Thank you, Professor Eco

February 21, 2016

Umberto Eco has died aged 84.

There are few intellects I admired more than Eco’s. The tiny bit of his work that I had the good fortune to read shaped much of my worldview and even some of my deepest feelings.

My PhD thesis on unconventional superconductors opened with a quote from The Name of The Rose: «Nessuno ci impone di sapere, Adso. Si deve, ecco tutto, anche a costo di capire male.» I asked an Italian colleague, fellow physicist Natascia Andrenacci, to look for those sentences in her copy of the book so I could quote the original (I asked her in an email if she owned one; she explained that everyone in Italy did). I then asked a friend, Caroline Turner, to check that my English translation made sense: “No one demands that we know, Adso. We must, that is all, even at the risk of being wrong.” I had come across these sentences first in Spanish. I felt the English edition did not make them justice. I think the author of “Mouse or Rat?” would have appreciated my vicisitude.

The Name of the Rose could be intepreted as a post-post-modern parable of scientific research. As William of Baskerville explains to Adso, our theories may be wrong, but they allow us to reach a truth, described by a better theory, that we would never otherwise have reached. That truth, of course, is subject to the same relativism and so on ad infinitum. But there is something to find out, and that’s what matters.

I always thought the ideas in “Mouse or Rat?”, his collection of essays on translation, could also be adapted as a vindication of the hopefulness of science from a postmodern perspective. In Eco’s view, exactness cannot exist in translation, but loyalty and faithfulness does. Is that what we are doing when we describe the physical world: translating God’s design (speaking metaphorically, of course) into a description that could never really capture it, but might at least constitute an honest, coherent attempt? I always wondered if Eco had ever written on this subject or at least entertained similar ideas. I should have written to him to ask, but I didn’t. Now I’ve missed my chance.

Even more important to me than Eco’s ideas was the way reading him can connect us with some very basic features of what it is to be alive, and human. In Foucault’s Pendulum the main character, when he realises that all is lost for him, focuses on his young son, and imagines him having his special moment, that instant when being, place and time itself combine together to produce an intense awareness of the sensory wonderness of our world and our being sentient beings in it. He wonders what will make it for his son. Observing a little ant, maybe? Eco’s monumentally important point is that, above and beyond any Popperian, rational arguments against magical thinking and conspiracy theories like the ones pursued by the main character’s tormentors, their way of thinking misses the very point of what fascinates that “diabolical” horde: the inherent trascendnce in our being in this world. Such transcendence is not achieved by reason, be it through the (diabolical) discovery of hidden networks of conspirators or the (scientific) unveiling of fundamental laws of nature, but by raw sensory awareness and self-awareness. It’s not a thought, but a feeling.

Many years later, when my daughter was born, I wrote her a poem (as sentimental parents do) and wondered what wonders she would see today. The poem mentions a little ant as an example of what something wondrous could be for a little baby. I now realise I was channelling Eco without even noticing it.

Like Richard Feynman, Eco teaches us not just that to think deeply is fun, but that we must think deeply because it is fun.

Thank you, Professor Eco. I wish your special moment, whenever that was, and whatever it consisted of, was as eye-widening and intense as any could ever have been.