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Il matematico asceta
10 ottobre 2009

Non pubblicava libri, non era onnipresente in talk-show ed esibizioni varie, non straparlava su tutto senza azzeccarne una. In poche parole, non era un Odifreddi; ma era talmente grande nel suo campo, la matematica, da scoprire in anticipo il teorema che rese famoso John Nash (il matematico la cui storia viene raccontata nel film a beautiful mind)!

Sto parlando del nostrano Ennio de Giorgi, matematico italiano sconosciuto ai più, ma sempre più luminoso come figura ai miei occhi: seppe coniugare la sua prestigiosa attività di matematico con una fervida fede, vivendo quasi come un antico asceta... naturalmente, pur di non ammettere che scienza e fede possono andare benissimo a braccetto, si sono diffuse le solite calunnie sul personaggio. A tal proposito, vi riporto un'interessante articolo, tratto dalla pagina personale del prof. Francesco Maggi.

Who is trying to prove the existence of God?

It must be a quite diffused opinion among journalists and other kind of writers too, that "mathematician" makes rhyme with "mental disease". Being the subject of this kind of unhappy generalizations is of course not an exclusive of mathematicians, and after all there are much more dangerous distortions of reality one could complain about: but I shall complain anyway about the famous best-seller "A beautiful mind" by Sylvia Nasar.

That book is a biography of John Forbes Nash Jr, one of the most brilliant and original mathematician of the past century (and he is still working!). Nash has also suffered for a long part of his life of schizophrenia. A (questionable) opinion sustained in the book is that Nash's mental disease was more or less latent, and remained such, until he had to face a big delusion: one of his most important results, the one that should have granted him the Field's Medal, had been proved two years before him by an unknown Italian mathematician, Ennio De Giorgi, that published the result on an obscure Italian mathematical journal, having more or less regional diffusion.

Nasar reports that De Giorgi came from a poor family and that he had no life outside mathematics , no family of his own or other close relationships, and even later, he literally lived in his office. Despite occupying the most prestigious mathematical chair in Italy, he lived a life of ascetic poverty, completely devoted to his research, teaching and, as time went on, a growing preoccupation with mysticism that led him to attempt to prove the existence of God through mathematics.

This seems written according to the following "recipe for a perfect lie": 50% thruth, 40% distortion of thruth, 10% pure fantasy. I don't think this was done with a bad intent: more probably it was just a mixture of superficiality and of narrative needs... but I have found it really sad, mainly because one of De Giorgi's deepest legacies is in fact his point of view about the interplay between science and religion.

It is beyond the scope of this page to account correctly on De Giorgi's philosophy. In the following I have just collected some information from "Ennio De Giorgi: Anche la Scienza ha bisogno di sognare" edited by Franco Bassani, Antonio Marino and Carlo Sbordone, that is a rich source of documents mainly related to his non-scientific activity. I hope this can make some reader curious to know more.

Ennio De Giorgi was born in 1928 in Lecce, where his (wealthy) family was appreciated for its cultural effort. His father died when he was young and he grew up with his mother, his brother Mario and his sister Rosa. During all his life he remained in strict touch with them (for example, when he was honoured by the French Academy of Sciences, he refused the rich hotel that they prepared for him in order to visit Paris with his sister and the daughter of his brother, Annadina). From his family, in particular from the mother, he learned a deep religious faith, simple and concrete, of which he gave witness to others through the example of his life...

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