PAOLO GIORDANO at Border Kitchen in The Hague on How Contagion Works

Paolo Giordano won Italy’s premier literary award at the age of twenty six with his very first novel, The Solitude of Prime Numbers. Written in between the completion of his undergraduate degree and his PhD in Physics, he would go on to complete his doctorate but then devoted himself to writing. He has written a number of other critically acclaimed novels since, including Like Family and The Human Body. However his most recent offering, How Contagion Works, was written in Rome, between the 29th of February and the 4th of March this year. He spoke with us about his experience of the pandemic at a recent online event organised by BorderKitchen.

Although one might not automatically associate a theoretical physicist with an internationally acclaimed writer, Paolo Giordano tells us that he has never experienced any real separation between the two. His first novel used prime numbers as a central metaphor for two scarred people who almost succeed in finding in love. With the advent of the coronavirus, Giordano found that numbers quickly became part of everyone’s daily life. The numbers of those infected, the number of ventilators needed, hospital beds and of course the number of deaths caused by the virus. They were everywhere.  The Italian author wrote his first article on the subject when initial cases were appearing in Lombardy, Italy. He focused on trying to explain, simply, the mathematical aspects of a pandemic. Numbers begin simply but then they start to increase, exponentially. This is logical for a virus like corona but disconcerting when it involves spiralling death tolls.

‘Science rests mostly on doubts and questions’ – Giordano

‘Here in Italy’, Giordano tells us, ‘we have never seen so many scientists on TV, listened to so many talking.’ Although a scientist himself, he realises that in the case of COVID 19, many may feel disappointed by scientists because they disagree or need more time to provide answers. ‘Science rests mostly on doubts and questions’, he points out, ‘but this is the opposite of what we have come to expect from it in the last few years.’ At a time like this, every scientific question becomes political. Giordano is critical of those politicians who have evaded difficult questions by hiding behind scientists. Scientists can only give you basic information about the results of specific studies. But after that it becomes a political issue and this needs addressing by politicians and others, he stresses.

The pandemic has indeed become increasingly politicized and will only become more so as we move away from immediate medical concerns to coming out of lockdown and reopening economies. Paolo Giordano speaks about initial reactions from Europe to the crisis in Italy. Although attitudes have now softened somewhat, Europe’s first reaction was ‘very disappointing’ he maintains. That first reaction ’says a lot about who we are.’ Each country thought about what was happening within their own borders but not about Europe as a whole. We have perhaps now overcome some of the initial economic concerns, he agrees but apparently we never really felt this crisis as Europeans. ‘Perhaps we need to ask ourselves what Europe really means to each of us, as individuals’ he suggests. Perhaps we do.      Souwie Buis     15th May 2020