15 gennaio 2013
by Stefano Sandrelli

“If the universe was born / from a stew of gases / a stew not a brew
/ then how is it possible, how... / but here the swan’s quill / that still
though it’s late / belongs to the poet / fell from his hand.” These verses
were written by Eugenio Montale in the mid-1970s. What a wonderful,
ironical way for a poet to express how he felt about the complexity of
contemporary science, which – as Italo Calvino had stated a few years
earlier – “no longer gives us images that can be represented; the world
it opens up for us is beyond the realm of any possible image. And yet”
– Calvino added, in his accompanying note to Cosmicomics, his most
scientifi c work – “for the profane reader of scientifi c books [...], occasionally
a sentence awakens an image. I have tried to make a note of some,
and to develop them into a story; into a special type of ‘comicosmic’
(or ‘cosmicomic’) tale”.
Throughout the decades, from the 1960s, the story of Renzo Bergamo’s
life is the story of an artist that did not let science, albeit increasingly
more diffi cult to represent, scare him. To the contrary, for Bergamo considering
and having a vision of universal and cosmic themes was at the
same time a physical, mental and material necessity. What is infi nitely
far is never too abstract – indeed it is imminent in its materiality.
Unlike Montale, and in the same years in which Calvino began his
experimental journey with the Cosmicomics, Bergamo started his
own world of cosmic fi ction – tracing the word ‘fi ction’ back to its
etymological root. Bergamo offers us a vision of the skies’ reality
that he deformed and shaped, as an artist and demiurge moulding
his world, faithful to the incoherence that is the hallmark of life, not
of fundamental science.
In Bergamo’s work, we must highlight the artist’s constant effort to
cultivate and communicate his own vision of the cosmos, resisting
the temptation to let “the swan’s quill” (or paintbrush, in his case) fall
from his hand. His endeavour strikes us with the continual production
of shapes, colours, and structures that were confi rmed in the following
decades by telescopes such as the Hubble Space Telescope, which
changed both the collective imagination and the scientifi c representation
of the universe.
It may seem too easy, perhaps even obvious. The universe, in its fi nite
expanse, offers such a fantastic, endless zoological range that it can
match any abstract image with a galaxy, nebula or comet that will
be close to identical, give or take a puff of gas or dust. That is why I
personally have no particular interest in determining to what degree
the shapes imagined by Bergamo are realistic or true to astronomy’s
fi ndings.
As an astrophysicist, I fi nd it far more interesting to explore how the
universe of astronomy and the universe imagined by the artist came
together to form another world, another universe. It prompts the ageold
question: who imagines what? And where does the sequence stop?
Are astronomers studying the real universe, or the universe imagined
by Bergamo, who was in turn imagined? In front of Bergamo’s paintings
I feel that if I look carefully I might fi nd – just as I examine the
picture: right there, on the right, in that scuffl e of colour – a planet that
resembles ours. Looking even closer, I might even see myself, and my
eyes as they are looking... Borgesian memories.
The cosmos as the cradle of all possible worlds
Hence the cosmos is the cradle of all possible worlds. Of numerous
Utopias. When Giangiacomo Gandolfi of the Rome Planetarium and I
co-edited a collection of short stories about astronomy (Piccolo atlante
celeste: racconti di astronomia, Einaudi 2009), we were struck by a specifi c
element in the cosmos, and decided to mention it in our introduction:
“Looking at the sky is defi nitely dangerous. Even without falling down.
Sure, pratfalling and having your buttocks suddenly hit the ground may
lead to unpleasant discoveries: there are bills to pay, hungers to feed,
and a body that demands to be taken care of properly. Falling forces
us to reconnect with a reality that is far from abstract and elevated. A
reality that is uncomfortable, but offers the luxury of being predictable.
Let’s think about someone who does not fall: Pirandello’s Ciàula, for
example. Ciàula lives in the mine where he works: he slips underground
in the morning and stays there the whole day. His life is there – we’d
like to say between those walls, but in fact there are no walls, just a dark
tunnel inside the Earth. In his home, and in his life, Ciàula can’t even
fathom the starry sky. Sure, he has seen the sky before. But distractedly,
like a fl eeting image: he has never stopped to contemplate it. So, when
he fi nally climbs out of his well and discovers the Moon – wonderful,
sublime – the Sicilian miner really looks at it for the fi rst time. That is
why he kneels down and starts crying: he sees in that astronomical
body – white, luminescent, wonderful, as Galileo often described it in his
writings – a world that he had never even had the chance to consider.
“Gazing at the stars is dangerous: if you don’t fall down, you might still
get the feeling that another world is possible. And then this world will
not be enough anymore.”
But why is such an astronomical Utopia more relevant and dangerous
today than a few decades ago? What has changed in the past 40-50 years
that separate us from Montale and Bergamo’s fi rst steps?
The launch of the Hubble Space Telescope – which has been in operation
for over 20 years now –, of other space telescopes that can pick up
extremely high and low energy, of new great ground-based telescopes,
and the parallel growing popularity of the Web, have put us all into direct,
daily contact with the cosmos; the universe is suddenly digitalized into
our homes. Paradoxically, while light pollution thwarts our nights’ starry
skies – and negates the law of nature – the universe comes back into
our lives through our broadband, coded in bits. It is far less sensorial,
but also much more dynamic, energetic, full of life and rapidly changing
than what it seems to the naked eye. After all, in astronomical terms
our lives are as short as a butterfl y’s: hardly anything happens “live” in
the cosmos. Just a few meagre asteroids, a handful of falling stars and
a rare supernova, less than once in a blue moon.
All in all, there are pros and cons. Technology has relentlessly invaded
our daily lives. Like any revolution, it has brought along many unsolved
problems, but it has also led to a renewed fl ourishing of images in science.
The digital era, for example, has made it possible for us to take
high-resolution pictures of unexpected cosmic sources: molecular clouds
carrying stellar “eggs”, globules of especially dense matter where a new
star is being born; planetary nebulae that identify gasses emitted by
stars that ceased existing thousands of years ago; eerie accretion disks
rotating around immense black holes.
But the real revolution, the real Utopia, was the discovery of planets
orbiting around stars different from the Sun. We now know of over 700
of them, and new ones are found every day. We can say for sure that
planetary systems are quite common in the cosmos, and form throughout
the universe. Therefore it has become increasingly challenging to believe
we are the only intelligent species to have evolved after the Big Bang.
The realm of Utopias turns into the realm of odds, as the universe is
so vast that it seems easier, and less arrogant, to think we are only one
of the many civilizations that developed. There are other worlds, and
perhaps other life forms, or even other social structures.
Astronomy today is a permanent revolution.