Happy birthday mr. GNU

It was the early eighties, a day like any other at the MIT. And a printer was not working. The Artificial Intelligence Laboratory programmer Richard Stallman did his best to fetch the source code of the driver from the manufacturer to fix it, but there was no chance. The code was closed, and this was definitely a huge problem. Because if we give up sharing our work, we cease to work for the common good. And this should never happen in science.

All of a sudden, something as simple as the possibility to modify a driver became the symbol of an epic struggle. The struggle between greed and generosity, individualism and solidarity, profit and redistribution, patents and free knowledge and, to some extent and in a more philosophical fashion, between capitalism and anti-capitalism.

It was the September 27th 1983, and Richard Stallman was announcing his challenge to the world: ensure that the source code flows freely. The GNU project was born.

Over the years, a huge crowd of any kind of programmers joined the movement, rising the flag of free knowledge as a means for the redistribution of wealth, and for the spread of democracy. A lot of admirable and romantic ideals that shocked the world as they proved to be effective enough to beat up the informatics bad guys. Although the efforts of software majors to promote their closed and patent- based way to software, the free software movement has been the one to dictate the metrics and trace the groove of many aspects of the evolution of IT market. The encounter with Torvald’s kernel linux, the birth of the main distribution projects, the extension of free software principles to all the aspects of cognitive production that led Lawrence Lessig to found Creative Commons in 2001. Year by year, open source software have spread over, becoming the standard for almost everything that is leading the internet nowadays,  including Google and Facebook.

A lesson that we still need. Openness is fair, and it is productive. As the debate on Open Science spreads up, the example of Free Software still traces a way we must follow.


Is creationism still compatible with Christian Religion?

One of the very first posts in this blog, was about the “evolution of creationism” in Catholic Church, arguing that the Catholic Church is not anti- Darwinian anymore, but oriented to propose a “peaceful co-existence” between creationism and biological evolution. Divine creation is actually considered a transcendental event, and biological evolution its reflection on the immanent plane. With this very simple deal, Vatican authorities have started a path of reconciliation with Science, that started at the age of John Paul II, and met another important step forward with Pope Francis.

As we read the story of Creation on the Genesis, we risk to believe that God was a wizard holding a wand that can do anything. Not so. He created the beings, and let them evolve according to the internal laws he gave, in order to let them develop and reach their fullness. He gave autonomy to the beings of the universe as he ensured his continuous presence, giving the essence to any reality. Pope Francis I– Speech at the “Pontifical Academy of Sciences”- 2014 (Source: Huffington Post Italia).

Last week pontiff’s public declarations made really clear that this path is accomplished: Catholics support the validity Darwin’s evolution and Big Bang Theory, that are not in contrast with the belief in Jesus Christ and the message of the church. “Being Christians” – says the Pope – “doesn’t mean being naive”, as he argues his point of view on Science- Religion relationship. In front of this historical turn, I just wonder why so many christians are still violently claiming that evolution is the “fruit of the Devil” and thus incompatible with their belief.

The real point is that no one can really claim that the “official christian religion” denies Darwin’s theories for one simple reason: there is not an “official christian religion”. The Lutheran Reform ended up the Church’s esclusive rule on Western Christianism, as previously the Schism did in Eastern Europe and Near East. Over time, many different and independent organizations established, bringing that considerable diversity in cults and Scripture interpretation we can appreciate nowadays. Who is in the right to tell, beyond any doubt, what is in contradiction with christian religion?

Scriptures are always invoked by fundamentalists as the incontestable word of god, and proof of the Creation. No more clues are given when they’re asked to tell what Scriptures they are talking about. Indeed, the historical validity of the Bible is deeply controverted, and the huge number of interpretations can lead to very diverse positions. Many protestant christians accept evolution, that is a very open debate in Orthodox Church as well. Catholic Church is the oldest and the biggest christian church in terms of believers and territorial expansion, and I guess that the guys at the Vatican know a thing or two about theology. Relevantly, the most of current theologists reject the literal interpretation of Bible, in an open contrast with the most radical positions.

