Science in between education and creativity

Benedetta CappelliniUncategorized @en

Friday, August 29 2008, 11.15 a.m., Sala A1 (Pictures)Charles Harper, Senior Vice President of the John Templeton Fundation;
Gino Segre, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Pennsylvania;
Constantino Tsallis, Centro Brasileiro de Pesquisas Fisicas and Brazilian Academy of Sciences.
Marco Bersanelli, Full Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Milan

Marco Bersanelli: The subject of the Meeting of this years puts the individual as a protagonist at the centre of attention because of his human experience. On the scientific front we have asked ourselves as to how we can study and communicate as a subject of research this human experience. Contrary to what is often thought about science, the theme of education and creativity in scientific experiments have a central role. Science is an expression of the humanity, not different nor parallel to it. Many times science is perceived as an impersonal activity, something that is almost independent of the individual that occupies himself with scientific activity. The first question that I want to address our three guests is the following: Is there a function for creativity in scientific work?

Constantino Tsallis: It is a chain that starts from the moment of the discovery: one observes something that has never been seen before, a moment of fascination, of amazement, of surprise. Creativity immediately follows when one starts to do something with this discovery, with this initial fascination. With this creativity one desires to arrive to the ultimate point, which is science, knowledge. Therefore creativeness is the moment between the initial fascination and when this becomes a scientific object. This process is related to three concepts. John Keats wrote: “”Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”. Pope Benedict XVI, in the conference that was not made at the University La Sapienza, wrote “What is that good that makes us true? Truth makes us good and the good is true”, which makes equality between truth and goodness. For a transitive nature, if beauty is equal to truth and the truth is equal to goodness then the beauty is equal to goodness. From these three concepts emerges a triangle that have the words “truth”, “beauty” and “goodness” one on each of the three vertices. The truth is like the utopia of science, the significance of which is, of what I see, of what I discover, of what appears before my eyes. Beauty is the utopia of art, the significance of which is, what I can feel, and goodness would be the utopia of ethics, the significance of which is, what I do. To better illustrate how these things happen to many people, I give an example on one central concept of my work, that is entropy.
    The concept of entropy is very similar to that of energy but it is also very different, it is more universal than the concept of energy. Entropy is a measure of disorder: a very disorderly system has a great entropy. A very orderly, very organized system has an almost zero entropy. This concept gave me the possibility to do a long-lasting work that lasted for more then 20 years. It started in Mexico in 1985. where I was attending a convention. During the coffee break everyone left the hall except for myself, a French professor and a Mexican student. I was at a certain distance from them and I could not hear the words but, I could see the equation on the blackboard. The Frenchman was explaining something to him related to a geometric concept. In his formula there was the probability to the power q. When I saw this power, it came to my mind that with this, one could generalize the concept of entropy (a concept established in the XIX century by an Austrian, Ludwig Boltzmann and has been applied in physics for the last 130 years). That was an expression that connects the macroscopic and microscopic world to Boltzmann formula that one still studies today in all the courses of physics, mathematics, engineering, and biology. Seeing the explanation of that Frenchman about geometry, immediately gave me the idea that one can generalize the same, to the concept of entropy. Thus returning home in Rio de Janeiro, I wrote down the formula, and not knowing well to what it corresponded, I left it in the drawer for three years. In 1988 I decided to publish it and the article came out. Nothing happened for five years, after which an article published by two Argentineans, father and son, appeared. They applied the formula to a gravitational problem of astrophysics and it became clear that, that formula in someway regards the systems that have correlation to an ample range, both in space and in time, long correlations, not local correlations but global correlations. Thus started the story.
    Today there are more than 2500 articles written on this argument by some 2000 scientists in sixty three countries of the world. It was born as such for free, because charis in Greek means grace, and is born from nothing, but it has produced in twenty three years an incredible quantity of scientific discussions and many applications in medicine, in economy, in linguistics. The expression that comes out has a certain beauty, a certain mathematical harmony which had struck me, but this example of beauty is clearly related to the truth because it had produced 2500 scientific articles and many applications. Big things are born small. But the testimony that I wanted to show here is that, the beauty of science is not only an artistic aspect, an aspect of emotion but also an incredible force for arriving to the truth.

