Friday, April 15, 2011

In defense of Watson

Nobel laureate James Watson was attacked yesterday (14 April 2011) whilst giving a lecture at Patras University. Hooded youngsters invaded the lecture theatre crying "racist!". One of them  jumped on the stage yielding a stick and attacked elderly Watson. The Nobel laureate escaped unharmed thanks to students and academics who rushed to his rescue.
I condemn this fascist incident which has to do with a twisted and quite insane idea that prevails in Greek Universities with regards to "asylum"; meaning that anyone within University grounds has immunity from the law, including criminal activities such as attacking someone with intent to cause harm, or even kill.
However, and because there will be many in Greece and elsewhere who apart from condeming the attack they might also accuse Watson for racism, let me remind what has happened; and then let me explain my take on this,
Watson had told the Sunday Times a couple of years ago that he was "inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa" because "all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours, whereas all the testing says not really." The world media reacted violently against those comments, the result being that Watson is being branded a racist and widely discredited. His response to the uproar has been: “To all those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologize unreservedly. That is not what I meant. More importantly from my point of view, there is no scientific basis for such a belief.”
So what did Watson really mean?
An undeniable and mysterious fact has been that during the half century or so in just about every industrial society average IQs have risen dramatically. This cannot be evolutionary. It takes many generations for evolutionary effects to take place and fifty years are simply not enough. So what has gone on? Many candidates: better diet, better education, even television aka the information revolution. All in all, what the findings mean is that Europeans and Americans – let us say predominantly “white people” (although black people in western societies are also included in those measurements) – were more "stupid" fifty years ago. This ‘stupidity” had nothing to do with the color of their skin. It is related to the level of social and economic development in the west. What Watson tried to say was that the same truth applies to Africa today. Africans’  measurements of intelligence (and not intelligence as a "natural" given whatever that may mean) are low not because they are black but because they are poor and uneducated, like us white ones were fifty years ago. His point is very poignant. When smart white people at the IMF and the World Bank develop their smart white policies to cure the ills of Africa, and then expect the Africans, at their present level of socio-economic development, to implement them, they are wasting valuable resources. Measures for Africa must be customized to reflect the situation on the ground. Imagine a World Bank expert on a time machine, flying back to Washington DC at the turn of the 20th century and expecting to implement modern policies in the all-white America of 1900s. I would dare to guess that our well-meaning time traveler will not be understood – by those white “stupid” folks, who would find it impossible to heed to our time traveler’s advise.
So why Watson did got so misunderstood? Because of two things. Firstly, because of media hysteria on anything that touches upon race and gender. Secondly, because when a scientist speaks to the media must tread very carefully. I have met many scientists in my life who thought that science communication in the media simply means “talking about science”. Well it does not, folks! It means, first and foremost, understanding the difference between a newspaper and a science journal. In the latter you have time to expand, retort, debate. In the former you do not. Elementary, dear Watson...

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

How to build a knowledge economy in Greece

An edited version of this article was published in Odyssey magazine Winter 2011 issue
There is something deeply pathetic about the current state of Greece. Perhaps it has to do with the spirit of defeatism that imbues our modern political discourse since the routing of our army in the 1920s. We pretend to be the victims of history, bemoan instead of actively claim, blame others for our mistakes, lie to ourselves and to the rest of the world. This endemic culture of intellectual hypocrisy has led to Greece becoming today little more than a negotiable holiday destination for middle-income tourists. But sun, sand and surf alone will not pay for the mounting debt, or for our pensions, or for our future if we ever hope to have one. We need to re-invent Greece and turn it to a dynamic, high tech, export-oriented economy. Anything short of wholesale economic revolution will perpetuate the looming crisis into the following decades, exclude our young from the abounding opportunities of a globalized economy, further cultivate our tendency for introversion, and render our country and our people historically irrelevant.

