Perugia, Italy: The picturesque Etruscan turned university town where Il Duce’s army of Fascists began their march on Rome in 1922, and where more recently, the British exchange student, Meredith Kercher, was murdered.
I’m here to meet Giovanni Zanzotto, a professor of mathematics at Padova University, and the son of one of Italy’s greatest post-war poets, Andrea Zanzotto. Giovanni is a slight man with big ideas. Aside from teaching, he spends much of his time researching complex mathematical models in teams with psychologists and physicists. He talks quickly, jumping from one hypothesis to the next with the fluency of the Tiber. He tells me he’s recently changed the way he looks at everything, and it all began with a Charles Bukowski poem, The Big One.
“It’s a nice little poem,” Giovanni says, “about a guy who buys and resells five cars every month. Let’s call him Johnny. A regular guy who wears a red cap and still has pleasure with his wife. And even though the poet doesn’t know exactly what Johnny’s trying to accomplish in life, they always have a laugh, ‘say a few bright lines’. Then comes the end of the poem,” Giovanni continues, “which is devastating – ‘but/ each time/ after I see him/ I get the blues for him, for me, for all of us:/ for want of something to do/ we keep slaying our small dragons/ as the big one waits.’”
Before reading The Big One, Giovanni says, he used to believe that human beings were like bacteria, eating and processing stuff, consuming. “But now I realise that consumption is just a by-product. What we really are, is task-enforcers, trying to fulfil all the things on our To Do lists, just like Johnny with his five cars.” Giovanni has been making lists obsessively since he was a teenager. He has always wondered about the dynamics of lists: how we decide which tasks we’ll do first and which we won’t do at all? Reading the Bukowski poem was an epiphany. “I understood that I always do the little bullshit–the small dragons. All the really important tasks get carried over.”
Giovanni dubs this tendency of deferment “The Big One Waits Effect”. He’s working on a theorem, which he believes will prove that as tasks get added on to our lists, we make optimisations on the fly and prioritise things based on cost, benefit and deadline. “I don’t have it yet,” he says, “But I think this theorem will reveal that we all take care of the lesser tasks in order to give ourselves a sense of overall benefit, but we leave the important, harder stuff behind.”
In other words, we’re finding ways to avoid doing our sit-ups, and the world is consequently becoming a messier place? “Sort of,” he says. “One thing which will be interesting to explore is to see whether slower societies have more time to devote to their tasks. I believe they do, which means they have a clearer idea on how to prioritise.” And so, while this theorem might not save the world, it might suggest that we all slow down.
Aren’t you scared someone reading this might steal your idea? I ask. “They may as well,” Giovanni laughs. “I have so much other bullshit to deal with, I’ll probably never get to it.”