Forum : Archive

Proposals, presented by Members at previous Assemblies

Herbert Gleiter

(Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) Institut für Nanotechnologie)

Dear Mrs. Hélène de Rode,

First of all let me thank you for organizing a most stimulatin meeting at a historically at a historically remarkable and beautiful place. Clearly, everybody enjoyed the Annual Convention of Eurasc.

Following up on our conversation at Bologna, I am attaching some information about two existing organisations formed by joining European Academies of Sciences. One of these organisations is the European Science Advisory Councel (EASA). It may be usefull for Eurasc to consider joining EASAC in the long run. The second organisation I would like to mention, is the one called "All European Academies" (ALLEA). Again, the goals of ALLEA seem to agree well with the ones of Eurasc.

Based on the experience I gained as member of the Presidium of the German National Academy of Sciences as well as during my membership in several Academies abroad, I am afraid that Eurasc may require in the long run more manpower and funds. In other words, it may be helpful to elect in the near future into the Eurasc professionally outstanding colleagues who are at the same time in influential positions.

Once more many thanks for the stimulating meeting at a wunderful place.

Yours sincerely,

Herbert Gleiter, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) Institut für Nanotechnologie

Gianfranco Pacchioni

(Dipartimento di Scienza dei Materiali, Università degli Studi Milano-Bicocca)

Dear Helen,

 it was nice meeting you in Bologna for the first time. I hope we will have other occasions in the future.

During the Assembly of the Eurasc members, I made a few suggestions on how to reinforce the connections with the European Research Council. Here in a few lines are two possible lines of action.

1) A procedure that could be easily implemented is to propose the nomination in the Eurasc of people who receive the Advanced Research Grant (ARG) of ERC. The procedure to get an ARG is extremely competitive and it is based for 50% on the CV of the applicant. Only really outstanding scientists have a chance to get the ARG. If we contact the people who receive the grant (about 250 every year in every field of knowledge) we will disseminate the role of Eurasc and have the opportunity to include really excellent european players in the field of research.

2) the second possibility is a bit more involved. One of the problems that ERC Panels are encountering in the evaluation of ARGs is to find an appropriate number of referees. Usually one has to contact 6-7 people to get 2-3 reports. The Chair of Eurasc could contact ERC and offer to contribute to the reviewing procedure, if needed, by providing the list and contacts of the Eurasc members. On the other side, the Chair of Eurasc should write a letter (or a mail) to all Eurasc members underlying the importance of the refereeing procedure for the success of ERC in general and ask Eurasc members to help as much as possible, if requested, to accomplish this duty.

 I hope this is clear, if not I can try to be more specific.

My best regards

Gianfranco Pacchioni, Dipartimento di Scienza dei Materiali Università degli Studi Milano-Bicocca

You can choose to read the original text in French

Celebrate knowledge!

Hervé This

(INRA/AgroParisTech, Scientific Director of the Fondation Science & Culture Alimentaire)

                    Who should belong to an academy of sciences? Which criteria (other than friendship, but after all, it is true that an academy is a group of friends who share a passion for knowledge) can determine the choice of the members?

    The word "science" has the same root as the French word "savoir", i.e. knowledge, and this is why it is legitimate to speak of the science of the cook, (Menon, La Science du Maître d’Hôtel Cuisinier, Les libraires associés, Paris, 1789.) of the craftsman, but also of science, in only one isolated word, which is used by scientists, and only scientists –they forget it too often- to describe natural sciences, human sciences, social sciences...(Indeed these names are slightly wrong, and it would be more appropriate to speak of science of nature, science of human, science of society…)