Much needs to change. Our state schools serve not the interests of our children but of the heavily-unionized teachers. They produce hordes of ignoramuses destined for a life of unemployment or underemployment. As a result, if you are a bright young mind from a low-income family you have very little chance of climbing up the social ladder, a right that was not refused to our fathers and grandfathers.
Our Universities are a disaster, with a few shining exceptions in various departments here and there. Our research centers struggle to pay salaries and bills. Many of their stymied young scientists have left careers abroad to come to Greece, only to discover that the cleaners get paid more than they. Our brain power is frustrated, underemployed or unemployed, watching from the sidelines. If any of them dare to venture into commercially exploiting their ideas they will come up against the hydra of Greek bureaucracy, the labyrinth of our tax system and the medusa of our labor laws. Only heroes in the mythical sense could grapple with these monsters and defeat them.
So the question is: given the current situation is there a chance in hell that Greece can ever become a high tech export country? A country that will not only learn to exploit its knowledge capital, but will compete for markets with players such as the Americans, the northern Europeans, the Israelis, the Indians, the Koreans, the Chinese and a host of others who shape the future of our world?
I believe there is. The first step will be to raise the importance of the issue in government. We need a minister for science, technology and innovation to carry out the reforms. He (or she) must have a clear and sustained mandate from the Prime Minister. S/he will have the responsibility of drafting legislation that will cover all the other four areas to be discussed. The current ministry of education will have to be absorbed in the new ministry, and focus on executing the reforms in schools and universities. The general-secretariat for research and technology will have to be integrated also in the new ministry and focus on linking research to industry.
School reform will be one of the four areas that the new ministry should lead. State schools need to be redesigned and teachers made to teach. Parents should be given the right to choose the school for their children, based on school evaluation by an independent agency. Schools should have independent governance and the freedom to become competitive by selecting personnel, expand their curriculum, etc. Their state income will be tagged to their evaluation reports, but they may also attract additional income from charities, local government or industry. Science and technology should be given prominence in the curriculum. Teachers should work with students around science projects and not only courseware. They should go out of the classroom more often and observe nature. Connect science and engineering to reality, to real problems, and enthuse young minds with the exhilaration that comes from discovery. The best performing students must be given a chance for quicker progress. Special schools of excellence for the brightest kids should return to existence. These kids should be taken through a more rigorous curriculum that would satisfy their curiosity and abilities. Gifted kids from the countryside should be helped to study in these schools, their boarding paid by special grants.
Secondly, we must devise a new framework to exploit our knowledge capital, starting from the universities. I’m afraid that the decadence and corruption that prevails in Greek Universities are too deeply ingrained to simply go away with half measures. Universities must be evaluated and some of them must close or change ownership (privitaized or taken over by local governments). One should identify centers of excellence in research, save those only, fund them generously, and build  state universities anew, with new rules of governance. Central government cannot afford to fund too many universities of high quality, so I suggest that state universities are kept in five main cities only; Athens, Thessaloniki, Patras, Ioannina and Herakleion. If the various towns and smaller cities want to keep theirs they should find the money to finance them. It may take a generation to get to the level of really having good state universities again, but it’s the only way to go. Have private universities immediately, in order to absorb the unemployed professors, but also to create a competitive environment for higher education.
Education can be both a citizen right and a market commodity; and we can have the best of both worlds. Students who pass university exams should be given a state grant for four years depending on their family’s income – and the right to spend it to the university of their choice, private or public. Rich kids will get no grant, but will be able to get a student loan.  Private and State Universities of high quality will attract students and their grants or loans, and thus survive and flourish. The rest can happily perish. Evaluation of Universities, state and private, will be carried out by an independent agency in order to inform students and their families.
But University reform, however radical and revolutionary, will not deliver any substantial results if not linked to the real economy. There are many who think that there is no real industry in Greece. This is not true. There is and our efforts should focus on what we have, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, materials and software. For the next ten years research centers in our Universities and in our research institutions should act solely as R&D departments for our core industries. Researchers will be paid by the government but work in their labs to increase the international competitiveness of the private enterprises. Contracts will guarantee that profits from patents developed in the labs will be shared with the researchers. If the government, or private entrepreneurs, can bring in investment from abroad in other industries, then surely this framework will prove to be a major incentive for foreign investors. Greece cannot fund every research area there is, so we must focus on supporting our industries and create new jobs. Blue-sky research and basic research should be funded by European grants or by exploiting Greece’s membership to international scientific organizations such as ESA, CERN and EMBL.
Thirdly, a legal and administrative system must be designed and applied in order to finance new high tech industries. This system should give incentives to banks, corporations and angel investors, to invest on high-risk ideas. Labor and tax laws must be simplified. High tech start ups must be given tax breaks for the first three years of their operation, and be able to tap in the R&D resources available at the research centers and the Universities. An important catalyst for technological innovation is defence procurment budgets. Greece spends a considerable precentage of it GDP in defence. A part of this could be allocated to innovative research which could find its way, after a few years, into civil application. This is a common practice for many countries and although Greece tried to do likewise in the 80s and 90s, it failed. It is time to assess the reasons for failure and reestablish a strong link between research and national defence.
Fourthly, there must be support for the high tech industries. The government must build partnerships with our industries which will actively promote our products and services abroad, attract investment and scientific talent, and reinforce our presence to strategic markets. Greece must be rebranded. We must reintroduce ourselves to the world as a reinvented country where bright minds and novel ideas are valued and supported.
Lastly, and perhaps the most difficult task of all, we must foster a new scientific culture in our country. Promote scientists and engineers, and encourage kids to choose science, engineering and maths as their favorite subjects. Professional organizations in science and technology must come out of the shells and reach out to society. The outreach program of the Hellenic Society of Physicists is an example which has to emulated and advanced by chemists, mathematicians and engineers. Big Society must support the work of a truly reformist government, and that includes the major charity foundations of Greece which in the past decades seem to be obsessed with funding opera houses, art museums and music halls that appeal to the few and the mostly old. It is of course fantastic to have these buildings but what we need most urgently now is to catch up with the rest of the world and not left behind. We need to invest in new ideas, in people, in innovative start-ups, in high technology.
Will any of this ever happen? My ruminations are based on a fundamental - or fatal, depending on your view - assumption: that the political leadership of Greece will adopt the vision of reinvention and execute it. Let me hope for a moment, against all odds, that they will.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Whatever happened to Dedalus? (and, by the way, Icarus too)