Gino Segre: Science has a certain beauty of an almost artistic quality. Never the less, often when scientists make a publication they try to hide the emotional factor; like one great mathematician wrote about Gauss, who perhaps is the greatest mathematician of the century. Gauss was like a fox, who with his tail used to cover the track from where he had passed. There is often the idea that it is enough to publish the results that should have a pure marble quality, abstract, whose creativity cannot be seen, the human qualities that were able to produce it.
    I take interest in particles called neutrinos. The neutrino is a particle that has an almost zero mass and with an almost zero interaction. There are thousands of neutrinos produced by the sun that pass through my hand and your hand every second. Neutrinos are everywhere, they pass thousands of kilometres through the earth without interacting. The neutrino was introduced as a concept by an Austrian physicist, Wolfgang Pauli in 1930, but the initiative was taken by the great Italian physicist, Fermi in 1934 with a beautiful theory that affirms that the neutrino will never be seen. Instead, science advanced and twenty years later in the fifties, the first neutrinos were seen in an experiment. It seemed impossible to be able to study neutrinos that were coming from the sun, yet they were seen by my colleague.
    A star such as our sun has an average lifespan of approximately 10 billion years during which the hydrogen found in the centre is being transformed into helium, and at the end of its life it will collapse. All the stars that are a little larger than the sun suffer a collapse the result due to gravitational forces. The final stage of the collapse lasts for about 10 seconds. When the fuel is exhausted, gravity induces the collapse of the star. A larger star becomes a small ball few kilometres in diameter. In this last collapse there is an explosion. The explosion is called Supernova The last one seen was studied by Kepler and Galileo in 1609. It is not a phenomena that happens every day, it happens once every one or two centuries. However, in the eighties a group composed of Japanese and my colleagues from the university of Pennsylvania have tried to create a detector for studying the neutrinos. They were searching for something else but  if by chance, a Supernova occurred, they would be able to see it. The probability to see a Supernova was practically nil, however in 1987 a shepherd in the Andes of South America for first, and immediately afterwards the telescopes saw it. The theory of physics affirms that 99% of the energy that escapes is invisible, like neutrinos. Then my Japanese colleagues and those of the university went to see if there was a trace of neutrinos in the experiment that came out in those first ten seconds of the explosion, and there they found them! One of my colleagues upon receiving the news by telephone started to cry because a fact that could not have been imagined, such an abstractly created theory, all of a sudden was revealed to be the truth. The Italian physicist Carlo Rubbia said: in those ten seconds the physics of the intergalactic neutrinos have passed from being a science fiction to a scientific fact. This explosion of the supernova in a nearby galaxy, occurred 187 thousand years ago and that light took 187 thousand years to arrive to us from that far away star. The fact that one can arrive to understand the mechanics, the life and death of the stars and that of the universe provokes a deep emotion among the scientists. This is a way to come close to the profound truths and is one of the great efforts that man to try to understand and to comprehend the functioning of nature. The beauty of these ideas is evidently different from the artistic creativity, however the emotions that they can provoke are to a certain extent the same.

