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image European Research News Centre > Research and Society > Books which stand the test of time
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image image image Date published: 16/10/02
  image Books which stand the test of time
RTD info special "Talking Science"
  Giulio Giorello, a researcher, philosophy of science professor at Milan University and mathematician, is one of Italy's leading figures in the philosophy and communication of science. He is also adviser and collection editor with the Raffaello Cortina publishing house. RTD info spoke with this committed bibliophile.

You carry out research, you teach and you are active in scientific publishing. What is the common denominator of these different activities?
They are three distinct activities and to be successful in any one of them it is certainly not necessary to practice the other two. That said, I also believe that a university professor can only teach a subject to which he or she is truly committed. The subjects you lecture on best will be those you are most interested in and there is a link between education and research. As to publishing, I see it as an excellent means of getting to know other researchers and of becoming more familiar with approaches which may differ from your own. It is an extremely useful way of putting your own ideas to the test and comparing them with the ideas of others.

What do you see as the role of a scientific publisher?
I should first like to make it clear that I am not head of a publishing house but am an editor in the Anglo-Saxon sense of the term, in my case of the Scienza e idee collection. I believe that in many cases publishing has done what school was unable to do. In Italy, for example, publishers and scientists have worked together to produce books such as the Enciclopedia della Scienza e della Tecnica, the fruit of co-operation between Mondadori and Ludovico Geymonat, or the translation of the writings of Edmund Husserl, who was discovered as a result of the collaboration between Enzo Paci and Alberto Mondadori. There are publishers who are able to take sometimes considerable financial risks. Some have proved to be visionary.

In this civilisation of the image – and of the virtual – what is the fate of the written word?
I think that when the means of communication changes, the content of the cultural message changes, not just the form. Without the invention of the printing press, two crucial events for modernity, namely Protestant reform and modern science, would not have materialised. Luther and Galileo understood the importance of this technical advance.

Today, even though there are new forms of communication and content for scientific publishing, such as the compact disc, I would be very careful before proclaiming the death of the book. I do not believe there is, at present, an Internet site which has the same power of attraction as a published work of quality. A book with quality illustrations and typography is also a beautiful object. You can appreciate the odour of the paper and the finish of the binding. Printing is an art and I never feel more at home than in the company of books.

But that does not prevent you from using your computer…
Of course not, but the interface with a computer is cold and difficult to manage. I use a computer and the Internet when I need information. But the computing tool does not replace Joyce's Ulysses printed on paper, although it can replace the telephone directory.

Science can reach a wide audience through books, but how can a complex subject matter be presented without over-simplification? How can it be effectively popularised? And who should take on the task?
There is a magnificent example of popularising by a scientist which is The Evolution of Physics, written by Albert Einstein in co-operation with Infeld. This is proof that it is possible to treat difficult subjects with perfect clarity. It is incorrect to assume that popularisation leads to a debasement of scientific culture. Science is knowledge destined for the general public and the principle of communicating this knowledge is an essential element of the discovery itself. Galileo understood this in his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems which, in many respects, is also a popular work.

Some popular works, moreover, have become references – such as the amusing mathematical brainteasers Lewis Carroll presented to his young readers. Publishing houses and their various collections all have their specific identity and are mutually complementary, offering popular works, educational works, works of theory, biographies of scientists, etc. Readers are interested in many subjects and people enjoy reading about science if it is well presented.

Is it easy to find authors – whether scientists or otherwise – able to 'translate' science for a wide public?
It is not difficult to find authors. On the other hand, what is more difficult is to find competent translators, partly because of the sometimes precarious economic circumstances in which they work. There are certain major cultural traditions – in particular in German and English – in which quality popularisation and scientific education are deeply rooted. Many foreign authors are published in the Scienza e idee collection. A good example is Le trame dell'evoluzione by Niles Eldredge, which in a way achieves a synthesis of Darwin and the principal ideas of contemporary geology by transposing the concept of evolution to the study of the earth and our environment.

But, of course, we also work with reputed Italians, such as Umberto Bottazzini, a mathematics historian and excellent populariser of science, the physicist and now biologist Edoardo Boncinelli, expert on the history of medicine and health institutions Giorgio Cosmacini, and many others. We also make room for less renowned scientists. It is sometimes interesting to bring together a young researcher and a renowned professor.

Scientific publishers can also turn to classical authors whose works merit being made available to the public and can even open up new avenues for us. There are certainly a lot of new works to be discovered, past and present, for those publishers who are ready to take a gamble.

Do the sales of some works allow you to take a chance with other works, as is the case in other areas of publishing?
Of course. One of the tasks of an adviser to a publishing house is to convince his bosses to invest in authors who may not be instant best sellers but whose books will stand the test of time. A few years ago it was a gamble to publish Karl Popper, and when publishers such as Raffaello Cortina or Jaca Book decided to publish Jqcques Deridda, who has now become essential reading, they needed the courage of pioneers.

Do European scientific publishers co-operate between themselves?
Sometimes. I have mainly had the pleasure of working with French, German and British publishers and I believe they valued the experience too. I have also had particularly positive relations with Portuguese publishers, a country which is showing increasing intellectual dynamism and courage. Ireland is also very interesting. No doubt there will be other opportunities in the future. Just think about the wealth of Russian culture and the scientific tradition and depth of reflection found in the Baltic countries.

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Giulio Giorello – 'Science and technology are a culture, and culture, in the widest meaning of the term, must confront other cultures – or it risks becoming a vanquished culture.'

Giulio Giorello – 'Science and technology are a culture, and culture, in the widest meaning of the term, must confront other cultures – or it risks becoming a vanquished culture.'


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