the moon illusion

Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), Mother and Child, 1934, Cumberland Alabaster 230 x 455 x 189mm, 11,1 kg


Commentary on the book by physicist Marcelo Knobel

The historically conflicted relationship between scientific knowledge and people's everyday lives goes back a long way. Even before Galileo Galilei was sentenced to prison for heresy, ancient thinkers and scientists were already facing the distrust of their compatriots.

The construction of research and knowledge centers of excellence was painful, and passed through churches and kingdoms that molded them according to their conveniences. In medieval Europe, this need to gather knowledge took the form of a university, with Bologna, created in 1088, considered the pioneer. Salamanca and Oxford emerged soon after, proving that the pedagogical project of scientific knowledge could be spoken in several languages. But the first “universities” emerged in Asia and Africa, such as Nalanda, in India, Taxila (Pakistan), Alazar (Egypt), and al Quaraouiyine, in Morocco, founded in 859, which is considered by Unesco to be the oldest in activity.

Over time, with the precious help of the Enlightenment and Rationalism, science gained space and recognition, until it reached the XNUMXth century with the illusion of having been fully recognized by society. The growth of metropolises, media expansion, the atomic bomb, television, space rockets, the eradication of diseases, computers, the automobile industry, portable music on vinyl (later on CD, later on streaming), beer in can, the laser beam, the microwave oven, the cell phone, everything made us believe that science, for better or for worse, was inexorably mixed with humanity.

It's not like that. First, that most human beings do not enjoy all the technological marvels, or do not feel the effects of scientific advances on a daily basis. Just follow a day in the life of a rural worker in the interior of Brazil (or Guatemala, Gabon or Indonesia) to notice that they are much closer to the lifestyle of the Middle Ages.

Second, the sophistication reached in cutting-edge sectors of science made them detach themselves from common sense, either through an impenetrable vocabulary, or because theoretical elaborations often do not have immediate practical application in the real world. In parallel, there is also an exponential growth of obscurantist sects, media charlatans who profit from misinformation, denialists and pseudoscientists.

One of the most successful attempts to overcome this split has become a literary and multimedia genre: science communication. Created in the XNUMXth century, made some names famous, and has helped the university to rethink its relationship with society.

A fine example of this posture can be found in the book the moon illusion, a collection of articles written by the physicist and former president of Unicamp, Marcelo Knobel. A scientist respected by his peers and with articles published in the main scientific journals on the planet, Knobel dedicates a good part of his intellectual production to building bridges between academic knowledge and the reality that surrounds us.

The volume brings tasty explanations about phenomena that we, laypeople, do not understand well (electromagnetic waves, matter and energy, bioacoustics, specific heat, laser), decoded in humorous examples (such as cooking a turkey, watching waves in the sea or listening to the song of a canary). It also addresses urgent and “humanistic” topics (vaccine against Covid-19, refugees, scientific ethics), and sheds some light on the threatening darkness that resurfaces in this XNUMXst century.

Knobel reaffirms the importance of permanent and democratic dialogue with all segments of society, and not just about scientific dissemination. “More than ever, in this moment of obscurantism, denialism and attacks on science and education, it is essential to understand what society thinks about the various topics that are permeating the public debate and that directly or indirectly affect our lives”.

By dividing the chapter-articles of the book into three parts, Knobel called the third “Pseudoscience, Denialism and its Consequences”. There are five articles that disturbingly exemplify how mystifications prevail in our media, corroborated by inconsequential politicians. The most laughable example is the ban on cell phone use at gas stations in the city of São Paulo. Without any scientific basis, the prohibition becomes ridiculous with the obvious contradiction that the machine where you pay with the card, next to the gas station, works in the same way as a cell phone!

These and other examples of the scientific ignorance in which we are immersed reiterate the need to read scientists like Marcelo Knobel, who is not afraid to point out the errors of the Academy itself in its relationship with the world in which we live.

* Daniel Brazil is a writer, author of the novel suit of kings (Penallux), screenwriter and TV director, music and literary critic.



Marcelo Knobel. The moon illusion: ideas to decipher the world through science and fight denialism. São Paulo, Editora Contexto, 2021, 160 pages.

See this link for all articles


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