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Science characters and spaces: Josep Maria Melià, “Pygmalion”

Science characters and spaces: Josep Maria Melià, “Pygmalion”

The year 2015 ends and with it ends the celebration of the international year of light. A year in which a multitude of dissemination activities linked to different branches of scientific knowledge successfully took place. Astronomy, a science based essentially on the observation of light in all its forms, has been one of the disciplines around which numerous initiatives have been organised, coinciding with the commemoration of the publication, for fifty years now, of cosmic microwave backgrounds by North American physicists Arno Allan Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson.

Certainly, dissemination is an instrument that allows us to analyse the pulse of scientific activity, which does not exist isolated from the world that surrounds it. The public, whether as a spectator, resonance box or support, is necessary for the exercise of professional science. Scientific dissemination can therefore be understood as a mediation vehicle that actively interacts between scientific activity and society. In fact, it is especially interesting to analyse both the way in which scientific concepts are disseminated in the social environment and the way in which this knowledge is obtained. That is why we have decided to close the year 2015 with a biography dedicated to one of the great Valencian astronomers of the twentieth century.

In the Saïdia district of the city of Valencia, in Marxalenes neighbourhood, José Melià Street, Pygmalion, is located. The figure of Josep Maria Melià Bernabeu (1885-1974), also known as Pygmalion, is totally unknown to many. However, the municipal decision taken in July 1974 to name the street after him, two months after its death, shows a good example of the importance that he gained in the Valencian society of the mid-twentieth century. Indeed, Pygmalion was a well-known writer and science disseminator, an astronomy lover, who was part of the circles of artists and intellectuals of Valencia in those years, as emphasised by his presence in the meetings and gatherings organised in the homes of some of the most outstanding artists of the moment, such as the painter Leopoldo García Ramón or the musician Juan Lamonte de Grignón.

Son of illiterate parents who considered reading –in the words of Pygmalion himself– a harmful and dangerous entertainment, Josep Maria Melià began working at the age of ten. We know that at fifteen he was an apprentice of electric car electrician mechanic and worked at night ten hours every day repairing breakdowns and cleaning trams motors and regulators. In parallel, however, he was carrying another life: he read everything that he had in his hands and longed to be a writer. In fact, at eighteen he had written about two hundred sheets of his “unhappy man’s story, condemned to live in the rudeness of a Spartan life”. But perhaps more important was his enthusiasm for studying the heavens, that captivated him as a teenager when faced with an astronomy book published by Robert Stawell Ball, one of the great disseminators of this discipline of Victorian Great Britain. As he himself recognised:

“When I was fifteen, I read an astronomy book and my soul woke up so as not to fall asleep until the end of my life. In the contemplation of heaven I admire the greatness of the Creator without the hand of men tarnishing it. I fell in love with that Infinity and that Eternal where the offenses and grievances of men are forgotten because in all this great work of the Cosmos man has not intervened.”

Pygmalion eventually felt heir to this tradition linked to the dissemination of astronomy, which was so successful during the nineteenth century and in which different figures of exceptional scientific relevance took an active part, using and adapting the forms created by authors like Robert Ball or the prestigious French astronomer and disseminator Camille Flammarion, one of the works of whom he translated into Spanish and who he got to know in person in 1923, after a visit to his observatory in Juvisy.

The interest and efforts of Pygmalion to disseminate scientific knowledge and to literate the Valencian people, who, according to his view, continued to live mainly from agriculture and had a limited intellectual, artistic, scientific and industrial environment, were favoured by the support of an outstanding ally and untiring entertainer: Vicent Blasco Ibáñez. It was during his youth that Josep Melià met the distinguished writer:

“He knew me when I was a child, an apprentice mechanic... He was amazed that a worker was a writer, student and astronomer without ceasing to be a worker.”

The close friendship that was quickly forged between the young apprentice and the distinguished novelist –and that led Pygmalion to act as secretary of Blasco Ibáñez during World War I– was largely based on the shared idea of the need to disseminate the ideas of progress and culture among the Valencian population. For Blasco Ibáñez, instruction was understood as the cornerstone of a civic education that had to prepare the masses for the republican political struggle. In this sense, the press was destined to play a crucial role as an agent of this literacy. And that is the reason why the El Pueblo newspaper was founded in 1894, a markedly republican publication that played an important role in the consolidation of blasphemy as a hegemonic political option in Valencia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Thus, it is not surprising at all that the first incursions of young Pygmalion in the field of scientific dissemination took place in this written medium. His first articles on El Pueblo focused on the passage of Halley’s Comet in 1910, an astronomical phenomenon that aroused a huge interest among the population and became a topic of great presence in the press. In these first contributions, in addition to describing the conditions of visibility of the comet, explaining different aspects related to his nature and trying to combat the fears, distrusts or superstitions that historically had been associated with it, Pygmalion did not hesitate to praise the work of famous scientists and disseminators like Newton or Flammarion. Remarkably, between these names we found the one of some women like Hortense Lepante. In fact, throughout his long career, Pygmalion always showed his sympathy for women, especially those who had contributed to deepening scientific knowledge, and did not hesitate to emphasise their contributions. In addition, as happened with other authors in other print media, Pygmalion took advantage of the visit of the comet to expose the vicissitudes of Spanish political activity and to show his sympathies and ideological positioning:

