Are You Smarter Than an Italian Education Minister?

You are if you read my previous post about neutrinos, or really any account of the neutrino experiment that has been published in any of the newspapers I’ve seen

After all, I bet even those of you that didn’t have time for my 3,500 word treatise on the subject picked up on the fact that the scientists were just watching these particles do their thing, measuring their speed as they go about their business, only to discover that this speed was larger than the speed of light. I bet you also know by now that neutrinos can travel through the earth itself, because they’re so unwilling to interact with other matter.  If you’re really on the ball you might even know that this is considered a perk: Since neutrinos alone possess this extreme earth-tunneling power, a detector buried deep underground can be certain it’s seeing almost exclusively the neutrinos it wants to see, and not something else like a pion or a cosmic ray.

On the other hand, as some of my Italian friends have pointed out to me, anyone who got their news exclusively from Italian Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini might have a different impression. Here‘s her official statement on the subject, which I would translate as follows:


Official Press-Release,

Rome 23 September 2011

A Declaration of the minister Mariastella Gelmini

“The Discovery by CERN in Geneva and  National Institute for Nuclear Physics is a Scientific Event of Fundamental Importance”

I give my applause and my heartfelt congratulations tothe architects of an historic experiment. I am profoundly grateful to all the italian researchers who contributed to this event which will change the face of modern physics.

The overcoming of the speed of light is a victory of epic proportions for scientific researchers all around the world.

To the construction of the tunnel between CERN and the laboratory at Gran Sasso, through which the experiment was carried out, Italy has contributed an apportionment today estimable at around 45 million Euros.

Additionally, today Italy supports CERN with absolute conviction, and with a contribution of an additional 80 million Euros, and the events which we are living through confirm to us that we have made a choice that was correct and visionary.

Look I appreciate the sentiment, but does she really think someone built a 500 mile tunnel from Switzerland into Italy? And please understand, I’m not trying to ridicule her for not being intelligent. I’m sure she could be quite good at her job and not know offhand how a neutrino experiment works. But it’s her job, if she wants to comment on such things, to learn about them before she starts to speak.

Instead, I’m offering this as continued evidence of the importance of scientific literacy, and of not believing that politicians know something about science just because they used the right buzzwords. What if someone in Italy picked up on this notion that such a tunnel had been built, and argued, for monetary reasons, security reasons, whatever, that this was evidence that Italy should stop supporting the scientists at CERN?

The problem with science is that it will always be hard to explain to people who havent spent years of their lives focusing on it. So if you’re a politician, and you have some influence over what science gets done and what science gets scrapped, you better make darn sure you’re information comes from a more reliable source than whoever Sig.ra Gelmini was listening to.

Or, put another way, would someone in Italy please hire me to live there and teach your ministers about particle physics??


About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

6 Responses to Are You Smarter Than an Italian Education Minister?

  1. Spandextor says:

    Dear Mariastella Gelmini,

    permit me to inform you of my desire of going into business relationship with you. I have the believe you are a reputable and responsible and trustworthy person I can do business with from the little information so far I gathered about you during my search for a partner and by matter of trust I must not hesitate to confide in you for this simple and sincere business.

    I am Stella Amah 19 years of age the only daughter of late Mr Boni Amah whom was killed by the rebels that attacked our country cote d’Ivoire west Africa and took over our town (BOUAKE). I ran to Abidjan the economical capital of cote d’ivoire from were I am contacting you. Before the death of my father he told me that he has blueprints for a cold fusion device kept in a private security company here in cote d’ivoire in my name as the next of kin,

    Dear, in the capacity of the next of kin and with all the documents in my hand now, I am contacting you with due sence of humanity that you will give it a sympathetic and mutual consideration.

    I am honourably seeking your assistance in the following ways.

    (1)To serve as the guardian of this discovery and to come assist me visit the security company here to retrive the blueprints.

    (2)To make arrangement for me to come over to your country to further my education and to secure a residential permit for me in your country.

    (3)To provide good investment plans for the fund and to manage the fund for 5 years, during the investment period,only our profit will be shared annually 70% for me the investor while 30% will be for you the fund manager annually.

    Moreover, I am willing to offer you 15 % of the total blueprints as compensation for your effort /input after the successful transfer of this fund to your nominated account overseas, before the investments starts.and I have maped 5% for any expenses that might be incured during the course of this transaction.

    furthermore, you can indicate your option towards assisting me as I believe that this transaction would be concluded within a stipulated period of time you signify your interest to assist me.

    Anticipating hearing from you immediately.

    Thanks and God bless.
    Best Regards.

  2. Yatterman says:

    You know what’s even more depressing? the fact that after being mocked by the whole Italian Internet, she didn’t correct her statement, but instead put blame on the readers and the citizens by stating that
    Rome, 24th September 2011

    Miur [Ministry for Education, University and Research], ludicrous polemic

    The Ministry’s press office states that, obviously the tunnel mentioned in yesterday’s statement can’t be intended in any way as a tunnel physically connecting Geneve and Gran Sasso. This is easy to understand and this polemic is totally preposterous. The tunnel mentioned is indeed the one in which protons travel and from whose collisions the neutrinos that cross Earth and reach Gran Sasso are originated. Italy contributed with about 45 milion euros to the building of this tunnel and the associated facilities. This polemic is without any basis and is totally ludicrous.

    Oh, yes… it’s a shame that the previous statement clearly contained the words “tunnel *between* CERN and the laboratory at Gran Sasso” :D

  3. Nephilim says:

    Well, I’m Italian and I can say that you are just wrong when you suppose she is good at her job. She is not good at all, she is just a puppy who is destroying italian education on behalf of somebody else.
    This is not her first gaffe, however I can’t blame her, it is not her fault, if you could see her curriculum you would understand. The ones who allowed her to be a minister are the only responsible for her poor figure and all the damages she is doing.
    Unfortunately this is Italy, and once again you can all get an idea of the kind of people who’s governing our Country.
    Day by day I’m more and more ashamed of my own homeland such as many Italian people are.

    A guy proud of being Italian but sick of brainless Italian people.

  4. Spandextor says:

    Oh yeah! I remember something else embarrassing about Italy:

    It’s like a giant Renaissance festival all day every day. Bring your terra-centric orrerys and pitchforks! Burn two witches and get a third plot of land free.

    • Yatterman says:

      Yes, that is a shame, also because if they ringed the alarm bell and nothing happened, that would have been a felony too (unjustified alarm).
      We have to be cautious though, since the media might have misunderstood what the prosecutor is after: Italian justice is full of technicalities

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