Charles Harper: Because I know that you have the spirit of curiosity, I want to focus on the topic of curiosity. One of the greatest scientists in the modern era just died in July in Houston, Texas. He was the heart surgeon Michael DeBakey. He was asked once about what drove him. In his life, he performed more than 60,000 surgeries and published 1,600 research papers, and he was a busy administrator who ran a large institution. He said that curiosity and the seeking of knowledge is a transcendent life force, almost, you might say, spiritual. It has a driven character to it, it drives you intellectually, and, to an extent, physiologically—the brain influences the body in ways we don’t know about. So the question posed to us: Does personal creativity have a role in scientific work? The answer from my experience is “Absolutely yes”; it’s the spirit of curiosity, the love of learning, the desire for understanding, to integrate and to create new perspectives, new techniques, new advances, for the benefit of thought and for the benefit of human flourishing.
    For me, it starts also with gratitude. I’m grateful that we have these institutions that nourish human curiosity, that allow us to ask crazy questions for years, to live in libraries to read for years, to pursue forms of life which are very impractical for a long time. When I first came to Oxford University, I wrote the university a letter, they had offered me a scholarship to come and do planetary science. I said, I’m very grateful that you would allow me to come and provide resources to study. But I want to know if you will allow me to pursue a topic or a subject that you may think is crazy or unusual, different. Because if I want to spend five years working hard in the library, not sleeping, I want to do something very unusual, not standard, something that I’m passionate about and that I’m curious about, and they wrote back to me and said, “That’s okay”. And part of the benefit that we have in our world are these institutions that allow us to pursue our curiosity that seems crazy.
    For me, those kinds of questions are questions like “What is time? What are the laws of nature? Why do we have a moon that circles the earth? Why is Mars a small planet and Jupiter a large planet? What was the earliest atmosphere on the Earth, was it hydrogen and helium like Jupiter? Or, what happened to the very earliest surface of the Earth?” If you look at the moon, you see black circles, those are basalts, like volcanoes, and you see white material, an that white material is the earliest crust on the moon, and it’s crystals that floated in an ocean of magma from the earliest time of the moon, and they’re filled with craters. If you look at the Earth, there is nothing like this. There must have been a time when the Earth had a very old surface covered with craters like the white part on the moon. And you can ask the questions: “What happened to that surface? What did it look like? Where did it go? When was it formed?”.
    I had the opportunity to work on questions like that for several years with taxpayers supporting research money, at Harvard and at NASA. The gift of our civilization to have these institutions that allow us to pursue passion and curiosity and to take risks, to be a little bit crazy, maybe a lot crazy, is an amazing heritage. To be in Italy is a special opportunity for me because the origin of these institutions, the universities, the research culture, come from Italy in the 12th century, maybe a little before, at Salerno. The spirit that developed in the 12th century led to the great cathedrals, the gothic cathedrals, this inquiry into understanding how God created the world, and how you could understand, through mathematics and law and deep order.
    So what you see in the great cathedrals, for example in Chartres, is this vision of the universe being built by people, and the research culture is building a cathedral of understanding to pursue the deep knowledge that human beings have in this God-given creativity. The earliest developers of this culture of research are deeply curious people and they travel to learn. Europe, at this time, is ignorant, the learning is in the Arab lands. People like Constantine Africanus, who comes to Salerno to create the first university in the history of the world of the modern type, or Adelard of Bath, the Englishman who teaches at Chartres Cathedral in the school. Or Gerard of Cremona who lives in Toledo and translates seventy books from the Arabic texts, Euclid, and Ptolemy, and Aristotle. Leonard of Pisa. These people pursued understanding away from their culture. They were amazed to learn this new literature transmitted to them in Arabic and to discover the learning, the inquiry, of the ancient Greeks. And out of this quest to translate and learn grew the culture of research universities: Paris, Oxford, Bologna, and later, Padua. So we have had this culture now for 800 years. And science arises out of these great institutions, originally in a fusion of a philosophical and theological quest with mathematics and early science.
    For me, as an American, this comes together in an interesting way because we have problems of fundamentalism in America, very common. This was a struggle for me, I was deeply passionate and concerned to understand how I could be a Christian and pursue science, and I wanted to wrestle with these questions. Why are we here, does God exist, what are the laws of nature, how can I understand the culture of my childhood with the culture of science that I entered later in life? I’m grateful to the institutions of the great research universities that allowed me to study for years on these questions and to become a part of modern science. So I am grateful to Italy, the birthplace of this culture of the research university, for this opportunity out of which science has grown and out of which my ability to be a scientist has come.

