Massimo Mazzotti on the Genoa Science Festival

If ever there was a time to participate in the Genoa Science Festival (25 Oct.–4 Nov.), I figured, it was this year, following the catastrophic collapse of a bridge in the heart of the city last August. This was a major infrastructural failure that caused the death of 43 people and substantial material damage. The sudden disappearance of the 1967 cable-stayed motorway bridge from the skyline of the city has left an open wound, whose practical and symbolic significance is still in plain sight. The city is now divided into two halves, connected only by secondary, highly trafficked roads. As a consequence, the lives of thousands of commuters have radically changed, while moving containers in and out of the busy port has become more complicated and costly. Long-distance communications with Northern Italy and France are also directly affected. Last but not least, an artifact that had been hailed as a graceful symbol of technological innovation and economic prosperity has crumbled, shuttering the hopes of a city that was already struggling with long-term socioeconomic problems.

Aware of all this, I arrived in Genoa expecting a low-key edition of the Science Festival: I could not have been more wrong. The organizers—and indeed the entire city—instead turned the event into an occasion to get Genoa back on its feet. Far from being scaled down, this sixteenth edition of the Festival featured an impressive number and range of events: 128 public lectures and roundtables, 82 laboratories for children and grown-ups, 28 exhibitions, 13 theatre shows, and 15 special events, distributed across 41 different locations. Among them were iconic sites like the Doge’s Palace, the Museum of Natural History, and the impressive Acquario—the largest aquarium in Europe—designed by Renzo Piano, a Genoese, on a pier of the ancient port.

The Festival caters to a wide spectrum of visitors. This edition opened with packed plenary sessions by Alessio Figalli, one of the 2018 Fields medalists, on the theory of optimal transport and its applications, and by Elisa Resconi, Heisenberg professor for astroparticle physics at the Technical University of Munich, on gravitational waves. Recent breakthroughs in science and technology figured prominently on the program, as the Festival aims to be a stage where outstanding scientists from Italy and abroad can present and discuss their latest research. But the Festival aims also to offer a unique occasion for audiences of all ages to “experience” science through several interactive laboratories and hands-on exhibitions, some of which engage with pre-school children and their families. And indeed, one of the distinctive traits of this Festival is its large team of well-trained scientific instructors, about 500, most of them graduate and undergraduate students at the local university. The organizers consider this group key to the ultimate success of the Festival, as they keep much of it together under the banner: “discover, enjoy, learn: science changes your life.”

The Genoa Science Festival Association was established in 2003 as a non-profit organization for “the promotion and dissemination of science and technology to the general public.” Among its members are the University of Genoa, the Italian Institute of Technology, the National Research Council, the National Institute for Astrophysics, the National Institute for Nuclear Physics, the Gran Sasso Science Institute, and the Fermi Center, but also the municipality and the chamber of commerce of Genoa, the local employers’ federation, and the regional government. Funding for the Festival is secured through an articulated system of sponsorships and partnerships. The association sees its popularizing mission, and its support to scientific culture, education, and research, as having an essential civic function: the diffusion of scientific knowledge makes for “better citizens.” Through the Festival, which has high media visibility in Italy, the association also aims to convince policy makers to invest more in research and development, both nationally and in the region.

While the association and the international scientific committee that finalizes the program are obviously key to the Festival, its success also depends on an association of Friends of the Festival that effectively connects its events to the life of the city. This group promotes science-related events throughout the year and, during the Festival, it literally brings many of the roughly 300 invited speakers into the homes of the Genoese. How is this possible? At the height of its power, the Republic of Genoa vied with Venice for the control of the major trading routes and was one of the main banking centres in Europe. The city however, unlike other European capitals, did not have a site devoted to welcoming and hosting its most notable guests. In the sixteenth century, the senate of the republic decided that the entire city was a “republican royal palace,” and that guests would be allocated to families who owned palaces (the more impressive the palace, the higher the guests’ rank). Reviving this ancient tradition, Genoese families and associations now invite the speakers of the day to dinners that have become a distinctive and highly significant trait of the Festival.

Prominent themes in this edition were mathematics, astrophysics, medicine, robotics and disability, climate change, and sustainability. “Debunking” and “fake news” featured in the descriptions of many events, including a well-attended roundtable on “Deadly Bollocks.” It was fascinating to see how certain events were embedded in the texture of the old city, like an interactive exhibition on urban regeneration set in a deconsecrated Gothic church, or one on the role of media in fostering Fascist anti-Semitic propaganda, set in a nineteenth-century synagogue.

The Festival also featured a guest country, Israel, whose culture, science, and technology were given significant space within the program. The choice, according to the organizers, fit well the theme for the year: change. The theme was to be interpreted broadly, but there was a clear emphasis on understanding and controlling change in social and natural environments. In fact, the collapse of the bridge over the summer threw the question of environmental sustainability into an even sharper relief. To many participants, “change” certainly referred to the necessity of transforming the city of Genoa—its infrastructural system and its relation to a fragile territory, easily damaged and slow to recover from abuse, natural or man-made. As a further reminder of this fragility, during the Festival heavy rain, strong winds, and rough seas pummeled the city, causing extensive damage. The weather conditions turned so severe that, on October 29, rail traffic was suspended and all the events of the Festival scheduled for the day were cancelled. And yet, by the closing day, 150,000 visitors had checked in, and 90% of the events had sold out.

If the pounding rain underscored the urgency of the Genoese conversations on fragile environments, so does the wildfire smoke that makes it impossible for me to open the window as I write up this piece in California. How can historians of science contribute to such conversations? The Genoa Festival, like other similar events devoted to public engagement with science, did not feature much history, the emphasis being, above all, on the excitement of discovery and “innovation.” And yet, history of science had a foothold. For one thing, the collapse of the bridge had made dramatically clear that maintenance and long-term considerations should be at least as relevant as innovation. But there were also events devoted to the recognition of the contributions of numerous female scientists throughout history, and sessions on the transformation of physics in the twentieth century. History of science can bring diversity and possibilities in the conversation.

I was part of a roundtable on the historical conditions within which new ideas and gendered epistemic values emerged during the eighteenth century… ideas and values that excluded certain groups (women, non-white people) from the professional practice of mathematics. In particular, I argued that the existential and career trajectories of a few early modern women of science show clearly that their activity, while significant, was not the beginning of a story of emancipation. Instead, new historical conditions for exclusion ensued after a period of relative tolerance and participation. Historical development, it turns out, is not linear, and what we consider fundamental conquests are in reality precarious achievements, which can be contested and wiped out. Colleagues in roundtables and exhibitions on the history of scientific racism made similar considerations. One of the many things that historians of science can do well is to emphasize the precariousness of our social and scientific achievements. The message seems to have resonated strongly with audiences during those stormy Genoese days.