Like a flight of starlings
by Giorgio Parisi
Translated from Italian by Sophie Lem
Flammarion, 208 pages, €20
The general public discovered it at the beginning of September, during a controversy over the cooking of pasta, by turning off the heat on the last minutes to save energy. Outcry in Italy, country of origin of Giorgio Parisi, kingdom of farfalle and other penne. But the man behind the stove is above all a brilliant physicist, Nobel Prize in 2021, committed to fundamental research, access to knowledge and the defense of the environment.
The observation of starlings also opens his work, a poetic introduction to a more difficult scientific explanation. What do flocks of birds and spin glasses (1), theoretical models used in physics and for which the physicist is famous for, have in common? The complexity.
Whether organizing spins, atoms, starlings or Shakespeare characters, the collective movements of several seemingly disordered elements respond to complex interactions. In this sense, the pointed and very fundamental research of Giorgio Parisi has a universal scope, between individual behavior and collective harmony. This is precisely where the book is most interesting.
Between the maelstrom of starlings and the different phases of water, Giorgio Parisi has nested a brief but fascinating autobiographical chapter, where we walk through the corridors of the University of Rome “La Sapienza” at the end of the 1960s. from the irruption of the neofascists in 1968 to the slow international communication between researchers, this glimpse of a world of research that has now disappeared says more about the man behind the physicist.
Far from nostalgia, the man who has spent almost his entire career in Italian universities retraces his vision of research, fundamental but not disconnected from the real world. “Technological development is unthinkable without a parallel progress of pure science “, he believes. As such, the passage on research and industry in Italy and state divestment will evoke many situations comparable to French scientists.
Giorgio Parisi also recalls that “emphasizing the immediate benefits of research is folly”. Before quoting the British physicist Michael Faraday, who, when asked about the usefulness of his experiments on electromagnetism, would have replied “ for the moment, I don’t know but in all probability you will take taxes on it one day “. Maybe one day the glasses of spins will also have their taxation.