Conversations by Primo Levi and Tullio Regge

An erudite and entertaining exchange between two notable Italian minds. Is it relevant that they are Italian? Yes, since one of the things discussed is the impact of Fascism on education and science in particular. And yet here they are, survivors in more ways than one, in the case of Levi.

Primo Levi explains why, at the age of past sixty, he felt he must learn to write with a word processor – and this was in the late seventies/early eighties.

I read Pozzoli’s book Writing With a Computer, and it had on me the effect of the bugle call that wakes you up in the barracks. I realised that today one can certainly live without a computer, but one lives at the margins and is bound to become more and more detached from active society. The Greeks said of a person without culture: ‘He can neither write nor swim.’ Today one should add: ‘Nor use a computer’.

I’m surprised that one could say this so early. I got my first computer around 1988 and this was scarcely a common thing to do yet. And a person may be living on the margins with one – I can see that in the case of my mother, for example, who sees them as the work of the devil – but she is very cultured. The connection isn’t one I see, any more than thinking swimming is a cultured thing to do. Full disclosure – neither my mother nor I know how to swim.

Regge on how he became a physicist despite the best efforts of his father.

‘Get a serious degree, my father kept saying. Physics isn’t serious. If you want to do physics, get a degree in chemistry too, because put together they are like a degree in engineering. And when I got my degree in physics with the highest marks and I was given a teaching fellowship, he still insisted. At a certain point I went to Russia and Pravda published my photograph. I cut it out and sent it to my father. “So he’ll stop telling me to get a degree in chemistry,” I explained to my Russian friends who asked me why. This anecdote is still in circulation even now. I always run into somebody who asks me if my father is still insisting.’

Levi on the way in which his training in chemistry influenced how he wrote. And on becoming free of it as his job.

I spent the day after my resignation strolling through the streets of Turin on a working day: a working day – do  you realise what that meant? No more office hours, no more crossing town during the rush hours; and every blessed day, no night calls because a valve has broken or a rainstorm has flooded the cable beds. I felt I had avalanches of free time at my disposal: if before I had written three or four books, working in the evening and on Sunday, now I would write another twenty or thirty. Instead it didn’t go like that: a friend of mine used to say that in order to do things, ‘one mustn’t have time.’ Time is an eminently compressible material.

Scientists discussed include Einstein – this might seem to be a given, but in fact Regge’s important contributions to theoretical physics included work on Relativity – Hoyle, Dyson, Wheeler, Everett, Oppenheimer. And Gödel, this from Regge:

Very shy. Once I met him at a dinner, and I think I’m one of the few people who spent a few hours at table with him. I managed to extract something from him; not very flattering comments on Bertrand Russell, a few more benevolent opinions on Peano. I asked him whether he had been part of the Vienna Circle: he answered with a dry and conclusive ‘no.’ He was a close friend of Morgenstern, the economist, who one day went to see him but found the house deserted. A pot was boiling on the stove but of Gödel not a trace. Knowing what he was like, Morgenstern began to inspect the house and found him in the cellar hidden behind some sacks of coal, his phobia of visitors was so great.

In fact, a lot goes into this little book, even though it feels like a natural meander in the way a conversation should. Anybody interested in history of science will love it.




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