    At the last meeting of the European Academy of Sciences, in October 2008, the president allowed me to shout "Celebrate knowledge!" (this was the message, not the materialization of it), and, as we agreed that I would present both the scientific discipline called "Molecular Gastronomy" and methodological questions associated with the creation of this discipline, I developed the idea that all beautiful intellectual methods are necessary to make good science, for any study: the method of chemistry, the method of physics, the method of mathematics, the method of history, some linguistic considerations… I do not have certainties (and I am certainly unable to answer questions such as "Who should belong to an academy of sciences"), but in order to answer the query from the President of the Eurasc, I am happy to ask questions… that I base in part of the introduction of the Elementary Treaty of Chemistry, by Lavoisier (Antoine Laurent de Lavoisier, Traité élémentaire de chimie, Cuchet, Paris, 1789.) "The improvement of language improves science, as the improvement of science improves language, because any physical sciences are necessarily based on three things: the series of facts that constitute science, the ideas that recalls these facts, the words that express these ideas […] As words express ideas and help them to convey them, the consequence is that one cannot improve the language without improving science, and one cannot improve science without improving language". For the father of modern chemistry, making science means thinking, but thinking means speaking, i.e. using the right words; some literary (above, I wrote "linguistic", and this could be discussed) competence is needed.

Inhuman sciences versus soft sciences

     Is it really possible to mix sciences and literature? Is it really possible to mix natural sciences and human or social sciences? What an awful mixture, would say those who fear obscure philosophers!( A philosopher that I do not understand is a bastard », sait the poet André Breton.) Indeed, the opposition is old: inhuman sciences against soft sciences… And it is true that the method of history (« The » method ?) is not the method of chemistry (Of  « the » chemist ?) or the method of physics. But it is also true that the methods of chemists, physicists or biologists are different, albeit methodologically similar. Moreover, one has to take into account the fact there are differences between the methods of particle physicists and of soft matter physicists, of theorists and experimentalists, there are differences between the methods of analytical chemistry and of organic chemistry...
     When the French mathematician Henri Poincaré recommended: "One should make mathematics as an artist", he invited scientists to consider that there are "styles", in science. Some physicists are looking for the universal law, neglecting the details, the differences that make indeed the beautiful diversity of the world (But is not it true from certain chemists ?); some chemists –but also some physicists – care a lot about this diversity. Question of style, question of taste, question of aesthetics… that should never be discussed!
     Could we group all scientific disciplines under the flag of "natural philosophy", as Isaac Newton or Michael Faraday proposed, for example?  Alas, the name is today rejected, because a group promoting supernatural causes in biology, and opposing in particular to the theory of biological evolution, stole it. Another name has to be found to describe all sciences.
    But if we want to make a united group of scientists, the silly theory of the French philosopher Auguste Comte should be given up, because it creates an unbearable hierarchy between science (and scientists). Comte put mathematics first, then physics, then chemistry, then biology and so on. Is the discovery of the Higgs boson more "important" than the discovery of the lactose operon? No, certainly no. Of course, if one bases the hierarchy that mathematics are first, physics second, etc. then it is tautological to say that the Higgs boson is more important than the lactose operon. But imagine that you put life on top: then the order is reversed. Stop these taste based justification of intellectual matters! Why couldn’t we admit that it’s not useful to lower some in order to appreciate the quality of others? Can we not consider that in these matters it is a question of taste, which suffers no discussion? Would not it be even useful to remember that our choices are sometimes not transitive? Or that facts are not democratic?