Bersanelli: Clearly science plays an always more important role in the formation of general consciousness, and not only in the scientific community. The way that scientific matters are presented at school or through the media strongly influences – many times unconsciously – our vision of the world and of people, especially on controversial issues. During these days we had as an issue climatic changes or genetic manipulation, issues that profoundly touch the life of everyone. We discussed even other fundamental issues such as the origin of life, the origin of the universe or the intimate structure of matter or the nature of consciousness, the conscious level of nature.
    What, in your opinion, is our responsibility? What is our responsibility as researchers, as scientists with respect to these issues that are often attacked by others and are presented in a way – as I said – that then affect everyone’s mentality?

Tsallis: I would like to illustrate the theme of social responsibility of science and scientists with a case that happened to me some eleven years ago in Smyrna, Turkey. I was invited by the University of the Aegean to give a lecture on mechanical statistics. The professor that invited me started asking me questions and I understood he wanted to know my percentage of Greek, in other words how Greek I was (because Greece and Turkey have not always been friends, especially since Turkey took over Constantinople: the Greeks still have not digested the fact that Constantinople is not called anymore Constantinople but Istanbul). He wanted to know if he was speaking to a Brazilian or to a Greek. So I said to him, “Our countries have had conflicts in the past centuries, but – and this is my answer to Marco – our role as scientists, artists and sportsmen is to demonstrate to populations that to meet each other, war is not really necessary. Populations can meet also to collaborate, to do things together, and finally, to become friends”. Why did I quote science, art and sports? Because they are universal aspects of mankind. Science is its research of truth, its research to understand; art is the attempt to model reality in a certain way that can satisfy the spirit; sport is that admiration that triggers the physical prevalence as we all saw in the Olympic games in Beijing. Isn’t it beautiful to see an athlete jump five meters! It is incredible how the athlete does it, but he does it and we remain totally perplexed. It is a bit like when ideas come in science. That initial moment of amazement leaves us baffled: how come this is like this! How come no one saw it? How come I saw it? Therefore science, art and sports are universal languages. I told this Turkish colleague of mine that our role is to demonstrate that populations do not need war or only need to earn money, but also need to become friends and collaborators. He immediately looked at me with eyes that for the first time heard a half-Greek say something like this in Smyrna (my grandparents left in 1920, during one of the wars between Greece and Turkey). Then he said, “Yes, that’s right! Give us the names of some Greek scientists so we can invite them”. This happened eleven years ago. Last year I was again in Turkey, in Marmaris, at a school organized by a Turkish professor and I tell him about my idea that I had spoken about with another Turkish person eleven years ago. “Why don’t you hold a meeting next year (this year) on mechanical statistics with Greek and Turkish scientists, two days on Turkish territory and two days on Greek territory”? He answered, “It would be incredible if we could arrange for a scientific meeting between Turks and Greeks, in Turkey it would be published on all the newspapers because it is something unheard of”! The next day he comes and says to me: “Here is the number of the Greek from Crete that you told me about”. In his presence – the director of the institution – I dial the number, I speak to the man and tell him about the idea of a meeting between Greeks and Turks. The other man, after half an hour of talking to each other in Greek, says ok. The Turkish man did not understand but knew what the issue was and after the other man had accepted I passed the phone to him, and they – speaking in English – started to organize the event. This meeting, that the Turkish director wanted to call the Greek-Turkish Conference, will be held in fifteen days.
    What are the social consequences of science? One, that I find very important in science, is the tolerance to error because in science, as in many other things in life, it is easy to make a mistake and much is mistaken. It is incredible how it can work with all those mistakes! When I did my doctorate in Paris I was also teaching. I was an assistant at the University of Paris. The subject studied was mechanical statistics that is related with thermodynamics. The professor’s name was Tavernier and we were two assistants, Andrè Bachelerie and myself. There were one hundred and forty students taking the exams, all three of us corrected the papers. Afterwards we put the papers together and made the average of the three and that was the grade given to the student. I remember I always gave the worst grade, I gave the lowest grade to the students. One day I got annoyed and said, “Why do I always give the lowest grade?”. Professor Tavernier answered, “Don’t worry, it is because you are young. When you are old you will give better grades”. Said and done. I went to Brazil and the years passed. Now I give good grades. Why? Maybe because when one is young one does not see that it is easy to make mistakes and when the years pass by and one has made one, two, three hundred, five hundred, five thousand mistakes, the one says: “Ok, this is a student, he has made a mistake, let’s not make him suffer, let’s give a better grade”. Therefore, also this is a gift of science. Let’s take medicine that says: “aspirin is good” and twenty years later says: “No, aspirin can not be taken” and twenty years later: “No, it was good”. How come? What do these doctors have in mind when they continuously change opinion? Science is complex, it is easy to make mistakes and scientific truth is never complete, never. So the years go by, “There is this aspect that we have not seen. Now that we have seen it we can say that the effects of aspirin are worse than being good”. That is how medicine goes, and the same goes for physics. It is less noticed but that is how physics, chemistry goes, they all go that way”.
    I will conclude by mentioning a story of collaboration between Greece and Turkey in an incredible “accident” that occurred in Crete. We were at a conference and a Greek woman got together with a Turk. These two, that were two of the four organizers of the congress that will be held in fifteen days, agreed – she, Christian- Orthodox, he Muslim and Turkish – to an incredible thing: go to an Orthodox church there in Crete to light a candle together for the good outcome of the congress that would take place in fifteen days. When I found out about this – that a Muslim went into a Christian church to light a candle – I thought that this meeting would be a success, it would not be necessary to talk about physics.

