Thursday, July 22, 2010

Italy, the country of scientific sensationalism

Hi all,
starting from a comment I made to a buzz of a friend of mine, I take the opportunity to write a couple of things about a "sensational" article published on Repubblica's online edition on July 15th 2010.

"Newton was wrong
gravity doesn't exists"

In the US restarts the debate about the principles outlined by the famous scientist thanks to the works of a Dutch physicist: "His theory is an illusion". Erik Verlinde binds his criticism to the strings and holographic universe hypoteses

If you understand Italian, here you are the link to the article:

I would like to know what is your reaction to this title, apart from the strings theory and the holographic universe (named in the subheading as the perfect background to the main overstatement, as if the journalist himself is accustomed with those new theories which seems to ridicule classical physics).

What was my reaction? I was ashamed to be a reader of that stuff. I was ashamed of Italian scientific sensationalism. I was indignant for the stupidity and ignorance with this journalist (just to be read) makes fun of Newton an moreover about his studies on gravitation!

I don't want to defend the dear old Sir Isaac as a physics totem, such a new Aristotle versus a new impertinent Galileo... mine is a defense of a right scientific information and a refusal of the sensationalism which upsets the core of research.

Isaac Newton by Godfrey Kneller - 1689
Not many words are needed in order to understand how a title like that is in open contrast with the spirit at the foundation of any scientific and cultural progress. The fact I have to cite Sir Newton himself about this, makes me more angry about the ignorance of the journalist even if this quote raises suddenly the level of the discussion, leaving the overstatements to what they are.
So wrote Isaac Newton about Optics matters to Robert Hooke on February 15th, 1676:
"What Descartes did was a good step. You have added much several ways, and especially in taking the colours of thin plates into philosophical consideration. If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants."

Newton himself was one of those Giants. We know that. He knew that. Anyway this is the naked truth he recognized: we all due the starting point of any research, to our predecessors. This is the deep humility only the great people are able to maintain even when they are aware of the extraordinary contributions to world's knowledge given by themselves.
This understanding generates respect for the predecessors, even if our new theory fits more reality revealing the mistakes and the errors of the previous one.

But we are different! We like controversy! We like gossip! And "our correspondent" il Mr. Federico Rampini well knows that. He doesn't stop to copy, adapt and translate this article published only 3 days before on the NYTimes (like this I could be an "our correspondent" too :-D).
He choose a stupid title which bring his article we below the lever of the original one: more precise and less controversial. By the way it's very funny to read at the bottom of the page © RIPRODUZIONE RISERVATA (reproduction limited)... but... that was a plagiarism itself !!!

The bitter conclusion is that we don't really know what is the cause and what the effect.
We cannot state if it is the ignorance in science, many Italians are subjected to, the cause of this insane arrogance or if it's the opposite: because of daily stupid discussions or worse, because the spread of rubble called "science" (TV shows like Mr.Giacobbo's Voyager) true science information in the right tones doesn't interest the people and even less the young generation.

Cassini Saturn Orbit Insertion
In our country truth is a personal opinion, even in science. We are not only free to think what we want about "gravity" but if we think our theory is better than Newtons we can insult him without any problem.
It doesn't matters that Newton's equations let us place spacecraft in incredible orbits around Saturn!
The outcome of this article is that, if the gravity will be demonstrated as an effect of entropy.. then Newton can be called "a great idiot"!
Even if it was the second half of the 17th century.
Even if he was so honest to understand the honor to start his research from what he could see "standing on the shoulders of giants."
Even if the scientist who proposed this new theory didn't insulted Newton in that way.
Even if who wrote that article speaking loudly of strings theory  and holographic universe probably finds hard to remember the universal gravitation equation and what a revolution it was for physics.

In Italy gossip takes the place of information. That it's unbelievably true for scientific information too. And this happens on one of the media which denounce everyday the "cultural drift" of this country.
That's really sad.