Ivan Havel - science, hippies and growing up with Vaclav

This week Rob Cameron's guest is Ivan Havel, younger brother of the Czech Republic's former president Vaclav. While no means as famous as his older sibling, Ivan Havel is an important figure in the Czech academic community, as well as the editor-in-chief of the prestigious science magazine Vesmir. During communism Ivan invited dissidents and academics to his apartment overlooking the River Vltava, meetings at which Vaclav Havel was often present. But Ivan shied away from politics after 1989, choosing instead to stay in the world of science and academia.

What kind of childhood did you have Ivan?

"Actually I had a very nice period in my life, right after the Second World War. Our house in Prague was partly destroyed in an air raid, so we lived in our country house, which was called Havlov. In the countryside, without any troubles. Of course our parents had problems, but for us children it was a beautiful time."

A rather idyllic existence.

"An idyllic existence, yes."

Were you close to your brother?

"At that time yes, because he didn't have any official obligations! So we played together. Well in fact he was two years older, which means a lot in childhood. So when he started to read books, I still wanted to play outside, so I played more with the neighbour's son. Later Vaclav was very reluctant to go for walks in the woods - he was sitting at home and reading and studying."

You've devoted your life to science. Where did that fascination begin?

"Well that's an interesting question. Probably in early childhood. I had a grandfather on my mother's side, called Vavrecka. And he was quite a renaissance man. He knew everything. As we were children he explained to us the nature of things, how things work. He taught me about various engines and gadgets, how they are constructed. I became so attached to that, and it was so different to what we learnt in school, I became interested. The problem is I became interested in quite of bit of everything. I didn't look for a concrete specialisation, and even today I am still somewhat distracted by other things."

That fascination culminated in you becoming editor-in-chief of the Czech science magazine Vesmir (Universe). You were appointed in 1990, but the magazine has quite a history doesn't it?

"It's about 125 years old or so. It was established in the late 19th century by a student actually. The first editor-in-chief was a student. It was quite an interesting magazine. It had a short break in the beginning of the last century, but then it started up again and became quite well known."

Between 1969 and 1971 you attended the University of California at Berkeley. Berkeley in the 60s was well known as a left-wing campus, full of hippies smoking marihuana. Were you among them?

"I was among them in the sense that they were around me, everywhere! There's a campus in the university, and the campus was full of these people. So I observed them with curiosity and with surprise, because we didn't see anything like that [at home]. It was strange even for the Americans."

It must have been a great shock coming from staid communist Czechoslovakia to a hippy campus in America.

"Well actually I came after the 1968 Russian invasion, so I was used to seeing tanks in the streets. Then I came to Berkeley - to a free country - and once again I saw tanks in the streets, and uprisings. I talked to the students; I was one of them after all. I didn't agree with them completely. They were right in their case against the establishment, or at least in some aspects of it. But their knowledge of communism or socialism was so low. They didn't know what they might expect if they wanted something like that."

So they were idealists, rather misty-eyed about what communism and socialism was.

"Yes. Idealists, in many respects. Not only in politics, but in the relationship to nature and other things."

Did you ever consider not coming back?

"If I'd considered that I probably wouldn't have come back. But I decided not to ask myself this question. I know a lot of Czechs who were in the States who came just for a short period, and then they started to decide whether they should return or not. Eventually they decided not to return, and then they were nostalgic, and had quite a few problems."

In the 1980s you hosted discussion groups in your apartment on the banks of the River Vltava in Prague. Those discussions were attended by dissidents, opponents of the regime, and you were harassed by the Communist police and detained. What are your enduring memories of that time?

"Well, my memories are more about the interesting conversations I had with people and much less about the harassment. Of course at that time it might have been different. For us it meant a lot because there were no other opportunities to be exposed to an intellectual environment and interesting things. They weren't typical dissident seminars. Occasionally there were some dissidents but there were also people from the university and from the academy, who came very afraid of being recognised. So there was an interaction among them - the "dissident ghetto" we called it at that time. The term perhaps is larger than just active dissidents who signed the petitions and so on."

Do you think you've spent the last decade or so living in the shadow of Vaclav Havel?

"This is an interesting question. Partly a shadow, but partly I was much more visible than before, because people started to recognise me. Now people wanted me to help contact him or something. It was strange, but I've become used to it."

And do you welcome that publicity and visibility?

"Not quite. I look for the usefulness of that visibility. So for example we were just talking about the magazine Vesmir, so this is part of the PR for our journal, so I take it as an obligation. But I'm not trying to look for publicity. It's not a comfortable situation for me."

So you would rather remain out of the limelight.