Leonardo Thinks


Historical Opinion by Michele Emmer

Emmer asks how we can eliminate the virus of violence from our culture.
Only Bombs Are Intelligent?

In 1997 I was asked to contribute to a special section of the magazine Zentralblattfiir Didaktik der Mathematik, one of the most important publications in the field of mathematical education. The section was devoted to “Mathematics, Peace and Ethics” [1], and the magazine was published in 1998. The special section began with an article by the section editor, Ubiratan D’Ambrosio, a Brazilian mathematician from the University of Sao Paolo. The title of his article was “Mathematics and Peace: Our Responsibilities.” In his introduction, D’Ambrosio wrote:

“I am concerned with peace in its several dimensions: inner peace, social peace, environmental peace and military peace. This paper addresses the global responsibilities of mathematicians and mathematics educators in the quest for peace. Our responsibility includes the uses society makes of our intellectual production and the influence we have in the behaviour of our students. I do not think we have to accept that it is normal to solve regional conflicts by military means and that isolated war can be tolerated. Although isolated, the violence and violation of human dignity going on in these conflicts are abhorrent. Besides, history has shown us that there is a high possibility of a larger involvement of nations and that the escalation of these regional conflicts may result in World War III.”

These words were written 2 years ago. No one could have known or imagined what would take place. My article in the special section dealt with the “Mathematics of War,” and my point of reference was the Gulf War. I cited several newspaper articles written then, in 1991, in Italy (but it was the same all over the world): “In mathematical terms, war is becoming more and more electronically controlled and, as a result, it is moving away from the battlefield-in other words, it keeps troops, photographers, TV operators and journalists at a distance from the enemy.” (La Repubblica, 2 February 1991); “Bombing with surgical precision, following the fine ray of a laser, with sophisticated technology, with the circumspection and precision of Science.” (L’Unita, 25January 1991).

Of course, none of the journalists who wrote those articles could have imagined that a war would break out, a few years later, in the heart of Europe.

Massacres, deportations, a war involving 20 European countries. For a few days, people spoke about a “military action”; then we all began to use the right expression: “war in the heart of Europe.”

In March 1999, Roberto Benigni won an Oscar for his film La vita e bella (Life is Beautiful) and there was much discussion in the press about whether such a film could be blamed for making us forget the tragedy of the concentration camps and the deportation trains in Europe. Did anyone imagine that it might happen again a little over a month later?

When you read these words, the situation will certainly have changed compared with what it is like today in May 1999. I don’t know what the future holds for us; I don’t think anyone knows, not even the leading war strategists. My reason for writing this note is linked to what D’Ambrosio said. The responsibility concerns everyone, not just mathematicians. In fact, it makes no sense to ask what their opinions are, what they think should be done; it is no use asking mathematicians and chemists or, for that matter, dancers and art critics. No one has more insight into the truth than anyone else, so there is no point in asking scientists or artists what they think about war. But perhaps there is one question worth asking: Do we believe that artists produce art, mathematicians mathematics, scientists science and soldiers war? Each one of us deals with our own specific field and therefore should not waste time in discussion? Even seeing that our weapons of defense are so powerful?

In recent years, much has been said about globalization and complexity. Now, in May 1999, we are faced by an enormously complex problem that is extremely difficult to solve while at the same time safeguarding all the people involved. And do we still have nothing to say? Since we are artists and scientists? This is not to suggest the absurd idea of creating the art of war, the aesthetics of war; nor is it out of a sense of guilt or to exorcise our fears. It is simply that in today’s world there are artistic and scientific communities that are able to converse with the whole world, who have access to all the means of communication, who are responsible for educating entire generations of young people. Have we nothing to say in order to understand, to try to let tolerance and comprehension prevail?

In 1996, when I interviewed Ennio DiGiorgi, one of this century’s most famous mathematicians, a few months before his death, he said:

“One aspect of mathematics that is one of its strengths is its liberty and conviviality. I think that the basis for the strength of mathematics is the knowledge of how to unite freedom of initiative-the capacity of working alone-with the gregarious side, the ability to exchange ideas and interests. This double aspect is, for me, the reason for its fascination. This is at its basis one of the strongest manifestations of the love of that knowledge from which science is born and the resulting human capacity to partially understand the world, without forgetting the famous words of Shakespeare: “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in all your philosophy” (Hamlet to Horatio).

This is part of a vision-more precisely, of a mystique: the concept that science is a part of wisdom and, further, that there is a direct link between science and human rights. For example, there is a beautiful article in the declaration of human rights [2] about the school of thought that recommends not only tolerance but also understanding and friendship between the various nations and the various religious groups. These, comprehension and friendship, are two notions that are often forgotten when one talks of tolerance [3].”

This century began with the advent of avant-garde movements in art which deeply influenced our culture-for better and for worse. Futurism, founded by Marinetti, was aimed at provocation. In the Futurist manifesto published on 20 February 1909, Marinetti wrote: “We want to glorify war-the only hygiene for the world-militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom seekers, the fine ideas worth dying for.” Can we be sure that we have eliminated the virus of violence from our culture? Or do we feel that it is always others, those who are different from us, who use violence? All our words, the vast flood of words, written and read all over the world, thanks to the much-praised new technologies are they mute when faced by major humanitarian disasters, war and genocide? Do we have to wait 50 more years before awarding another Oscar?

Michele Emmer is Professor of Mathematics at the University of Rome

[1] U. D’Ambrosio, “Mathematics and Peace: Our Responsibilities,” introduction to special section “Analyses: Mathematics, Peace and Ethics,” eds. U. D’Ambrosio and M. Marmé, in Zentralblatt für Didaktik der Mathematik 98, no. 3 (June 1998): 64–94.

[2] . Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 26, 2: “Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.”

[3] M. Emmer, “Interview with Ennio DiGiorgi,” in Notices of the AMS 44, no. 9 (October 1997): 1097–1101.
ISSN No: 1071-4391
Authors: Michele Emmer, Leonardo Editorial Advisor
Originally published in: Leonardo Vol. 33, No. 2 (2000), pp. 83-84
Print: ISSN 0024-094X, Online : ISSN 1530-9282, DOI: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1576836
Leonardo is a registered trademark of the ISAST.