The failure and opportunity of technological innovation in Greece
Many myths are born in Greece, one of which claims that Greeks rank amongst the cleverest people in the world. And yet, by examining Greece’s ranking in the Global Innovation Index[1] you would be hard-pressed not to disagree. The country was at place 42 last year, at the bottom of every other western European country, a fact reflected on the sobering absence of Greek high technology products and services from the world market. More disparagingly, when the crisis hit, the debate about recovery was focused on investing, and improving, the tourism and agricultural sectors; which makes one wonder if our politicians and mainstream journalists live on another planet, or another era.
A favorite explanation for Greece’ lack of marketable hi-tech ideas is that public investment in research and development is very low. Indeed Greece’s public expenditure on RTD, at 0.57% of GDP[2], is one of the lowest in Europe. The key for improvement, politicians will hasten to claim, is more tax money funneled to science and technology. This may be true in the case of large scientific infrastructures or in fascilitating the mobility of scientists, or even for building a European Research Area free of cross-country obstacles - but the notion of public subsidies or grants is at least debatable when it comes to out-of-the-lab technological innovation. Given the current situation in Greece, not only it is mathematically impossible for the Public Purse to subsidize such type of innovation but, as I will argue, the surest way to stifle bright ideas that can immediately create market value is through government subsidies.
But what about the Universities and the research centres? Surely, they ought to be contributing ideas, people, and means - or don't they? Since Greece joined the EU in the early 1980s billions of Euros have been invested in research infrastructure and payrolls, in universities and research institutes. And more billions have poured in through a superfluity of EU-funded research programs. And yet, there is very little to show for it. With the exeption of certain, isolated, departments here and there Greek universities in general have failed both scientifically and socially. They have become playgrounds for organized groups of brain-washed, leftist students who terrorize staff and their fellow students, and vandalize what is public property in the name of academic freedom. Meanwhile, all kinds of byzantine machinations percolate in the background, for teaching positions that rarely target talent and more often than not are cheap rewards for blind loyalty. Greek universities have thus become a waste of taxpayers’ money which undermine the social cohesion of the country. Why? Because kids from poorer families cannot get the standard of higher education that their more well-off peers –whose parents can afford to send them abroad – do. Bright professors and research students who can, have started to flee. Research institutes do not fare any better. Like every other public institution in Greece they are heavily politicized at the expense of good research work.
The private, high-tech sector does not innovate either. Since the 1980s Greece has been de-industrialized whilst failing to claim a position in the global, digital economy. The result is that the majority of so-called “innovative” companies are proposal-making manufacturers that go after EU-subsidies. It is precisely this policy of subsidization that has rendered Greece a follower and not a leader; and here is the reason why.
The key to marketable innovation is risk. New ideas are risky because you never know if they have any value unless you invest in them first and then roll them out into the real word. So the question arises who takes the risk for all this? By introducing a grant or subsidy system, the risk is borne mainly by the state (or the EU). But this is wrong for at least two reasons, one moral another economical. Why should the taxpayer be burdened with the risk for something that, if successful, will profit only certain individuals? Secondly, the only real motivation for doing things right is when by doing things wrong you have something to lose; grant and subsidy takers do not have a strong enough motivation because they simply do not risk their own money and time; on the contrary, their main economical goal becomes the taking of the subsidy; therefore, their success is measured not by the efficacy of the end product but by the approval of their grant application by a bureaucrat who, in turn, risks not his own but the taxpayers’ money in the name of some vague “social good”. Hence, the proliferation of the proposal-making industry and the strangulation of the really good ideas; the latter constantly have to compete against government subsidies and grants, taxation and levies.
