trying repeat it - Lalibela, Lalibela. It's like one of those sing-song chants conjuring up distant peoples steeped in mysterious legends. Only in this case it's almost true, because Lalibela is the name of an ancient monastic community living in isolation, 2,800 metres up, on an Ethiopian plateau. On January 7th each year, among churches hewn in rock, the Coptic Christmas is celebrated in a series of ceremonies accompanied by tinkling sistra and bells. It sounds ali very beautiful, but a bit too far out of the way. Luckily for us, on page 104, Francesco Mascotto, a biologist, photographer and explorer, has provided a fascinating lyrical account of the place, evoking dreams and memories of ancient religions.
Kant wanted the following phrase to be inscribed on his tomb: "Two things fill my mind with awe l the starry heavens above me l and the moral law within me". These words might well be in the minds of those men who have created and laboriously assembled the largest telescope in the world at Cerro Paranal (2,635 metres) in the Andes. This remarkable feat is described on page 164, by Adriano Favaro. A journalist with the Venetian daily, Il Gazzettino, and a master in illustrating the wonders of science, anthropology, and ethnology, he has also been on some of the great Ligabue Study and Research Centre journeys of discovery.