Segre: Science was an aid for collaboration between the Christians and the Muslims, between the different populations. I saw it in first person when I was at the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva for three years. CERN was founded more than 50 years ago. At the beginning people said, “Sure, there will be brilliant scientists, but how will Germans, Italians and English work together?” And yet it was a success because when different populations have a common interest and want to achieve a result, they work together as a team and put aside their divergences. They live and work together, that is why for me working at CERN was an extraordinary experience. For scientists, maybe there is an intellectual responsibility more than a social responsibility because science has become a complicated matter. If we look back at history and we think back at the times of Galileo we see there was a theory that stated that a heavy object falls faster than a light object. Galileo had a very simple idea: “Lets take a ball that weighs ten kilos and one that weighs one kilo. You will say that the ten kilo ball will fall faster. Lets tie a thin string to both of them. Now they are one body that weighs eleven kilos now we can not say that the heavier one falls faster that the light one.” Everyone can understand this concept. When we talk about staminal cells or the climate, the ideas on these issues are quite diverse. How can a young person understand or relate to these problems and how can they react? Scientists have the responsibility to help the public make decisions on pollution, climatic disasters, staminal cells, on issues of biology and on those that have a direct influence on life. Recently it was still possible to open the car hood, look in and if the motor was still running or not. Now this is not possible, the motor is a computer. This is why the scientist has a responsibility. You can not ask a scientist to do a job because it is nice or because one needs money to continue to work. You must ask, question and demand explanations from the scientist. You must ask help to be protagonists in the world of science even by not experimenting. You must be protagonists in contributing for the future, both social and intellectual. You must understand how the world works, the genome, the universe and understand the truth. It is a matter of cultural, aesthetics and of course social problems. This is why the scientists must be a protagonist with you and for this fight for your future.