And yet there are many people in Greece with very bright ideas. They are the untapped human capital, the best of the best this country has. They are struggling against a well-entrenched system that is indifferent to merit and hostile to business. Potentially, they could be an agent for change and economic growth, if only they were given a chance. The wonderful thing about the digital economy is that you need very little infrastructure. A computer, a modem and access to the Internet is all you need; that, and a good idea. Greece may never become the innovation hub of big multinationals but can become a place for innovation start-ups in the creative industries, the media, web applications, industrial and architectural design, smart green technologies, as well as social innovation.
There is a movement of people, young or somewhat less young entrepreneurs, who are willing to take risks. Today, if they want to start a business they must go through a bureaucratic labyrinth and begin to pay taxes and contributions before they make their first euro. This is a serious impediment for someone who aspires to something speculative and risky. Greece cannot afford to lose her brightest entrepreneurs. At the same time, no one expects the Greek socio-political system to change overnight to suit them. And yet this crisis can become, paradoxically, a golden opportunity for those innovators, if only the government would be willing to allow them to mitigate risk outside the system. No subsidies, no grants, no nanny state. In fact, the best recipe would be to have as little state intervention as possible.
This can be achieved, for example, by allowing technological start-ups a two-year tax and social contributions’ break. If you think you have a great idea register your tech company with the tax office on-line and get a VAT Number. This procedure should only take one minute and be done wholly on the web. Then, all you have to do is concentrate on being inventive and profitable. For two years you don’t have to pay tax. If you want to employ someone, you do not have to pay IKA. You can pay him/her cash in hand at a level agreed between the two of you. You don’t have to pay TEVE, the various levies, whatever. If after two years you have managed to prove that your idea can succeed in the real world then start paying your dues to the society that permitted you to realize your dream. If not, stop - or maybe try again another idea.
Let the government do that and all else will follow. Given this tax-free framework for innovative start-ups the private sector will be more willing to invest in risky projects. There is a superb example called “Open Fund” right now, a wholly-private, grassroots initiative, which offers seed money and precious business advice to technological start-ups. One must not lose hope that in the near future a major reformation of Greek state universities will also take place under pressure by Greece’s lenders, as well as the establishment of the first private universities, which may be able to transform the current, ruinous situation of higher education in Greece. World-class education standards, a business-friendly environment and less government, and this country may manage to bootstrap itself out of its perennial debts, and become a place we can all be proud of.
I am not a believer of myths, but I do believe in people and individuals with a vision and the will to take risks. What we need is for the Dedalus spirit of inventiveness to be given a chance. Remember that there came a time that Dedalus had enough of his state sponsor and decided to move on; whereupon he had his greatest idea: to fly. Like Dedalus we have to leave behind the shores of false security and take to the skies. Which is a risky business, because for innovation to take flight you need to test the limits and aim to go beyond. To invent like a Dedalus but to think, and dream, like an Icarus.
An edited version of the article was published in Odyssey magazine (Summer 2010 issue)
[1] he Global Innovation Index is a global index measuring the level of innovation of a country, produced jointly by The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), and The Manufacturing Institute (MI), the NAM's nonpartisan research affiliate.
[2] Eurostat Newsrelease 8/9/09

