The Italian Navigator and the Uncertain New World
December 23, 2011
In 1492 an Italian navigator, in the face of harrowing opposition and great uncertainty, discovered a new world. In 1942, another great Italian navigator discovered an uncertain new world, one that was on the brink of war and destruction. Both these great men discovered a new America.
In November 2011 another Italian navigator, a Goldman Sachs banker and a technocrat, and in comparison to the above two pioneers, a most ordinary man, was catapulted to a position where he was forced to discover another new world. This time, it was a new Europe.
"The Italian navigator has just landed in the new world." On 2nd December one important government official got this message over phone from the head of another important government agency. We can be easily forgiven if we think that perhaps someone very high up in the European Central Bank telephoned his counterpart at the Federal Reserve and conveyed this message a couple of weeks back. And the "Italian navigator" could have been a reference to Mario Monti, the former Goldman Sachs banker who had recently been appointed as the Prime Minister of Italy. Given the crisis in Europe and thecrucial role played by Italy in fostering that crisis, the title of "navigator" given to himmay even seem apt to many of us.
However, it is not Mario Monti that we are talking about and the year is not 2011.
It is 1942. And, on 2nd December of that year, Arthur Compton, the Director of Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory, an appendage of the Manhattan Project, telephoned James Conant, the head of the National Defense Research Committeeand said, "The Italian navigator has just landed in the new world." i The "Italian navigator" that they were talking about was Enrico Fermi, the famous Italian-American nuclear physicist, sometimes also referred to as the father of the Atomic bomb who at that time was working on the Manhattan Project. Fermi was working on how to apply the theory of nuclear fission to develop the atomic bomb. Fermi and his wife had left Italy in 1938 just in time to escape the War in Europe, and come to America, the new and uncertain world.
Fermi and his team’s effort would go a long way in bringingthe Manhattan Project to fruition and the development of the world’s first atomic bomb. It would make America a military super-power. It will also bring death and destruction for tens of thousands of Japanese and open up a dark and evil vista.
In 1453 Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople and with it the accessibility to the “silk route” became difficult and dangerous for European traders and merchants. In 1492, Christopher Columbus, who was Italian by birth and perhaps the greatest adventurer and navigator the world has even known, decided to tackle the humongous challenge of finding an alternative to the land route to China and India. This would eventually lead to the discovery of a new land, later named as America.
Mario Monti is no Columbus or Fermi. Yet, the challenges he faces in navigating the new realities of Europe and bringing the Italian house to order may be as great as those faced by his earlier compatriots. Europe has been the cradle of invention, discovery and chaos for centuries. And, every time a crisis has happened, some navigator or the other has emerged to steer us to a new, albeit and uncertain, world.
What world lies ahead of us? What kind of a navigator will come to our rescue?
iMassive: The Hunt for the God Particle, Ian Sample, Virgin Books, 2011.
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