Carlos Fiolhais: «Scientific culture is a condition for citizenship in modern societies»

Carlos Fiolhais is a full professor at the University of Coimbra, to which he says goodbye today, aged 65, with one last lesson on the history of science

Carlos Fiolhais – Photography © UC/Karine Paniza

Carlos Fiolhais is an unavoidable figure in contemporary Portuguese culture, holder of an insatiable intelligent curiosity and a passion for knowledge. Regarding his last lesson at the University of Coimbra, which takes place on the afternoon of Monday, July 12th, here is an interview that briefly covers his life and his main interests.

What is the oldest memory you have of yourself?

Carlos Fiolhais (CF) – It's very difficult to answer, as I don't focus much on the past.
But I remember living in Ajuda, in Lisbon, playing in the Jardim da Praça do Império in front of the Jerónimos and running in the Rosa dos Ventos, next to the Padrão dos Descobrimentos.
I was very young at Restelo, I hope I will never become an “old man from Restelo”.
I came to Coimbra when I was 7 years old, where I remember well the Olivais school and the D. João III high school, including the fourth grade exam and the high school admission test.

When does your “entanglement” with science and physics occur?

CF – I discovered science, particularly Physics, in the high school years. Not so much through classes and teachers (to whom, moreover, I owe a lot and without whom I wouldn't be who I am), but more through science dissemination books, in the school library and in the Coimbra Municipal Library.
He ordered three books at a time, which was the maximum allowed, and after a few days he went there to get three more.
Among them were the booklets from the collection “Science for Gente Nova” by Rómulo de Carvalho, whom I later met in person and who is now the patron of a Ciência Viva center that I founded.
There I became aware that science, that is, the search by human beings for knowledge about the world, was an adventure in which I too could participate.
After entering the University I started, albeit in a modest way, to do it and I took a liking to it.

It has an immeasurable role in promoting scientific culture in Portugal. Is it possible to have sufficient scientific literacy in society without good science education in schools? What is the role of science communicators in this challenge?

CF – I have participated as far as I know and can, to a large extent with other colleagues, in very varied processes of communicating science to everyone, showing that it is part of human culture.
Scientific culture can start at school, but it doesn't end there.
Formal education is an indispensable means, but informal education, which takes place every day through the press, radio, television, the Internet, museums, gardens and natural parks, geological sites, observation of the skies, etc., is an essential complement.
At school, science can be stronger, namely starting earlier.
And, in life, we have to be more aware of the science that is everywhere.
Science communicators, people who know and like to transmit science, are essential mediators between science and citizens. Your role among us can and must be greater.
I hope the conditions for this are created

What is the role of scientific and technological culture in Portuguese democracy?

CF – Scientific culture is a condition of citizenship in modern societies. Today, no one can truly be able to participate in society without having a minimum knowledge base of science and the method that provides them.
We live in a time of artificial intelligence, genetic editing, nanotechnology, etc. in which new technological possibilities open up that interfere in our lives, thus raising ethical and legal issues in which we are all called to participate.
We also live in a world where there are threats such as pandemics and climate change whose solution challenges us all.
Furthermore, and more generally, we live in a world threatened by false news, in which we must exercise rationality, that is, we must continually know how to distinguish between truth and lies.
Now, science is the source of the exercise of a critical spirit, which is so necessary for our lives today.

The media, namely the written press, play a key role in the good democratic health of society. Where does science “fit” in the media?

CF – The media, including the written press, are the “cement” of society, ensuring the communication of news and opinions. They allow for cohesion and also for democratic dialogue.
As much of our life today has to do with science and technology that is closely associated with it – it will suffice to mention health, communications, etc. -, it is natural that science is present in the media.
The leading international and national newspapers have had it on their pages for a long time and, fortunately, the same has happened more recently with regional newspapers.

We know of your huge passion for literature, for books. If you had to take only five books for an interplanetary trip, which ones would you take?

CF – It's a very difficult challenge, but I'll try, limiting myself only to promotional books from Gradiva's “Ciência Aberta” collection, which I direct. It could be the case of finding extraterrestrials, who didn't know as much science as we do… “Cosmos”, by Carl Sagan; “The New Alliance”, by Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers; “The First Three Minutes” by Steven Weinberg; “What is a Physical Law” by Richard Feynman; and “When Chickens Have Teeth” by Stephen Jay Gould.
They were books that marked me and that could mark extraterrestrials...

He has just finished a stage in his life as a university professor of physics. Published several dozen books. As a researcher, he has one of the most cited scientific articles by Portuguese scientists (more than 24 thousand citations). And now the future? Can you uncover the veil of your next horizons for us?

CF – Today is just the first day of the rest of my life. I hope to continue living, having more time now to read, write and spread science.
I only left classes and some research, giving the place to the younger ones, but hoping to continue doing research in the area of ​​History of Science and deepening scientific culture.
I just quit being an employee after 44 years of uninterrupted activity since I was 21, but I hope to continue working…