Living in Padova has its merits. I moved here since January 1st and am enjoying every bit of it. I used to live in Venice, my home town, and commute with Padova during weekdays, but a number of factors led me to decide on this move (not last the fact that I could afford to buy a spacious place close to my office in Padova, while in Venice I was confined to a rented apartment).
Besides the nice fact that my alarm clock has been disposed of, and that my commute time has been cut by a factor of seven, Padova offers more to somebody like me than Venice. Venice is an astoundingly beautiful place, of course, but decades of bad political choices have restricted its existence to that of a tourist attraction. Living there is no longer any fun for me. In Padova, today I could walk to a TedX event that has been organized at 3 minutes distance from my home, to listen to the inspiring talk my colleague Piero Martin was giving there.
Piero Martin (here is his wordpress site, mostly in Italian) is also a Venetian, but is more a die hard than me in this respect - commuting from there does not scare him. Martin is an experimental nuclear physicist. Besides attending his teaching duties as a professor in Padova, writing books, and giving talks on the radio, at Ted, and at festivals around (he is quite active in science outreach), he is a researcher at RFX, a facility that studies hot plasmas. Piero studies how we can recreate in the lab the temperatures of the core of our Sun, to provide us with unlimited, clean energy from fusion reactions.
Piero's talk centered on the importance and on the good aspects of the error. He was quite amusingly introduced by the host, Cecchi Paone, who purposedly fell on the scene, then misspoke about the event being in Vicenza rather than Padova, and so on, to explain that sometimes errors can be a good thing. But Piero was more incisive in making the point.
He mentioned how Enrico Fermi wrote an errata corrige to his Nobel acceptance speech of 1938: he acknowledged having misunderstood as transuranian elements what were fission products. This, argued Martin, did not detract anything from Fermi's contribution to science, and indeed it adds to his image as a scrupulous, accurate scientist. They, too, make mistakes, but they admit to making them. Who has not made any mistake in his or her life, asked the speaker to the audience ? Nobody could raise a finger, and indeed, we all do make mistakes. Mistakes help us grow, they are the key to learning since our infancy. And speaking openly of your mistakes is an altruistic gesture, which helps other not fall in the same trap.
The error, in science, is a needed companion to our advancements. We walk on a thin line at the cutting edge of our knowledge, to look forward, leaning on the improbable, and risk falling in traps we set to ourselves. Only thus can we explore what lays beyond. Martin explained how the Higgs boson was found by the LHC experiments by a humbling process of ascertaining the experimental uncertainties, always present in any measurement, and only after they could be removed as a possible explanation of the observed effect, could the discovery be claimed. This fruited another set of Nobel prizes.
So the error is important, useful, it makes us progress and become more knowledgeable. We need to doubt about everything, be open to alternative explanations about everything. And this should be compared to the attitude of pseudosciences, when certainties are sold. Certainties are reassuring, but -as Feynman often said - one needs not be scared of doubt: only by doubting everything can we learn the truth.
The audience was visibly impressed by Martin's talk, and I think his was among the most notable contributions to this event in Padova. The clarity of his speech was also acknowledged by the anchor at the end of the presentation. This can be archived as a true example of how the scientific method and its merits should be explained to laypersons.
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