Monday, September 6, 2010

Looking for Klingsor

Imagine falling asleep and entering a vivid dream, so vivid that when you awake you are going to remember it well. In this dream you find yourself in an extraordinary place that looks like the ruins of a majestic city from a distant past. There is no one around, no one to ask for information, just you and the silent ruins; vestiges of buildings, open spaces that could be agoras, or piazzas, or landing pads for flying machines, and carved pathways that could be remnants of streets or dried-up water channels or whatever. Nothing about this place is familiar. It is the city – if, indeed this is a city – of mysteries.
As you walk on, feeling mystified, perplexed and at the same time full of wonder, you come across a familiar object. It sits atop a podium and, wow, it looks like a book! At last, something you recognize; a book! You are indeed a very lucky person. You rush impatiently to pick it up. Holding your breath you open it in the hope for answers. But as your eyes fall on its pages your initial excitement wanes. Alas, the book is written in a totally unintelligible alphabet. The answers you hoped to find are so out of reach. Nevertheless, you being an intelligent and persistent sort of person, not one to give up so easily, you sit down and start going through the book in a most methodical way, in a single-minded quest to decipher the strange alphabet. Your instinct tells you that the book may hold the city’s mystery. That the unintelligible words might speak the story that fills the gaps. If you managed to read the book you will have arrived at an explanation: you will have known where you are and how you got there, who was there before you and, most importantly perhaps, why the city has been ruined. For it is the last part that concerns you, ultimately, the most. Perhaps the city of gaps is not the past, but the future. Then your quest within your dream comes to an abrupt end and you awake.
Quickly, before dreams, ethereal as they are, volatile in their constitution, unreliable in their loyalties, wipe themselves out from memory, you rush and write down what you saw in your mind’s wonderings. Then you read and re-read what you wrote, re-living your dream. You read your story about a story. If only you were not so absolutely certain that you had been dreaming! Your dream was as real as it could get and the more you read about it the more real it becomes. If someone else read what you wrote she would probably be convinced that you were not a dreamer but a story-teller, or a myth-maker, or an archaeologist, or a forensic expert, or – indeed – a truth-seeker of any guise.

In Jorge Volpi’s novel “In search of Klingsor” the coded book is the book of nature. The undecipherable letters are protons and electrons and neutrons, the colorful zoo of elementary particles. The dream is Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. As a reader you find yourself dreaming inside Volpi’s story. Your narrator is Gustav Links, a mathematician and an eye-witness to the incredible physics revolution that took place in Germany between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. His nemesis is a young American physicist-cum-intelligence officer by the implausible name Francis Bacon. Sometimes the narrative - your reader’s dream - ebbs so subtly back and forth from Bacon to Links, as if those two characters were in fact one and the same. The curious duality persists throughout the plot. After all, you are in Heisenberg’s bizarre quarters of quantum trickery, where nothing can be pinpointed with accuracy. You must accept the dubious, the uncertainty of reality. Volpi’s heroes are in this sense very real too, the whole entourage, Einstein, Bohr, Von Neuman, Kurt Gödel, an order of legendary modern knights who seek the Ultimate Answer, the Truth, the Holy Grail. Klingsor, the code name for the elusive villain, the one Bacon seeks so passionately, along with the American Government – not to mention the Soviets – is a hero of many: Volpi’s, as well as Wagner’s. Klingsor is a Nordic incarnation of knowledgeable evil, a Lucifer of the Arctic, as well as the codename given to the mysterious man who commanded the German scientific research effort under the Nazis. Another duality, another story-within-a-story, another book-within-a-book, multiplicities mirrored ad infinitum. Take note that a rumor persists to date that Francis Bacon, the establisher of the scientific method, was the alter ego of William Shakespeare, the writer. Could the fictional characters Francis Bacon and Gustav Links be alternate manifestations of the same person? Like the dual nature of light, could one be the wave and the other the particle? They seem to share so many common passions, particularly with women. They bond in a very similar and often tragic way, they emit similar photons of desperation, they tunnel through history without ever touching upon its events, narrowly escaping everything that occurs around them – including bombs - until the final chapter, when Links, accelerated beyond control at the speed of light, hits upon a wall and disintegrates. Not surprisingly perhaps, Bacon disappears instantly too.