This Pope’s stance may result in a deathblow to radical creationists, that are ending up as a minority in the christian movement. It has to be pointed out that a real issue of compatibility between classical creationism and christian beliefs is rising, as the whole christianity is moving towards a more reasonable approach to their religion. Fundamentalism is getting to be relegated

To me, and I guess to the most of the readers, this is not really relevant for my position. I am in Science because I consider rationality as the only mean to investigate nature, I radically adverse religion and catholic church, and I definitely don’t need the papal approval to assume Evolution Theory as valid. Anyways, understanding that the “creationist front” is billing up, and that rationality is appreciated by christians as well, is something I really enjoy. It’s the sign that Science irreversibly imposed a direction to history towards openness, tolerance and reason.

Illumina explains why patents are killing culture and research.

I should recover an old press release, dating to the 90s, that announced the intention of some japanese businessmen to patent pizza. I am not joking. Since no one thought it before, they considered the idea to patent pizza and claim the royalties to any single restaurant in the world. They have obviously failed after a rather zippy protest of Italian public opinion. The story I am gonna tell today looks quite similar, since the intent to patent biological cloud computing is not less insane. Illumina, the “large and in charge” biotechnology firm who brought mass sequencing to common use, claims the paternity of cloud bioinformatics, as you can see on this Google Patents entry. In a few words, the company affirms to have invented a way to collect and analyze biological data in the cloud. I think that Richard Holland hits the spot in his article on EagleGenomics, the definition of what they claim they have invented is really broad and it could include any kind of bionformatics- oriented application or method. I wonder if they will sue T-Coffee for letting the users to save the alignments results on Dropbox, or the major databases for including a data storage. How many future applications will be charged? How many project will fail for legal reasons?

The real problem with patents is mostly cultural and philosophical. Patents are killing culture, science and innovation. In a very typical neo- liberist mentality, control, exclusion and corporations privileges are the main way in making profits. The first aim is not investing in new ideas, but being the first and the only one in doing this. And there are two ways to do it: be faster or cause the others to be slower to the point to prevent them to run. And the latter, is always the easier choice. Research is thus no more a matter of innovation, ideas and hard work, but a question for lawyers and legal technicism. This is the transposition of the principles of financial speculation to Science.

And as happens to the economy, what we would really need is a democratic governance. A set of laws and practices to guarantee the public access to knowledge and scientific production preventing exclusionary policies. We must admit, for first, that Science needs democracy. As many people can access and modify the information, advances and innovation come faster, and everyone can easily quantify the advantages of this. Kinda obvious, to me.

About the creationist stand at the Venice Biennale

The majority of catholic believers has a strange relationship with Darwin’s evolution. Since they can no longer support a full creationist point of view, they try to find reasons to make creation and evolution coexist. How? In someway, the best they can imagine. So, if you talk with an average catholic, he will tell you that evolution is still part of divine plan of creation, or maybe he will purpose the idea that creation really happened, but it will limit the thing to the birth of life on the earth. God started the process, evolution did the rest. This attitude could seem positive and conciliatory, light years away from the dumb american christian fundamentalists and their intransigence. But let’s see what is moving under the hood.

One of the cardinals that spent more efforts into the reconciliation between creationism and evolutionism is Gianfranco Ravasi. The idea he’s proposing since a few years is that the incompatibility of the two theories is no longer acceptable. Evolution doesn’t exclude creation and creation doesn’t exclude evolution. In this spirit, Ravasi organized the first stand dedicated to the Vatican in the history of Venice Biennale the last May. A 40 square meters pavilion completely dedicated to the 11 books of the Genesis. In a few words, we must sadly denote that one of the most important cultural events in Europe reserved 40 square meters to creation. An international team of photographers, visual artists and media groups focused on creation.

Not to mention how despicable a thing like this can be for the Country of Galileo. I just would like to reason about the real sense of the Church’s openings towards the evolutionary ideas. If they kept supporting creationism as it is, and kept denying evolution, the only result they could get would have been making fools of themselves. So, they realized that what they need is a survival strategy, a way to store creationism in a safe place from the unstoppable attacks of Science. Basically this doesn’t differ much from the strategy we have seen with the “intelligent design”. As they discover cell biology, molecular biology and DNA, we try to find a way to modify creationism in order to include the new discovers.

It is remarkable and quite funny to notice how creationism is changing under the pressure of the overwhelming amount of evidences in support to Darwin’s theory. Basically, as any prey, creationism tries to evolve in order to survive to the attacks of its fearsome predator. Maybe they will keep talking about creation for years, but to do it, they will definitely need to choose an evolutionary attitude.