Ivan Havel and 140 years of Vesmír magazine

Ivan Havel

It has been a constant companion for generation after generation of Czech science lovers – the popular science magazine Vesmír is marking its 140th year in publication. In today’s Science Journal we talk about the magazine’s course through the decades with none other than its editor-in-chief Dr. Ivan Havel, the distinguished former head of the Centre for Theoretical Studies and brother of ex-president Václav Havel, who took up work at the magazine just after the Velvet Revolution.

Ivan Havel
"I was originally involved in the Civic Forum, but I didn’t want to become a politician, like other people. And I had always been inclined towards scientific activities. And at that time the people from Vesmír came and said they would like to give Vesmír a new flavour – more open and more new. And it seemed attractive so I agreed. But it’s not my main job; I was director of the Centre for Theoretical Studies, and this was something like a secondary interest.”

So it began as a hobby for you?

“As a hobby, actually. I’m not paid by Vesmír, I just help them with some things, and for almost 20 years I wrote editorials that I intended more as essays with certain ideas, not regular editorial journal articles. So this was actually my only contribution to Vesmír, because otherwise their editorial office is very effective, they do a lot of work that I am not able to follow, and even less to influence.”

This year marks 140 years of Vesmír as a publication. What were those early issues like?

“Actually it’s an interesting story. Vesmír started in 1871 and the first person, who was really doing everything for Vesmír, was Václav Kumpošt, a 25-year-old student of medicine. He did everything: publishing, correcting articles, writing articles… everything. Unfortunately, he passed away after roughly four years or so, and then Vesmír was in the hands of the very well-known Czech scientist Antonín Frič. He did a lot of work until the beginning of the 20th century. What is more interesting is the style of the magazine. It was originally oriented towards the general public, even students, even high school students. The language of the articles in Vesmír was very nice – nice Czech with a lot of metaphors and a poetic way of expressing things. So that was the first period.”

What was the focus? All aspects of science?

“I think the emphasis was on the natural sciences and among them, biology, and all living things.”

Natural science being the most popular of popular sciences at that time, in the 1870s…

“Yes, it was the popular subject. But you see the problem is the term ‘natural sciences’ sometimes includes mathematics and physics, sometimes it does not, and it usually doesn’t include the humanities – now we have a lot of problems with that. Anyway, in the late 19th century, the real exact sciences, like mathematics and physics, were considered unattractive for people; it’s difficult to understand and difficult to explain. Talking about animals and live and nature, trees and flowers and mushrooms, was very easy to write and easy to read, so that period of Vesmír was usually oriented around that.

“I do not know too much about the period of the early 20th century, but I was a subscriber and a devoted reader of Vesmír after the Second World War, when it was still relatively open to students and, let’s say, people who were not scientifically educated. During the Communist regime it was a strange period when Vesmír was very much dependent upon official doctrine, but at the same time it was one of the few places where ideas could be put forward that were not quite accepted by the Communist regime.”

For example?

“For example articles by Jan Patočka in the early 50s about Comenius. Or the discussions about quantum mechanics, the dispute between determinism and non-determinism in quantum mechanics – quite philosophical ideas. You see, the issue was that Marxist-Leninist doctrine was very much in favour of determinism, and quantum mechanics is by nature something that introduces non-determinism into the world. So the dispute was sensitive. What was important for that period was not necessarily the basic ideological ideas, but even just language itself. The language in Vesmír was not influenced by the Marxist style of speech, not so many references to Marx and Engels and Lenin and Stalin were needed, and in a certain sense for us young readers, it was a very nice sidetrack from what had to be taught in schools and in universities.”

A kind of escape I guess.

“Yes, a kind of escape.

“And the last period was after the Velvet Revolution, when there was freedom of speech, freedom of travel, freedom of everything. So we decided to open Vesmír to a wider scope of ideas, not to be strictly oriented towards certain scientistic – not scientific but scientistic – attitudes, and give room for alternative thought. Also, we decided to slightly open up to the humanities, to not restrict ourselves merely to the natural sciences, but to include articles and essays and studies from sociology and philosophy, and other humanities, which might be interesting – which ‘should’ be interesting – even for other scientists.”

In the late 19th century the word ‘vesmír’ didn’t have quite the same meaning that it does today – today it means ‘space’ as in ‘outer space’. What connotation did it actually have when the magazine first came out?

“The term ‘vesmír’ is very interesting. In Slavic languages it actually means ‘universe’, everything – just everything. ‘Věs-mír’ in Russian actually means ‘all-world’. And the term ‘space’ as it is used in English now to mean cosmic space I think was never in Czech really. We do not say ‘space’ we say straight out ‘cosmic space’. But that is not ‘vesmír’, ‘vesmír’ is the universe. If it is the title of a journal, it becomes just the title of the journal without it’s semantic, entomological importance. So Vesmír is not restricted to astronomy, though some people still think that when it is called Vesmír it should be concerned with astronomy.”

So more like the word ‘cosmos’ the way it was originally meant in Greek.

“Maybe, yes. Looking at the world in which we all live, and which transcends our daily life and goes everywhere. And scientists take a fragment of that world and study that fragment.”

What lies ahead for the magazine? Do you expect it will go on in the same way in the same format for many more decades to come, or do you foresee some kind of greater transformation?

“We do not expect any radical transformation. We would prefer to fulfil our intentions, which is not always easy, because, you see, to ask hard-working scientists to write an article for Vesmír is very difficult. The idea we were trying to push forth after the revolution was relatively higher-level topics that are readable for scientists from other disciplines. So to write about genetics in a way that is readable for somebody from the fields of mathematics or physics. And that means it would also be readable for young people, for high-school students, who also are not narrowly focused on a specific field and may be interested in wider topics. These things will be important in the future as well as now. The question is realising the idea will be workable.”