Where did Links and Bacon come from? Whence stories? Do they exist outside the novelist’s mind? And if so where? Are they discovered whilst delving into a platonic realm of perfect forms, or are they invented in the same way that the light bulb was? Is the brain function of the scientist similar to that of the poet, when they compose their respective works?
Apparently dissimilar and mutually exclusive, the “two cultures” took divorce several centuries ago. Plato, ironically, would have approved. In the Republic he makes explicit his distaste for poets and instructs for their exclusion from civilized society (grudgingly, presumably for sentimental reasons, he allows only for the occasional reading of Homer). Descartes cements the divorce further by stating that scientists deal with the “material”, the res extensa and poets, writers etc. (and priests, the other class of story-tellers) with the “spiritual” or the “imagined”, the res cogitans.
In the wake of the 21st century the imagined is being recorded in the bright colors of brain scans. The imagined is now also a “thing”, i.e. a rightful member of the class of res extensa. Dreams are scientific objects to be peered upon in the same way that chemical molecules are. Soon, with the further advancement of brain scan technology, dream watchers in University labs will be able to track dreams at the level of neurotransmitter concentrations and electrochemical pulses. But we do not have to wait for this near future. We can safely conclude now that the imaginer (the scientist, or the writer) and the imagined (the theory, or the novel) are all things. In this sense, literature and science have rediscovered each other in a post-modernist, ultra-materialist fashion. This amazing notion also confirms something we always knew, namely that scientists are story-tellers too. The evolutionary theory is the narrative of life on Earth, from its just-chemical past to its multi-cellular, car-driving, Earth-polluting present. Geology tells us a story about the formation of the continents and thus explains their constitution, morphology, oil wells as well as nasty occurrences such as volcanoes and quakes. Cosmology spins a much longer story, about the whole of the Universe, how it came about starting from a hot soup of exploding energy. Science: stories, within stories, dreams within dreams, things about things, brains areas flashing on a screen, dopamine, serotonin, osmosis, the chemical works.

The trouble with this equalizing notion, however, is that it cancels distinctions. The artificial divorce is off – hurrah! - and narratives are re-united; however, as schoolchildren will confirm, novels are not science and science is not a novel. If science and novels were the one and the same, then we would not have airplanes, or telephones, or antibiotics. Earth could look any way you liked. And birds, sometimes, would talk and even prophesize the future. We would be living inside someone’s imagination, without fixed natural laws, where anything could happen anytime. Miracles, i.e. unexplained freaks of haphazard occurrence, would be the bill of every moment. Experience thankfully says otherwise. And brain scans, alas, are furnishing us with little more than triviality. In fact, it is not only trivial but outright wrongful to surmise that narratives of scientists and narratives of writers are substantially equivalent, in the manner that liquid water is essentially the same as ice. A boundary exists, we can be certain of that. But where is the boundary? And what is it made of?
If the dreamscapes of science are different from the dreamscapes of literature, then they must lie in totally different dimensions. There must be a single, quintessential element that differentiates those different categories of dreamscapes beyond doubt.
That element exists. And it is called the experiment.
In the sum total of infinite dreamscapes, there is only a finite number where the experimental method works. There lie the dreamscapes of science. Nowhere else, in no other literary narrative space whatsoever, can you design and execute experiments. Only in the dreamscapes where experiments are meaningful science stories are being made, tested and told.

Writers are not experimentalists, not in the way scientists are. Literature is believed in a different way, without the need to prove that its stories are, indeed, so. Just imagine people walking out of the theatre because they cannot believe that the actors are who they say they are in a play. The suspension of disbelief granted to a good novel, or a good play, is certainly not granted to any scientific theory. In the latter case the opposite is true. Doubt rules the day. Popper suggests that scientific theories must be falsifiable in order to be worth their name. Novels do not have to be. You cannot prove that Links or Bacon never existed. Not only it is impossible to prove Volpi a liar but it is also beside the point.
And yet the dreamscapes of writers and scientists intersect. Both writers and scientists, belonging to the same species of animal, with brains wired in similar fashion and subject to limits set by the senses and known to theorists of knowledge, share a lot. Above all they share the same method of story-telling. Novels and scientific theories go through successive hypotheses, failures, deductions and intuitions. Ultimately however, a novelist is given the Nobel Prize for telling lies that reveal an inner truth, while a scientist for telling truths that reveal the depth of our collective ignorance or - if you prefer - the inner lies that haunts us.
For science and literature, imagination is a shared laboratory, ideas the denizens of scientists’ and novelists’ minds, their continuous mutations and transformations the material that feeds their brains in order to deliver their work. Within that shared laboratory it is not infrequent that they both discover the same, ultimate, truth. Like Klingsor and the Graal, like Physics and the Theory of Everything, like the Volpi’s novel and any novel or scientific theory, a path is plowed where there was none, a way is found in the dark, a story is told, to fill the gaps and offer answers to as yet unanswered questions, to ultimately arrive at the ultimate gap that always waits inside the nucleus of every story. And in that ultimate, nuclear, gap, novelists and scientists alike, shall always find the beginning of yet another story.

