Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Of books and men

Cave hominem unius libri

For months I have been engaged in a fight to preserve one of the most prominent features of our campus: an excellent, very high quality, scientific bookstore. The administration's hasty decision to close the academic bookstore as part of planned budget cuts reveals something deeper than the general hysteria caused by the current economic crisis. There is a deeper undercurrent, which is very disturbing, and which is ultimately responsible for the seemingly inconceivable decision taken by one of the most famous universities that an academic bookstore is a useless surplus better replaced (so are the current proposals) by a recreation room for undergraduate students. Surprised? I was, of course, but on second thought this is the harvest of dangerous ideological seeds planted long ago, in this very same place (the troublesome legacy of Richard Feynman, if you wish). This academic community has a peculiar composition, being essentially a community of scientists and engineers, with a much reduced presence of humanities and social sciences. That by itself should not constitute a heightened risk of extinction for academic bookstores: after all there is a thriving scientific culture, with excellent publishers that each year produce a wealth of research monographs in every field of pure and applied sciences. The bookstore we used to have, a real dream bookstore for anyone who loves scientific culture, was tangible proof of how lively and healthy the scholarly production is that creates and sustains the current technical and scientific development. However, not all scientists would regard their - our - cultural heritage as something to cherish and protect. There is a dangerous voice, which comes from a fringe component within the scientific community, but which unfortunately tends to express itself in very loud screams, widely heard by media, university administrations, and the population at large, according to which "real men don't read books". Quite apart from the immediately evident fascistic connotation of such statements, even when dressed up in apparently milder forms such as Grothendieck's infamous utterance "we don't read books, we write them", such statements are just simply dangerous as well as dishonest. The ideology behind it is as simplistic and naive as it can possibly be: reading books is bad because one should only think with one's own mind, as if one's own mind would exist in a vacuum, away from the culture that produced our education and scientific training, the historic context in which we and our science exists. Newton knew better when he said that he had been able to see farther than others because he sat on the shoulders of giants. Without acquiring the knowledge of those giants, transmitted to us by what they conveyed to posterity through their written words that we read and learn, we would be not on their shoulders but under their heels. Nobody exists in a vacuum, no matter how gigantically inflated their egos may be! Statements of the "real men don't read book" kind only reveal the sickness of the person expressing them, and nothing at all about books. Actually, books are the greatest invention that the human species ever produced, and the only thing that gave us a concrete possibility of advancing our civilization. It is a way for human beings to talk to one another across the barriers of time and space, voices reaching us from the depths of our history and from the remote corners of the world. It is what gives us the capacity to retain and transmit knowledge, to transcend the isolation of our immediate surroundings and converse with the plurality of views and thoughts that all of us, as a united human species, have been able to produce. Whoever choses to rather live in a solipsistic universe, where the only dialog possible is with oneself, will end up in a much impoverished state of mind. So why do certain scientists, very distinguished ones like Feynman and Grothendieck among them, hide behind such dangerous ideological statements against reading books? Essentially as a macho bullying strategy to protect the ultimate fragility of their overly inflated egos. Because reading books brings one in contact with other people's minds, their thoughts, their ideas, their existence, and the existence of others threatens the solipsistic ego and his fantasies of superiority. I find this type of ideology not only repulsive, but I think it is one of the greatest dangers to science, and the closing of our marvelous scientific bookstore became a sad tangible proof. I am still fighting against all odds to revert this tragic decision, not only because I think that this will affect dramatically our life style on campus and will be detrimental to our research activity, not only because the nearest bookstore of comparable quality is up in SF, but because I do believe in the existence of a culture of science. What science is about is not just playing with riddles of the sphinx to prove one is clever enough to solve them and please one's ego in doing so. Perhaps for some people that is the case, but it would be a very sad state of affairs if that were all there is to it. Science is about creating our world view, about how human beings interact with nature and the universe, about how we share that knowledge and its benefits. It is all about knowledge and the way this grows upon previous knowledge in a long self-correcting process of interaction with all the people involved across cultures and ages. Science belongs to the whole of humanity and the scholarly literature that we write and read is the way in which this knowledge is transmitted and generates new ideas, new advances, other knowledge about the world and ourselves. When people transmit their knowledge to other people through the medium of the written word, a miracle happens that would not have been possible at all were transmission of ideas limited to oral exchanges: a book speaks to whoever cares to read it, regardless of whom the author had imagined its intended recipient to be. I want to stress this point because it is of enormous relevance in two different, but equally important, ways. First of all this makes it possible to generate unexpected cross-fertilization of ideas: a technical book written by a mathematician for mathematicians ends up in the hands of a physicist who finds in it something that unexpectedly fits precisely what s/he had in mind in a completely different context. Without the medium of books this would not happen so easily: mathematicians would generally talk to one another and ideas would have a much harder time percolating outside of closed circles. The second important effect of the universality of the written word is how enormously helpful that can be in the inclusion within the scientific community of traditionally excluded groups of people. While many scientists nowadays would unfortunately still speak very differently to a man or a woman, to a white or a black person (if you don't believe it just go to conferences for a while, until you are totally and genuinely sick), when they write a book, then that speaks in the same way to anybody who reads it. It does not matter if the author is a sexist racist bastard (plenty of those out there, sadly) who thought he was writing a book that would only be read by white males: once the book is written, what speaks to you are the ideas, not the person who wrote them, and the ideas may be beautiful science that speaks to any human being. That is another reason why books are the best way for knowledge to be exchanged between human beings. Ideas are what matters, not people, as those are the ones that will survive. Defending scientific culture and the importance of books is not just about the importance of protecting and sharing our knowledge, but also about generating a scientific community that is inclusive and not exclusive, that is progressive and not marred by latently fascist ideologies or hijacked by egotistic delusions of grandeur. Science is the common heritage of mankind.
Save Our Science: read books!