    The world of chefs (sorry for the prosaic comparison, but remember that molecular gastronomy is studying the phenomena occurring during culinary processes) is regularly embarrassed with silly elections of the "first chef of the world". It would be very difficult, in music, to say whether Johann-Sebastian Bach is better than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, or Claude Debussy more than Maurice Ravel, in particular because the same individual, two days part, because he or she heard too much Bach music, wants to hear Mozart, or the Rolling Stones… Should not we say rather that we love Bach, Mozart, Debussy, Ravel and the Rolling Stones? As knowledge is concerned, why should physicists be cut from Louis Pasteur, or biologists from Alfred Wegener? Why do not we simply ask for what made them wonderful: their "method"?
    The word "method" was written so many times, since the beginning of this text, that we cannot avoid saying that it means "way", in Greek. Which (intellectual) way do we want to use? As scientists, we remember that Galilee, who was one of the founding fathers of the modern scientific method, put experiment first, because he wanted to fight the overdue importance of Aristotle ; however he also said that calculation (he said "geometry", or mathematics ; one should come back to this difference) was the language of the world. The case of Faraday is particularly interesting, from this perspective, because his education in mathematics was almost nil. But nobody contests that Faraday was an extraordinary physical chemist; however he did not calculate.
    Let us skip this wonderful exception that we have to keep always in mind, and let us come back to science, previously called natural philosophy, and which is indeed "physics", as physis means "nature", in Greek. When quantum mechanics was devised, some modern physicists wanted to reduce science to their own science, (For example, in 2005, it was too often said that Albert Einstein demonstrated the existence of molecules… but publications from Gerhard Van’t Hoff, as early as 1874, already show pictures with the chair and boat conformations of glucose !) but it was finally understood that the brick does not make the house: even if Schrödinger’s equation is solved (Except exceptions, in an approximate manner, because one remember of the solution given by Henri Poincaré to the three bodies problem !), it cannot be used for the description of all chemical reactions, and even less for biological or ecological processes; from bricks whose constitution is understood, a wealth of different houses can be built.
    Let us come back to experimental science. Its method was much discussed by epistemologists, and we would risk being lost if we entered into the discussion of whether this method should rather be called hypothetico-deductive method or something else. Let us call it simply "experimental method", and let us admit for simplification that it is: observing one phenomenon, characterizing it quantitatively, linking all data into synthetic laws, looking for mechanisms that corresponds to the laws, trying to refute the theory using experimental predictions and experiments, and going on and on, improving the theory.
This method can be applied to various objects. For example, applied to mountains, it is geology. Applied to molecules, it is chemistry. Applied to living beings, it is biology (it would be more exact to call it zoology, as biology is stricto sensu the study of living creatures that can speak). Obviously, this experimental method can be applied to human behaviors, to groups… Hence, if science is experimental science, it is obvious that we can group chemists, biologists, geologist, astronomers, sociologists, anthropologists…
    Should this group also include historians, when they use the experimental method? The case of Emmanuel Leroy Ladurie is not very difficult, as he practices quantitative history. However, the case of Jean-Marie Zemb (1928-2007) is more interesting for our discussion. Zemb, a former professor at the Collège de France, was a wonderful personality, with truly exciting works on German grammar. The question is: should have scientists invited him in their group?