“It passed in 1835, when the famous friars’ massacre happened in Spain, which went down in history. The comet flew away to avoid returning, aggravated by the disasters that are caused to humanity and to Progress by religious ideas, but it got to the end of its ordinary path in 1873, and the comet, rejoicing at the implantation of the Republic in Spain, felt sorry for leaving the land that announced prosperous and happy days ... The comet comes sad to see monarchy restored in Spain.”

Soon these first articles were followed by other ones on comets such as the ones by Kiess and Brooks, on planets and on eclipses such as the one of April 17, 1912. This way, Pygmalion started in El Pueblo a section of popular astronomy in which he detailed the basic concepts of the discipline, as well as the nature and characteristics of different astronomical phenomena and various scientific innovations. From 1912 onwards, his collaborations were extended to other printed media such as El País, El Luchador, La esfera, El Progreso, La Voz de Menorca, El Mercantil Valenciano, Diario de Córdoba, etc. In these informations he was able to present different observation techniques, from the most complex used by professionals, to the simplest for the fans. In fact, Pygmalion was known for his activity as an amateur astronomer, as he performed on auspicious nights celestial observations in which he was often accompanied by friends and acquaintances.

Member of the Astronomical Society of Spain and America, he established a close relationship with who became his main promoter and first president, the prestigious astronomer Josep Comas i Solà. In a way he thought of himself as his disciple. As Pygmalion confesses to us, it was precisely thanks to the recommendation of Comas i Solà that the doors of different European observatories were opened to visit them. Passionate admirer of his work, he acted as a fervent propagandist of his discoveries and research, both in Spain and abroad, and praised his work on numerous occasions. He was not, however, the only one. In fact, Pygmalion was characterised for presenting, defending and publicly publicising in his articles the contributions of Spanish scientists and researchers, as for example he also did with radiologist Celedonio Calatayud in articles in 1911 in which he emphasised his contributions to scientific knowledge.

Pygmalion also collaborated with initiatives such as the Astronomical Grouping Aster –an association of young amateur astronomy founded in 1948 in Barcelona– and was an enthusiast of others such as the Society of Travelers of the Universe of Moscow. And his dissemination articles not only sought to combat superstitions and inculcate scientific knowledge among the population, but through these texts to also make them live the dreams and fantasies that transported readers to the regions where the misery of life faded. Therefore, it is not at all strange to present several times ideas that humanity should receive in a short space of time reliable evidence of the existence of other civilizations in other worlds. The most important thing was how astronomy, capable of overwhelming with its beauty and mystery, was aimed at fulfilling a social mission in Spain, as it had begun to do in other countries in which –according to Pygmalion– it drew new orientations of a better humanity, with more sense and, therefore, happier.

Pygmalion combined his articles in the press with the delivery of informative conferences. In fact, from the 1910s onwards he was actively involved in this field, which led him to give numerous lectures on popular astronomy in spaces such as the Centre Instructiu d’Unió Republicana del Cabanyal, the Casino Artesà del camí del Grau, the Casino Republicà del camí d’Algirós, the Universitat Popular de la Casa de la Democràcia de València, the Cercle de Belles Arts de València, the Ateneu de Sueca, the Societat de Treballadors del Camp de Massanassa, the Casino Republicà d’Alginet, the Cercle Republicà l’Ideal de Burjassot, the Centre Instructiu Republicà de Torrent, etc. His prestige led him to participate as a speaker at one of the monthly sessions of the Valencian section of the Spanish Society of Physics and Chemistry.

Well-known republican and anti-clerical propagandist, we know that in 1910 he participated in political meetings in populations such as Xelva. Peculiarly, his fame as an informer meant that sometimes, after the corresponding act had finished, he received the request to give lectures about astronomy, a request he used to accept. It is not surprising, since his informative talks had a clear instructional component linked to the Republican task of forming conscious citizens capable of defending democracy. Moreover, Pygmalion’s constant preoccupation with educating the population and regenerating it through school led to the development and personal involvement of, for example, several initiatives aimed at children’s education.