Harper: I learned so much from reading that book about the circle of Niels Bohr, and the amazing excitement of how he cultivated groups of people, traveling all over Europe and coming from the United States, from Russia, from everywhere, on this great adventure of understanding what we now know as the science of quantum mechanics. So his great example as a working scientist and as a popularizer is an inspiration to me of the responsibility of the scientist in the modern era.
    But I’d like to start at a more basic level, with a famous statement by one the earliest visionaries or prophets of science, Francis Bacon, and you all know this statement, “Knowledge is power”. Knowledge is power. Bacon was deeply correct in that the culture of science involves the creation of power: power for good, power to relieve the human condition, to improve the quality of medicine to provide many new technologies, but also power that requires human responsibility and hence our question, what is the responsibility of scientists in the present cultural context and in the perception of science? The answer I would suggest is like this. The responsibility of scientists is a general responsibility of humane learning and teaching, and of stewardship over the power that they create, to avoid narrow fundamentalisms based on ignorance. Ironically, this ignorance is sometimes based on specialization. Specialization is the increase of knowledge, but, often, rounded knowledge and wisdom is the victim of excessive specialization. And the responsibility of scientists is to promote a humble, humane, wise, balanced creative vision, because scientists are at the beginning of the process of the creation of massive powers.
The problem is like a problem of new priests and old priests. There is always a temptation for human beings, the problem of owning the truth. In the early rise of science, the situation was inverted with respect to today, but the principle necessity of humility remains. Today, we have a big problem of the misrepresentation of science publicly. This is because, for many people, science is scientism, it’s science as a philosophy of life, as a pseudo-religion, as a series of answers to all questions, and as a kind of partisanship within human culture, as if it is the rational option to be a scientist and other options of life are not in harmony with it but in competition with it. So we have a literature of conflict that the media uses and expands because the media is successful in the selling of artificial conflict.
    At the moment we are, in my country, in the United States, in a crisis of alienation of a large portion of the population from science, because scientists who are not very creative as scientists, but are full-time popularizers of it, are very successful in creating a vision that science is a kind of anti-religion. And this is problematic in a culture such as in the United States, where a large fraction of the people are religious and therefore they feel they must make a choice: either they stay with their religion or they flee it for science. This is a devil’s bargain, and it is unnecessary, in history and in philosophy, and in the contemporary time. It’s unnecessary. We have irresponsibility of scientific popularizers promoting a philosophy of scientism, and so one of our responsibilities is to offer an alternative vision, a more harmonious vision, a more constructive vision that corresponds more closely to the origins of science and even more deeply to the origins of the research culture I described earlier. Because science is a part of the great dilemma of power.
    Only 70 years ago, there was a great scientist, Lisa Meitner. This Christmas Eve will be 70 years, one biblical lifetime, since an idea came into her mind in the woods of Sweden. It was the idea of the incredible energy that came form the atom, nuclear fusion, nuclear fission. She applied E=mc², Einstein’s equation, to the understanding some experimental results from a laboratory she had worked in Berlin but from which she fled because she was a Jew. This was in 1938. Those scientific ideas have now created technologies that trivially could evaporate this entire meeting in a fraction of a seconds, and we have lived now for over fifty years in this world with the kind of power where we can destroy entire civilizations. What a blessing it has been that there have only been two cases, sadly involving my country, where cities have been destroyed with the power created by this scientific knowledge that came through the collaboration of many scientists, but first into the mind of Lisa Meitner, Christmas Eve, 1938.
Bacon had a vision of creating these institutions that were factories of knowledge, and he was correct. But he also had a vision which has not been realized yet, he had a vision of a kind of spiritual knowledge that would heal the violence and problems that he saw all around him. This vision of Bacon’s has never been realized. The engines of the creation of new knowledge have not developed a way yet for humans to become fundamentally better people, to have more power of stewardship over power. We are like small children with machine guns in a kindergarten. We are still brutes inside, but we have not developed a way to make ourselves fundamentally more humane at the same rate as we create new power through our science and technology. This is our dilemma for the future: our power is accelerating but our humaneness is not. So this is for me the great challenge of the future of the responsibility of scientists to avoid narrow fundamentalisms of scientism and to join together with the more ancient traditions of the pursuit of humane transformation of the human condition into a joint effort for peace, for harmony, for tolerance, and the full benefit of the human condition.

Bersanelli: These two speeches really offered us testimonies of a certain way of living the adventure of science.
    To symbolically close the circle, I would like to re-read the sentences with which Costantino began: “Beauty is truth and the truth is beauty and the truth makes us good and goodness is true”. I believe that after having heard these two speeches, something has changed. It is like hearing better, seeing more clearly. All this concerns every one in the way we perceive this beauty and this truth as an experience, in education, in study. For many of us that is how it is in life, in what surrounds us, because it is truly the scientific nature, this extraordinary possibility that was given to us, becomes always more part of our everyday life.