«Stars have always referred to man’s destiny. Also for Van Gogh, till the end, they remained a sign of a last possible hope. He confided: “Hope is in the stars”, and his many nocturn paintings stem from a “tremendous need for – I will use this word – religion, so I go outside at night to paint the stars”». These are the words of eminent Italian astrophysicist Marco Bersanelli, able to combine science, art and philosophy masterfully, which makes him – at least in our eyes – one of the most interesting Italian scientists.
He is Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Milan, where he is also Director of the Postgraduate Programme in Physics, Astrophysics and Applied Physics. Dr. Bersanelli is member of the Planck Science Team and is amongst the scientific supervisors of ESA’s Planck mission and also author of about 300 scientific publications. Recently, he has published the book “Il grande spettacolo del cielo” (Sperling & Kupfer 2016), in which collected personal reflections and quotes of colleagues of his’, poets and artists who let themselves be seduced by the beauty of the cosmos.
«It is paradoxical», he has explained in a recent interview, «today technology allows us to look at the depth of the Universe at a level which was unthinkable even few decades ago, yet this is the first generation who lost the habit to wonder to beauty of starry sky. We don’t marvel anymore at our surroundings». Undoubtedly, the skeptical and materialistic culture from which we all descend has hugely contributed to the disillusionment with which we approach life and to the disinterest in the ultimate questions, in the taste of the Good and the Thruth. The starry sky, for example, which not many people see living in bright and wealthy Western towns, rarely raises any question on the meaning of existence.
Yet unforgettable are the pages by Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi, who «only at the age of fifteen wrote a treatise on the history of astronomy, “the most sublime, the noblest amongst physical sciences”», explained Bersanelli. «In the cosmos, for him, man’s ultimate question about the meaning of his life and of the world is reflected, like in the poem “Canto notturno di un pastore errante dell’Asia”. Moreover, Leopardi realized that in the human being there is something bigger than the entire universe, which cannot be reduced to any measure. Reason recognises there are events that numbers cannot explain, like childbirth. In the face of this event also a billion light years will always be just a number». In addition, the astrophysicist continued, «the engine that drives the passion with which scientists act in this field is the possibility of revealing something about a given order, which we have not made and exists before us. It is no coincidence that the Catholic Church has actively supported astronomy, so much so that the Vatican Observatory is one of the oldest in the world. In the Christian tradition, the beauty of nature and the sky in particular is the sign par excellence of the Creator’s magnitude».
The Italian scientist also seized the opportunity to reduce recently excitement about the discovery of seven little planets “similar” to Earth, news that is without fail published every year on newspapers. «There has been an excessive mediatic clamour. Some planets were already known and it is false that they are comparable to Earth; they only have some similar characteristics. The presence of water is insufficient to conclude that they are “inhabitable”. Thousands of extrasolar planets of this kind have already been classified . However, at least this discovery has helped many people wonder about the big mystery of the universe. Also fom the educational point of view, it is vital to learn and let oneself be surprised by reality, even just by a sickle of moonlight».
Robert Boyle, great chemist and physicist, went so far as to write: «When with bold telescopes I survey the old and newly discovered stars and planets; when with excellent microscopes I discern the unimitable subtility of nature’s curious workmanship; and when, in a word, by the help of anatomical knives, and the light of chymical furnaces, I study the book of nature, I find myself oftentimes reduced to exclaim with the Psalmist, How manifold are Thy works, O Lord! in wisdom hast Thou made them all!»
The Editorial Staff