New York (2017)

Some snaps from a very quick (less than 48 hours!) visit to sunny and cold New York

Il museo nazionale di storia e cultura afroamericana

Questo post è la traduzione di questo post in Inglese.

Questo mese siamo passati da Washington D.C. per un paio di giorni e siamo riusciti a visitare l’ultimo dei musei Smithsonian aperti in ordine di tempo: Il museo nazionale di storia e cultura afroamericana. Aperto nel 2016, ha una posizione preminente nel National Mall, trovandosi di fronte all’obelisco di Washington ed an un tiro di schioppo dalla casa bianca. Questo da solo è abbastanza per indicare l’ambizione del museo in fatto di simbolismo ed impatto. La visita ha rinforzato questa impressione.

Ci siamo dunque resi conto che una buona metà del museo è al di sotto del pian terreno, dove inizia la visita. Tutti i visitatori sono costretti a prendere un ascensore-macchina del tempo; quando si aprono le porte è il 15° secolo, e un labirinto sofffocante porta i visitatori attracerso gli orrori del traffico di schiavi. L’uscita da questo labirinto offre un sospiro di sollievo, ma il visitatore continua a trovarsi sul fondo di una profonda buca dai muri bui. La dichiarazione d’indipendenza americana è presentata a grandi lettere, ma la sua ambiguità (“tutti gli uomini sono creati uguali”) verso la grande parte della popolazione ancora considerata poco meno di un oggetto è ben chiara. Lo stesso Jefferson (autore della dichiarazione e “proprietario” di centinaia di schiavi) è presente come una statua dai lineamenti nascosti dalle ombre.

I visitatori possono quindi lentamente salire attraverso una serie di rampe, ognuna rappresentando un capitolo nella lotta verso l’emancipazione e il riconoscimento dei propri diritti. Il simbolismo del dover camminare dal fondo di una fossa profonda è forse ovvio ma restituisce davvero un senso di ottimismo. L’ultima curva nelle rampe, giusto uscendo dalla buca e fuori dalla “macchina del tempo” regala un’ultima sorpresa, e un messaggio molto forte. Una scritta sul muro, fino ad allora invisibile, che dice: “I, too, am America” (“anche io, sono America”).

Il resto del museo si trova sopra il livello del terreno, separato dalla buca ed i suoi orrori da due piani. Più ci si avvicina alla cima, e più il contributo degli afroamericani all’esercito, alla società, allo sport ed alla cultura è celebrato.

Questo viaggio all’inferno e ritorno è stato molto commovente, anche per qualcuno come me che ha poca o nessuna connessione con il colonialismmo e tensioni razziali. Il poco colonialismo che la mia nazione ha imposto in tempi “moderni” è stato principalmente legato al fascismo, e come nazione lo abbiamo considerato risolto dopo la resistenza. Le ultime notizie riguardo alla vendita di schiavi in Libia, il cui governo è fortemente appoggiato dall’Italia nella speranza di arginare gli arrivi di migranti in Europa sta gettando una luca inquietante sul mio paese e sulle forze di Governo ed opposizione, con pochissime eccezioni.

The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture

Earlier this month we had the chance to pass through Washington D.C. for a couple of days, and we managed to visit the latest addition to the Smithsonian museums: the National Museum of African American History & Culture. Opened in 2016, it has a very central position in the National Mall, being right in front of the Washington monument and at a stone’s throw to the White House. This is already enough to signal the ambition the museum has in terms of symbolism and impact. The actual inside of the museum reinforced this impression.

It turns out that a good half of the museum is below ground, where the visit is supposed to begin. Everyone is forced to take an elevator, which acts as a time machine; when the doors open is the end of the 15th century, and a suffocating dungeon takes the visitors through the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade. The exit of the dungeon offers some relief, but you find yourself still at the bottom of a very large open pit with dark walls. The declaration of independence is presented with big box letters, but its ambiguity (“all men are created equal”) towards the very large part of the US population still considered nothing more than a slave is clearly stated. Jefferson himself is a statue whose expression is masked by shadows.

The visitors can then slowly ascend through a series of ramps, each one presenting a chapter in the struggle towards emancipation and equality. The symbolism of having to walk all the way up from the bottom of a pit is perhaps an obvious symbolism but it really gives an uplifting feeling. The last turn of the ramps, just exiting the dark pit and out of the “time machine” reserves one last uplifting surprise, and a strong message. A writing on the wall, until then invisible, that states: “I, too, am America”.