Pygmalion’s dissemination lectures, illustrated with curious and interesting projections of sidereal phenomena, always generated huge expectation. In these interventions, our author was able to ride a ray of light to travel through space, make history of the solar system with its planets, satellites and stars, speculate on distant universes or explain how photography was able to reveal distant nebulae. Among his favourite themes we find some such as the history and the formation of the calendar, presented at several conferences, in which he calculated and explained the holidays for the almanac of the following year. In all, he acted as a documented literate and a thorough historian, revealing his easy but sometimes overwhelming verb, which seemed to distract himself from different aspects, although he finally offered a coherent, instructive, entertaining and easy-to-understand discourse for to the audience.

Some of these talks, duly revised and adapted, were reproduced shortly thereafter on the radio. The first of these was pronounced in January 1924, coinciding with the first steps that became the main station of the Valencian Country. In fact, during the 1930s, he began to collaborate on a regular basis in Radio Valencia with his own space at twelve pm that was very popular, with speeches titled “Scientific progress and astronomical news”. Pygmalion continued during the following decades with his radio interventions, which changed their name to the generic “Miscelánea”, although at times they they were named “Efemérides magallánicas”. His books Una velada astronómica en Peñíscola (‘An astronomy evening in Peñíscola’) and Conferencias (‘Conferences’) retrieve some of these conferences. According to Pygmalion himself, it was usual that he prepared them a few hours before his broadcast, thinking of the general public, without taking care of technicalities, but looking for a personal and special way to attract the interest of the radio audience:

“I do not mind repeating words and vulgarising definitions if with it I achieve the object or objective of these conferences: to transmit a knowledge to the intelligence of the listener that ignores it, thereby humanizing Science, which should not be esoteric as long as it is a food of the spirit in peace and for the prosperity of the peoples”.

This informative task was recognised in 1960 when the international jury in charge of granting the annual radio and television awards Premios Ondas decided to award Pygmalion for best author of local programs, and emphasised his great work of cultural dissemination, the diversity of the topics covered, the pleasantness with which they were explained and the wide audience they had.

His presence, wherever he went, did not go unnoticed. Casual in his dress style and to a certain extent dishevelled, his tousled hair and his vivid eyes contributed to the fact that he was seen as an eccentric or strange character. However, he was a very dear person, whom many had for a good, humble, tender and wise man. Pygmalion used to walk away unaware of the curiosity he aroused in people and during his long walks in the country he taught the labourers and told them how to analyse the land and dosage the instalments. Who knew him emphasised the sweetness of his speech and his kind and friendly nature. A character forged by a lifestyle in which there was no room for tobacco and alcoholic beverages. Nor did he go to any casino, or to dance, or, of course, to the mass. A sympathiser of the vegetarian and naturist movements, in many of his articles he defended the need to protect nature. The Valencian politician Juli Just and Gimeno described him thus in 1928:

“I had seen many times ‘Pygmalion’, crossing the streets, daydreaming, the books under his arm, with his black and brimmed hat thrown over his eyes, leaving his face only exposed full and red cheeks and a black, round and curly beard... the mane of ‘Pygmalion’ had, for me in the midst of the citizen crowds, that he crossed almost unaware, the significance of a battle cry, of an original and independent temperament ... One day, Being in a town, I knew him personally ... Caught on the wall of the church, on one side of it, there was a scaffolding and a man was working on it, that man with the straw hat and the mane that on the sun-baked wall painted a sundial, was ‘Pygmalion’”.

The relationship of Pygmalion with this population was very close, and he settled there in several moments of his life. During these years, he earned his living in a similar way as he did sometimes in Valencia, teaching general culture classes and taking care of the preparation of young people to be examined in Valencia of all the bachelor’s courses. In Benaguasil, faithful to his idea of educating the illiterate people, he undertook the task of organising also cycles of lectures and instructional conferences, which were occasionally attended by nearly eight hundred people and were taught free of charge by different personalities, while being commissioned to edit, direct, write and distribute the magazine Prometheus.

Pygmalion lived to see how part of his efforts to spread astronomy and to instil the interest in celestial observation among the Valencian population led to the creation, in 1972, of the Valencian Association of Astronomy. However, his advanced age and state of health prevented him from participating actively. In fact, Josep Maria Melià died on May 22, 1974 in Valencia. His remains were transferred, four years later, from the Campanar cemetery to Peniscola, a city with which he also maintained a prolonged idyll and to which he bequeathed his library of more than nine thousand volumes. In Peñíscola, like in Benaguasil and Valencia, despite being for many a very unknown figure, we find a street with his name that allows us to remember his great task as an astronomy publicist.

 

Personatges i espais de ciència (‘Science characters and spaces’) is a project of the Unit of Scientific Culture and Innovation of the University of Valencia, with the collaboration of the “López Piñero” Institute of History of Medicine and Science and with the support of the Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology and of the Ministry of Economy, Industry and Competitiveness.

Images:
Published by: Pedro Ruiz Castell
 
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