One day, a narrator who looks a lot like the physicist Toni Pou (El Masnou, 1977) sees a video in which Italo Calvino claims that the best prose writer in Italian in history is… Galileo! From here, as you read If a finger points to the moon (Anagrama), becomes obsessed with the figure of the Italian scientist, goes to Florence to see one of his first telescopes and decides to go to the Atacama desert, where there is one of the main telescopes on the planet, to look through a purpose-built replica and find out what Galileo would have seen before calling into question all the science of the day. In the middle, he builds a story that parallels science with artistic creation.
It is a novel that does not seem.
I have used resources, a style and a way of doing things that seems more like a report or a chronicle. Literary techniques are often used to do journalism. If the reader has to be calmer, I can say that I have been in Florence, in the Atacama… and I try to show it, because there are things that are very well documented and very real and very exact, and this patina of truth gives it credibility. There are things that are true and others that are not, because it is a novel.
So you’re not so clumsy that you’re about to kill two replica Galileo telescopes?
Not in principle, ha ha ha! The narrator is, me not so much.
Was it difficult for you to differentiate your narrator from yourself, then?
Yes it cost me. It’s easier to use a character that looks like you, because you don’t have to think a lot, you don’t have to build psychs or anything, and you might think I’ve taken the easy way out, and I accept that, but it’s the way I it comes out more natural to write, to put myself in a point of view closer to me, although I distort the character and make him do and say things that I would not do. It is also one of the reasons why there are people who think that everything has happened point by point as I narrate.
At the end of the day, it is about finding your subject: when you find it and feel a click inside you, everything flows”
But Galileo did not make fiction, he explains the scientific truth.
Yes, but he also wrote poetry and plays, some literary attempts that seem to be quite bad, curiously. Later, when he wrote about the things that interested him, he did it very well, he found a style that was very natural to him, he searched for the truth. He was trying to find out how the world works, he was interested in how natural phenomena work. It seems that this excited him so much that when he wrote he came out much better than with any other source of inspiration. At the end of the day, it’s about finding your theme: when you find it and feel a click inside you, everything flows.
Just as in science the important thing is the result, in the arts the process has more value.
An artist goes through an exploration process, and in the end there is a result that depends a lot on the process. In science the result is what remains, but perhaps we have focused too much on the value of the results, which are also always provisional. During the pandemic itself, perhaps it has not been well understood how science works, its process, very enriching and very creative, which responds to the same passions or human characteristics as art, such as inspiration, stubbornness, the importance of the ego, dynamics very human that in science are also on the agenda.
There are no isolated geniuses, but rather the work of large teams, collaborations from various countries”
But with teamwork.
Of course, in Galileo’s time it did not happen, it was the most romantic age of science, which reaches until the beginning of the 20th century at the most, with great geniuses who were quite lonely although they also communicated with each other. Galileo, Newton, Einstein… Today there are no longer isolated geniuses, they are working in large teams, collaborations from several countries, experiments are increasingly complicated, you need larger structures…
This can be seen a lot in the description of the Atacama telescope, a “perfect machine”.
It’s something amazing. When you think of a telescope you think of a tube through which you look and see something a little bigger, but today’s telescopes are a great feat of engineering…
There isn’t even a picture…
There is an image but it is not seen by your eyes but by computers. In addition, in what computers capture there are also colors of the spectrum that the human eye does not see, a great advance, and often more than an image there are graphs.
The images we see everywhere are some kind of artistic recreations, right?
Yes, I think that the only image of recent years that is quite real, but also processed, is that of a black hole. It is quite real, although there is a composition of various lights that the eyes do not see. The ones we see are images made with scientific data, but it is not like a photo.
It is art trying to teach what we cannot see, well.
Clear. It reminds me of what Galileo did: he saw the Moon in a rather flawed image and since he had pictorial background, he identified that it was mountains, craters, valleys… and he drew it very well. They are simple but very clear drawings. He used artistic expression to show something that no one could see at the time. It is in fact the same thing that happens now, although today they are huge machines that collect millions of gigabytes of data and millions of hours of observation and there are some artists who are entire studios that draw it. But basically it’s the same, looking at something that you see as imperfect and unclear and interpreting it according to the scientific and artistic knowledge you have.
Galileo used artistic expression to show something that no one could see at the time”
In the book, however, he does not explain what he sees through the replica he has built of Galileo’s telescope in the Atacama…
Because it is precisely a book that emphasizes the process of scientific research. And the book, deep down, is also an investigation of the process, because a lot has changed during its preparation, during the writing. The scientific process must be valued in order to understand that science and the humanities and artistic creation are very similar things. In the end, what the narrator, and therefore the reader, would end up seeing is not that interesting to me.
But how was the experience, captivating or maybe there was no big deal?
In the book I aim for a little: in the end everything is a range of grays. We want to embellish everything, but in the end things are neither one extreme nor the other. When the narrator has doubts, he already comes to say: if I see a very clear image it will not have any merit, and if I see a totally blurred image it will be a stratospheric disaster… in the middle terms is where the complexity and richness of these investigation processes.
And where does the money come from to be able to travel so much? It doesn’t have to be cheap…
I made these trips paying for them out of my own pocket. With a certain time, not in six months like in the book. In Atacama I paid for it myself, and they helped me not from an economic point of view but from a logistical one. Being admitted there is already a big thing, not just anyone can go, they have to find you a place to sleep, they have to bring water, even if it seems like an Asian luxury afterwards. But it’s all self-financing.
He cites a lot of artists and scientists, but are the reflections behind it the ones he learns along the way or did he already have it before or after?
I had a series of experiences during my trips, and I had some readings, but at the time of putting together the book, everything has been put into place and I have continued to explore all these issues during the writing process, which was quite an exploration artistic: you start with an idea that interests you but you don’t know exactly how it will end. And during the process I have been relating pieces that I have been reading and fitting them into a narrative thread and that make sense to build a discourse about what I wanted to say.
And what did he mean?
This idea that is expressed in a very simple way: science and the humanities or artistic creation are activities that are much more alike than we think.
When building the hypotheses, the aesthetic criterion has been very important”
For a time there was a lot of talk about the aesthetics of science, about how scientific formulas had to be aesthetic, because if they weren’t, maybe they weren’t good…
That already comes from the Greeks, the relationship between truth, beauty and simplicity, like a triangle. This vision now has many critics, but until the middle of the 20th century it was used. Those who we consider the great scientists of history, and very particularly the people who have dedicated themselves to physics, have often used beauty as an argument to choose one proposal or another. Afterwards, experiments have to be carried out as well, but when constructing the hypotheses, the aesthetic criterion has been very important. It has a basis, and it is that many times the beauty of a scientific theory lies in its simplicity, in the ability to explain very different and varied things with very few resources, and deep down it is the objective of science. The Pythagorean theorem, for example, explains all the triangles that have existed and can exist. Science wants to make this synthesis. Now there is some criticism of this very aesthetic vision, because there are scientists who say that nature does not necessarily have to be beautiful, it does not have to meet our aesthetic criteria, in the most intimate functioning of nature, and therefore it does not is a valid criterion. I think that it does have a certain degree of validity if you understand it as an expression of simplicity.
Catalan version, here