Limits exclude

      Yes, the work of Zemb was very interesting, but it was certainly not experimental science. And making a group means –it should be said- delineating a territory with a frontier. Frontiers exclude the outside: « To define is to negate »(Baruch Spinoza). As humanity was concerned, the simple idea of defining what is human has the consequence that the non human is also defined, and that human do not behave the same way with humans (they have "rights") and non human (they do not have the same rights as humans). History shows how this differentiation had awful consequences: all individuals that were not members of the City could be slaves, in the Antiquity; Africans could be sold as slaves, when human « races » were admitted, after the Renaissance; and alas recently putting the Jewish outside the limit led to their extermination… Today, should not we be careful to consider the place of the barrier between "us" and some species of apes, which (should we say "who" ?) have also food cultures : biologists such as Claude Marcel Hladik (CNRS/Muséum national d’histoire naturelle, France.) demonstrated that the introduction of an old female, from a group of apes which uses some tools (for example a stick to fish ants in trees) into a group which does not use these tools leads to the propagation of a new competency, i.e the use of the tools.
    Yes, making a limit excludes, and yes, also, we apparently need barriers to make useful intellectual categories. In the case of an academy of sciences, the question is: inside science, outside intellectual activities that are not science. However, how many wonderful people outside! Should we really be separated from them? The case of Jean-Marie Zemb has to be considered as, being quite frequent, it makes the question clearer.
    In order to discuss this case, I have to present briefly a work that I began some decades ago, i.e. a collection of intimate methods given to me by individuals with a high competency in their own field. The basis is that I want to be more clever tomorrow than today (do not you have the same desire?). As the word "clever" is ambiguous, let us admit the meaning of "being able to solve problems". For example, when we go up in the morning, we have to brush our teeth correctly in order to avoid teeth caries: the method for brushing one’s teeth correctly is a "clever method". Then, when we put our shoes on, there is a clever method for tying the knots, a method that avoids that the knots go away when we walk later in the day (and this method is based on some mathematics, i.e. knots theory (Jearl Walker, La solidité des nœuds, Dossier spécial La science des nœuds, Pour la Science, Paris, avril 2007 )). More generally by "cleverness" I propose to designate the ability to solve the wealth of small problems that we meet all days long : brushing the teeth, making knots, solving differential equations,  making administration files for funding, loving…
    How can we be more clever tomorrow than today? As there is no a priori reason that someone who solves cleverly differential equations is also someone that makes cleverly knots, I decided to question various people about their own competency, and this is why I am having a collection of intimate methods from clever friends (Thanks to you if you contribute to my « education » by sending to me your intimate method, the method thanks to which you are an expert in your field: Pierre Gilles de Gennes, who was clever as a physicist, had –and this is wonderful to consider- the same intimate working method as Enrico Fermi: in the morning, while walking toward the lab, he calculated order of magnitudes (Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, L’intelligence du physicien, Pour la Science, 1998, 11.). Jean-Marie Lehn, wonderful chemist (I have the feeling that he deserves a second Nobel Prize for his work on self-organization), has, in his repertory of intimate methods, the same as the Strasbourg philosopher Abraham Moles (So called « Inventivity Matrixes ».) ; and as Dimitri Mendeleev: using tables ; a table is a wonderful intellectual tool, as it offers cells, and one empty cell is an invitation for filling in (Jean-Marie Lehn, L'intelligence du chimiste, Pour la Science, 1998, 12.) .
    Zemb? We I asked his about his intimate method, he told me that he had one, on which all his work of German grammar was based. This is based on the idea that in any list, the generic term is not of the same kind as the terms of the list. For example, in the list 1, 2, 3… k... 40, the generic term k is a letter, whereas the terms of the list are numbers. Wonderful idea: it is about the same as the theory of types, in logic, for solving the liar paradox. (Alfred Noth Whitehead, Bertrand Russell, Principia Mathematica, Cambridge University Press, 1913.)  Grammar, logic, mathematics... The example of Zemb is useful for at least two reasons: on one hand, one should hesitate to be separated from such a man; on the other hand, his method is much alike the method of individuals that would be inside the group, so that the place of the barrier has to be discussed.
    Obviously, some could observe that Zemb’s method had links with mathematics… which are not sciences, but rather mathematics! The discussion about the relationship between mathematics and sciences of nature is not new, and it is true that for some mathematicians, the working method is not the experimental method that we discussed above ( Jean-Paul Delahaye, Le réalisme en mathématiques et en physique, janvier 1991, pp. 34-42.) Mathematics is not sciences, but mathematics. But could we conceive that an academy of sciences exclude mathematicians? Then why excluding Zemb?

Celebrate knowledge!

Indeed, academies are institutions which want to group people recognized for their wonderful competencies and their passion for knowledge. In France, the Institut de France rightly (to my opinion only, of course) groups Academie des sciences, with the Académie française, the Académie des inscriptions et des belles lettres, the Académie des Beaux-Arts, the Académie des sciences morales et politiques. I remember with some nostalgia (but not much: there is so much beautiful science to make, any second) of the cafeteria of the College de France: when one wanted, it was possible not to sit day after day with the member of the same lab, and, rather, to meet unknown –and wonderful- people who had a very different discipline, ready to share intimate methods. This is how I met Zemb and many others.

After all, is not the passion for knowledge the most important thing? ( Along with honesty, kindness…)

Hervé This, Équipe INRA de Gastronomie moléculaire, AgroParisTech