The astrophysics Ersilia Vaudo Scarpetta from the European Space Agency at the symposium on March 4
The first seminar dedicated to the XXIII International Exhibition 2022 took place on March 4, 2020 in Triennale. It was joined by experts in various fields, from astrophysics to philosophy, ethology, visual art, geopolitics and robotics. The first speech we have collected is from the astrophysics Ersilia Vaudo Scarpetta.
Video of the speech by Ersilia Vaudo Scarpetta at the seminar of 4 March 2020
The Idea of the First Time
"When something happens for the first time, it takes us out of our comfort zone. Having to face something that does not fit our way of thinking transforms us: we are no longer what we were and it changes our view of the world. And then there is the fact that when we broaden our point of view the impossible can become real, which is one of the characteristics of physics: this is because, when we leave the Newtonian world, we enter worlds of which we have no experience but that are just as real."
"On 21 July last year, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the moon landing: about 600 million people – a fifth of humanity at the time – witnessed the moment that marked the crossing of the boundary that contained us, while an irreversible change started affecting our presence in the cosmos. The moment was so monumental that it almost drained any possibility of an after: it changed our own view of ourselves."
"Something even more extraordinary had occurred on Christmas Eve in 1968, when Bill Anders and the Apollo 8 mission found themselves facing a view no one had expected: the Earth rising over the lunar horizon. 'We set out to explore the moon, and instead discovered the Earth', said Bill Anders."
"They saw something that no one had ever seen before. The Earth appeared to be suspended in perfect solitude, surrounded only by a blue halo, in the darkness of eternal night. During his first flight in low orbit, Gagarin had already seen this blue halo, which is what stands between us and the suffocating void all around. The lesson was clear: do not think you count for anything – you are tiny, you are fragile, you are just a spark in a universe that cares nothing for you, and yet you have come a long way. Even before Armstrong left his footprint in the dust, it was this vision of ourselves that gave meaning to the cosmos and, especially, to our presence within it."
"In 1977 the two Voyager probes were launched. They became outposts of our human presence in the universe, and they are still travelling through interstellar space, taking with them the essence of humanity, as summed up in Carl Sagan’s “Golden Records”. When Voyager 1 was about to reach the edge of the solar system and NASA was preparing to turn off its instruments, Carl Sagan managed to turn it round for one last time and have it take the extraordinary image of Earth as seen from the little Voyager as it was preparing for its long, lonely trip into interplanetary space. This was its last look back at home. The photo was taken from 6 billion kilometres away and shows a blurry, distant dot, which Carl Sagan called “the pale blue dot”, a speck of dust suspended in a ray of light."
Up and Down
"Above our heads we have a space station that has been floating around the Earth for twenty years, witnessing sixteen sunrises and sixteen sunsets every day. It gives us the closest view we have of ourselves, for it is only 400 km away, and it allows us to see countless things, from the activities of nature to the devastation caused to nature by man. But if we look at ourselves at night, we see light, and where there is light there is life. The darkness and light point to the presence of life on our planet. Even when we look at the Nile we can see how water means life in the darkness all around, and it indicates a void, the absence of something, the absence of water, and of life."
"Women are the principal victims of climate change. Women are 14 times more likely to be killed by environmental disasters than men, due to their role as caregivers and because they have fewer resources and less access to warning systems. Also in the face of famine, they act as shock absorbers."
The Way to Equality is through Science
500 pounds a year and a room of her own. In Virginia Woolf’s view, this was all a woman needed in order to write and to realise her potential in a world dominated by men. This was in 1928, the year when voting rights were extended to all women in Britain, yet it took another 19 years before Cambridge granted women degrees equivalent to those awarded to their male colleagues. Access to education was becoming irreversible and amazing progress was being made in this field.
Young women do better at school, where they generally work harder, and are more likely to finish their studies. However, their talent and skills gradually begin to be dispersed after they graduate. and things only gets worse over time. The path to gender equality really does seem to be an uphill battle. At the current rate of progress, it will take at least 100 years to bridge the global gender gap and 217 years to achieve gender equality in the workplace.
A greater presence of women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) subjects would give rise to a profound revolution at all levels that would be sustainable over time. So why are there still so few girls who decide to study scientific and technical subjects? It is certainly not down to any lack of intrinsic abilities. A study shows that there is no gender disparity in the quantitative and mathematical skills of children aged between 6 months and 8 years. The differences begin to emerge only later, and this is primarily due to socio-cultural factors.
Boys and girls begin to branch out in different directions at the age of about 15: their self-confidence and perception of their own identity, and their value judgments and self-projection into the future are in turn shaped by the social context they live in.
Sweeping changes are nevertheless under way, and the things that robots cannot do on the labour market are decreasing with ever-increasing rapidity. This means that the future will belong to those who have the ability to combine technical skills with considerable interpersonal and creative abilities, coupled with an interdisciplinary mindset. Studying STEM subjects provides an opportunity for an extraordinary intellectual experience, with the thrill of pushing one’s mind where it has never been before, finding the wonder of discovery and the excitement of the impossible becoming reality.
On 7 March this year, a further study of the relationship between mathematics and equal opportunities was published in the "Il Sole 24 Ore".
In a land where inequalities are increasing and where the social elevator refuses to budge for those who come from more disadvantaged families, the challenge of equal opportunities is one that simply cannot wait. It is also achieved through mathematics, which is a language, a way of thinking, a factor in self-esteem, and, in an ever-changing world, a key to unlocking the future. The potential for being at ease in those spaces where our tomorrow is imagined and turned into reality.
Differences in mathematics also highlight socio-economic inequalities and disparities between north and south. It is extraordinary to see how these can help predict performance in mathematics and science in all the countries examined: like a sort of inexorable social determinism.
All of us, even very young children, have a feeling for numbers. While the baseline skills are the same – as shown by Stanislas Dehaene, a cognitive scientist with expertise in the relationship between neuroscience and learning – the potential for achieving excellent or appalling results will depend on the subject’s love, or mistrust, of mathematics. International studies show how excellence in mathematics can be the result of political intent and of robust pedagogical strategies.
In France, the strategic value of mathematics is strongly felt, to the point that it is considered to be a matter of political urgency, and a national priority. The reason for this is the realisation that poor performance in mathematics can lead to a socially and economically disastrous situation that, if not corrected, can weigh heavily on the future development of the country.
A great deal of attention is therefore placed on the psychological impact that the exclusion of mathematics can have on building a student’s individuality and on their self-perception.
It is therefore important not to neglect the study of mathematics, which is the language of the universe and of the physical world all around us. And if a student, whether male or female, is convinced that they are up to it, it is our duty as a country to bring them up to it ourselves.
Ersilia Vaudo Scarpetta holds a Degree in Physics, with specialisation in Astrophysics and has a further education in Economics. She has been working at the European Space Agency since 1991, where she is currently Chief Diversity Officer. She spent four years at the ESA Washington Office ensuring relations with NASA and US stakeholders, and was Member of the Board of Directors of Women in Aerospace USA. Currently she is member of International Women Forum, of the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society Daring Circle, and of Women in Aerospace - Europe. Ersilia Vaudo wrote a high number of articles on science and space for the general public and participated to events and various TEDx talks.