First I should introduce my friend Qfwfq. That’s old Qfwfq – he must have passed his 15 billionth birthday by now. He witnessed the Big Bang, he watched the solar system forming, he saw the moon peel away from the earth. And he heard the first bird sing.
Most people think Qfwfq is a fictional character – a creation of the author Italo Calvino. Qfwfq disagrees, however. Calvino is his ghost writer, he says. The point is that Calvino had the imagination to see that Qfwfq’s stories needed to be written down. The stories – memoirs, I hear my friend whispering – are collected as the book Cosmicomics. These memoirs, if that is what they are, will interest any science communicator.
This is how Qfwfq puts it:
‘What I say about the beginning of the universe is all true. I saw it with my own eyes. Yes there are points of difference with the scientists’ stories. But no one is sure that scientists are telling the absolute truth.’
Qfwfq’s stories don’t seem completely fanciful. He’ll tell you about the way he and his friends were violently and tragically separated at the time of the big bang, suddenly spread through an expanding space. He’ll describe the grumpy fish who watched his more adventurous nephews and nieces move onto dry land, by using their fins for walking. Qfwfq says there’s just as much truth in his stories as there is in anything coming out of CERN.
Whether true or not, it is incontestable that Qfwfq’s memories rely in some way on his writer friend Italo Calvino. Qfwfq’s greatest tragedy was the grim night in 1985 in Siena when Calvino suffered a brain haemorrhage and died. No more Cosmicomics were ever written. Qfwfq is a traveller, not a writer. He just can’t write things down.
I still see Qfwfq from time to time, to reminisce, in his pleasant flat in Rome’s Garbatella quarter. At the smallest hint he’ll recount to me the very stories he told Calvino all those years ago. ‘You want to know about the birth of the universe? Why, I saw it with my own eyes!’ Life back then was extremely hot and extremely crowded. Not only was he punctiform; he was communally punctiform, pressed to a point with all his friends, all of them there at the beginning of everything.
‘There we were, me and my friends, squeezed into one infinitesimal point: literally all in bed together. Yes there were petty squabbles over elbows and knees digging into each other – how could there not be? But how much better than the present system, after the Big Bang did its business, when we all are spread around the metropolis. Now we only bump into each other by accident, or by Facebook. We have to travel to see each other, or send a text.’
Qfwfq, I’m afraid to say, is shockingly sceptical about the concept of progress.
Loyal old Qfwfq likes to chat about his ‘creative partner’ Italo Calvino. He gives me all the biographical details: tells me how Calvino was ‘Italy’s greatest post-war writer’; that if he hadn’t died he ‘… certainly would have won the Nobel Prize for Literature’; explains that Calvino was born in 1923 in Santiago, Cuba, where his parents were scientists, agronomists actually. Qfwfq says that with parents in the sciences it was a break with the past for young Italo to study literature at university. He wrote his graduate thesis on Joseph Conrad, joined the Italian communist party, and during WWII fought with the partisans against the fascists.
Calvino’s scientific ancestry must explain the ease of his friendship with Qfwfq. Suddenly, in 1965, Qfwfq’s memoirs appeared, authored by Calvino and published by Einaudi as Le Cosmicomiche: a collection of 12 stories about the evolution of the cosmos, all of them miracles of the imagination. Qfwfq has some academic pretensions, and in explaining Calvino’s growing interest in the cosmos he points to the significance of the date of publication, the mid-1960s, a time when everyone was getting excited about the Apollo programme. Besides, did not Calvino write an essay about Sputnik after its own debut in 1957? For Qfqfq the thing is clinched by a letter from Calvino, written in 1964, which describes his ‘… massive weariness for literature, particularly for the novel’. Apparently, too, this was a period when Calvino only read astronomy books and found cosmology’s great ideas a liberation from his earlier realist fiction.
Having told me all this, Qfwfq falls asleep in his chair – the siesta has arrived. Is he dreaming of the time the moon went into orbit around the Earth? Or the startling moment he saw the first Archaeopteryx? Watching him closely, I get the strong feeling that this ancient traveller, retired in Rome, has in his mind stories of the universe he never told Calvino. Perhaps one day he’ll write them down. Now here’s an idea. Is there another science communicator out there, equipped with a flexible mind and a decent audio recorder? If you fancy a trip to Rome, just let me know: I’ll arrange the introductions.
Dr Stephen Webster is the Director of the Science Communication Group at Imperial College London. The Complete Cosmicomics, by Italo Calvino, is published by Penguin Books.