The rest of the museum is above ground, separated from the pit and its horrors by two floors. The closer to the top, the more the contribution of african-americans to the military, society, sports and culture is celebrated.

This journey to hell and return has been very strong emotionally, even on someone like me who has little to no relationship with colonialism and racial tensions. The little colonialism my country has ever imposed had been related to fascism, and as a country we considered that amended with the civil war that contributed in freeing Italy from the axes. Recent reports of slave practices in Libya, whose government is strongly supported by Italy in the hope of stopping migratory fluxes from reaching Europe, is however casting a shadow on my country as a whole, and on the government and opposition forces alike.

Italy (2017)

Valencia (2017)

Some snaps taken while attending the FEMS 2017 conference.

Colombia (2017)

I recently switched to a new camera (the Fujifilm x100t); I’m still adapting to it, but so far I really like its portability and quality. I’m also a big fan of fixed lens cameras, as they force you to (try to) follow a consistent style.

The periodic table

A few months ago the IUPAC (International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry) had to take a decision on the only apparently very simple task of giving a name to the latest discovered chemical elements. Even a basic understanding of chemistry and the way the periodic table is made will make apparent how such decision is both of little significance and at the same time irrepetible. Of little significance, for those elements are only artificially made and have a short and turbulent life before becoming a lighter and more stable element; almost irrepetible, because the number of new element “discovered” is probably reaching the limit of what is humanly possible.
Some people argued that one of those elements should have been called Levium, in honour to Primo Levi’s and the short stories of “The periodic table” (“Il sistema periodico” in Italian), unfortunately with little success.

Primo Levi, who is mostly known for his recollection of his deportation to the Auschwitz concentration camp, possesses two only apparent antithetical qualities as a writer: he is both a distant observer and a relentless moral agent. The former quality appears somewhat wrong when used to describe the hopeless struggle that characterized the inmates of the annihilation camps, but such distance acquires sense when used to derive fundamental truths about human nature. This is most evident in the “I sommersi e i salvati” (“The drowned and the saved”) chapter of “Se questo e’ un uomo” (“If this is a man”).
A similar approach is taken in the main theme of “The periodic table”: the somewhat technical recollection of the experiences of the author as a chemist (mostly in the varnish industry) are used to again convey some very sharp truths about human nature, but most of all what science is.
In many occasions throughout the book (each chapter revolving around a particular element), Levi demonstrate to know all too well the high of intellectual discovery, and chooses to stay far away from collective discoveries and scientific enterprises, but to focus on the solitary work of single chemists, which is very similar in spirit to the work of the first alchemists. This is especially true, Levi claims, when considering the daily struggle of a chemist working in an industry, whose day-to-day battle against matter itself eventually only leads to very occasional small victories and surely to burn-out with age; “Chromium”, “Nickel” and “Silver” are very good examples of chapters where this concept is exposed. Other chapters are instead more intimate and moving, were chemistry is put aside to give space to Levi’s moral compass, forged by a life of terrible experiences and constant observation of human nature. Some of those chapters, like “Argon” and “Tin”, are exhilarating accounts of the family and friends of the author. Others instead recall more dramatic moments in the author’s life, and are probably the best parts of the book. In “Iron”, a fellow chemistry student with a passion for climbing is used to show what is like (and what’s the cost) of being free; the opposite concept is presented in “Gold”, when the author has been captured by fascists and fears that he would soon die. In “Cerium” an episode from the Nazi lager is recalled to remind that some basic (and maybe irrational) form of human will can persist even in the face of hopelessness. Finally in “Vanadium”, the incredible and fortuitous exchange between Levi and one of the German civilians with whom he interacted in Auschwitz shows how morality is a complex matter even when reason is indisputably on one side of the argument.

I could not recommend this book enough, especially to anyone accustomed to rational thought. Even though it would be impossible to replicate this formula, I cannot but wonder how a similar book would look like for disciplines like physics (a chapter for each particle?) or even “messier” sciences like biology (a chapter for each species?). It could actually be an interesting exercise for a crowd-sourced book, where stories on a single “unit” of each discipline are contributed by different people. I would surely like to write a chapter about one or two bacterial species.