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From illiteracy to mass education, thanks to science. An interview with Piero Angela

From illiteracy to mass education, thanks to science. An interview with Piero Angela

A well-known Italian journalist and television personality, for almost fifty years Piero Angela has been promoting the critical spirit and science education, explaining research results and the impact of technology on television. We met him at the Senate, during an event in memory of astrophysicist Nanni Bignami, and asked him a few questions.

Scientific knowledge plays an important social role, and yet there is someone who questions its usefulness. Why should we trust science? 

Because science, as someone has said, is the highest form of common sense. Science must always demonstrate what it says, contrary to what happens around us. So, scientists are serious people. 

But, above all, science is the mother of technology, many applications come from knowledge. And these applications are rapidly changing the world. 

Sometimes people say, and think, that it is politics that creates wealth. Politics has never created wealth in the course of human history. For centuries and millennia, the majority of people remained illiterate, poor, in poor health and lived short lives.

It all changes when technology, the daughter of knowledge, turns a wheel, enters cultivated fields thus starting a multiplication of loaves and fish. Suddenly, the number of farmers in Italy, for example, goes from 70% in 1860 to 4% today and to 1% in the United States. 

So, in the last century, automation has created the wealth that has allowed us to go to school, take care of ourselves, have an income, create culture. This is the great revolution: from mass illiteracy to mass education.

What is today the main challenge that science and technology pose to us?

Today there is a new revolution, the digital revolution, which is creating extraordinary opportunities but also immense problems. In a world that has changed a lot, some live in this century, others - culturally - in other centuries. 

It is therefore necessary, especially in schools and universities, to inform young people about the new world they will enter. And make them understand that everything has changed. In Italy we are a bit behind, I would say also abroad, but we must understand the new world which is coming, and which will cause many problems, it has often been said, including unemployment problems. 

The race against the machine, as someone has called it, should be led, we shouldn’t simply surrender to it. And therefore culture, information, school, television and many initiatives that give information even outside the school are absolutely necessary today to seriously face this new world. 

Speaking of information, what are the main ingredients to communicate scientific research in a correct, effective and even engaging way? 

I always say that the formula is very simple: on the side of scientists for the content, on the side of the public for the language. 

Today, however, it is necessary, not only for science but also for society, to make sure that it is the values that lead this process. It is not enough to know things, or to create extremely efficient machines and systems, if there are no values ​​behind them that can guide this process. This is a very difficult challenge, particularly for our country, which is still behind on this point.  

One last curiosity. You are a master of science communication, a great expert in science, but you are also a music lover and a pianist. Is there anything in common between these two seemingly distant passions of yours? 

Well, creativity: the pleasure of discovering on the one hand, of creating on the other. After all, music and science and research have many things in common in the people that practice them. Because you invent, discover and create in science, too. 

I can tell you in advance that, among other things, I am working on a five-part programme entitled Quark Musica, in which we will talk about musical instruments with great soloists who will show how their instruments work and will also play. I will accompany them in classical and jazz performances. 

Publication date 02/08/2018