The future between Humanism and STEM

A mindful talk with Ersilia Vaudo Scarpetta, astrophysicist and Chief Diversity Officer for the European Space Agency reveals how much humanism lies behind scientific subjects.

Dec 2020

It has always been believed that mathematics and philosophy are inextricably linked and talking to Ersilia Vaudo Scarpetta, Chief Diversity Officer for the ESA (European Space Agency) surely confirms this. Listening to her words is like making a journey into the reasons that drive man to search for knowledge and to understand that science is the Ariadne's thread that sometimes shows everything clearly and at times leads to blind alleys from which to start again.

"As a young girl I had many doubts about the path I would take" confided Ersilia, a guest of the Avio Aero Women Network. "At home, science was the normality of everyday life. My mom, a chemist, used to write the ingredient’s names on jars as formulas and I grew up in this context of numbers and elements. Over time, I developed a passion of my own. It helped that I grew up on the sea, with the possibility of being able to stop and look at the horizon during the day and the stars at night and in this context I approached astrophysics. But, I felt that there was something else, and when it came to choosing a university I was on the fence... I was attracted by the prospective of studying philosophy, but I feared I would focus on myself, and on my teenage “existential anxiety”. I felt the need to move my center of gravity outside of myself, into an objective and distant dimension, and physics would offer this opportunity."

A moment of the broadcast dedicated to the Avio Aero employees.

"Those years were exciting" she continues, "but I am curious by nature, so after graduation I enrolled in Economics and then won a PhD scholarship in Economic Policy. During my PhD years, I worked as a freelancer in one of the first science journalism agencies in Italy, where I learned a lot. I regret not having been able to finish my PhD because, a few months after completing my thesis, I was hired by ESA where I still work. Today, looking back, I can say that all these steps, while not always following a straight line, have strengthened my love for challenges and the value I attribute to curiosity as a driver of personal growth.

When Ersilia speaks, you could listen to her for hours. She speaks in a clear, simple but captivating language as she leads you out of the Newtonian world - as she defines it - that of experience into that of general relativity or quantum mechanics for example, in which experience is not needed and, indeed, should be abandoned, to understand fully what happens in the infinitely small or infinitely large.

"Physics allows us to approach the impossible... just think about the concept of time falling like an apple, slowed down by a mass. It's hard to believe, just as it's hard to realize, that when we look at a starry sky what we see is simultaneously what is being observed yet is a look into the past. Physics and the mathematics that is its language have this power to transform and to open the mind."

Spreading the power of mathematics is one of the objectives that Ersilia Vaudo Scarpetta has set herself as a member of the institutional taskforce “Women for a new Renaissance” commissioned by the Minister for Equal Opportunities and the Family, Elena Bonetti.  

Ersilia Vaudo Scarpetta, Astrophysicist and Chief Diversity Officer at European Space Agency.

“Gender equality will only be achieved when women preside over the STEM spaces, because those are the areas where the fastest salary progression and main employment opportunities are, where the professions of the future are developed”

“If we look at the data from the latest OECD study, PISA, we find out that Italy has the widest gender gap in mathematics. This situation needs to be addressed immediately, not only for the economic impact it can generate, but also for its social impact. In fact, those who resist approaching mathematics tend to delegate complex reasoning to others, prefer ultra-simplifications and find themselves with weakened critical spirit characteristics that a modern country cannot afford. Gender equality will only be achieved when women preside over the STEM spaces, because those are the areas where there is the fastest salary progression, greater employment opportunities, where the professions of the future are developed.

It is important to get back to a humanistic view of science, where questions are asked continually and not stop asking them after the initial answers come. According to Ersilia, “It will be important for the vocations of the future to get out form under the logic of extreme verticalization in which we find ourselves today, because the technical-scientific professions will increasingly require soft skills, open-mindedness, ability to see the big picture, and the ability to open to ethics to imagine the consequence of what you are doing.” All characteristics that women certainly possess.

Cover image credits: Zoe Vincent - Wired Italy.