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
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
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
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
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
Do European scientific publishers co-operate
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.