Hot chocolate in Mexico City

Cortez annihilated the Aztec Empire and enthroned himself as the new ruler of what was to be henceforth named New Spain of the Ocean Sea. Faithful to a centuries-long tradition of establishing the victor’s capital upon the ruins of the vanquished he gave instructions for the new imperial capital to be built on the swamplands of Tenochtitlan. The result, the modern megapolis of Mexico City has been slowly sinking under its own weight ever since, a curious testament to Cortez’s ill-informed vision. They say that some day most of the buildings will have become too unsafe to inhabit. Perhaps in the next century Mexico City will become a ghost town abandoned by its populace. As I drink a cup of hot chocolate in a Starbucks in La Zona Rosa I am thinking of Cortez. Throngs of shoppers and passers-by parade in front of my eyes and they look to me like reincarnated Aztecs bidding their time against eternity, or like ghosts going in and out of time. A gay couple canoodles happily at a table nearby oblivious to the underground forces of suction, and more interested in their own. I imagine a Spanish soldier dreaming a nightmare and waking up in the middle of the night, rushing to Cortez, finding the big man sleeping in the company of two young native girls, and crying out to him, let us leave this place now chief, let us go back down to the coast, let us build our city there. I am a coffee drinker really. Chocolate I chose because, originally, it has been a native American drink exported to the so-called Old World. My attempt to an honest tribute is tainted with unfortunate franchise irony. Fat dark clouds seal the last remaining porthole of blueness in the sky and rain begins to fall in abundance. I feel the water entering the underground veins of Mexico City, seeping and uniting with the never-defeated swamp, sapping the foundations, conspiring towards the city’s ultimate demise. Water from the sky, water underneath. Ten thousand years later: a mystery of city abandonment puzzles the visitors from Star Orion. They are descendants of long-forgotten Earth colonists returning to a deserted Earth, a world too hot to be inhabited, too lifeless to be loved. A young cosmonaut wakes up from a dream as the spaceship enters orbit, a nightmare of a serpent god. I get up and without care of getting wet return to my sinking hotel.


The girl comes dressed like a character from a video game. She materializes out of thin air. Or, perhaps, she comes in through the air, with the blowing of the wind. She says, pointing at the TV. “Anything on?”
But the girl cannot go through walls. She has tried many times and failed. Bangs her head, hurts her hands as she tries to push her way into the tightly-knit molecules of tar and plaster. In the end she gives up. “OK, what's new?” she huffs and plops on the side of the bed.
The character she impersonates changes every time she visits. One day she may be dressed like something out of Super Mario, or Goemon, or Twin Bee, or Mortal Combat. Dragon Quest makes her look the sexiest. She arrives with a twin blade axe and boots up to her thighs and a bra made of leather imitation plastic. Nothing on TV. “Have you got something to eat?” Leftovers from McDonalds.
The girl fades away.
The girl returns.


In the disturbed village of Saint Horribilum, in the northern borders of our empire, the clock that one finds in the rather faceless central square comprises a series of noteworthy technical oddities. Such has been the apparent intent of its makers, to elucidate the vanity of existence, that they have – most strikingly - omitted the dials. Then, they introduced a functionless automaton, a self-negation of a machine that does not work, cannot work, will never work, but nevertheless creates to the beholder the feeling of imminent working. Eyes closed, limps hanging, a diaphanous skeleton which may, if awaken, speak the time. No one lives in the central square since the clock was brought to the village, installed in the church tower and inaugurated by the Emperor’s envoy. The villagers abandoned their homes soon afterwards and all access to the square has been blocked ever since. The visitor (alas, one has to be a believer in miracles to imagine anyone wanting to visit Saint Horribilum) will have to offer considerable bribery and swear secrecy to the gods, in order to be taken to see the notorious clock. One such visitor, probably the only one ever, has written to me recently with his report. There are aspects of the report pertaining to matters of imperial security which I must conceal for obvious reasons. But I am at liberty to disclose one more interesting aspect of the village’s engineering anathema: its cunning resemblance to a miniscule globulin first encountered by the great English polymath Robert Hooke. Perhaps then, the clock is not made of nuts and bolts. Perhaps is not man-made. Perhaps it is an animal.