March 24, 2010 / 7:16 PM / 9 years ago

Italian swaps physics for writing and wins plaudits

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Working long days in a particle physics laboratory at the University of Turin, doctoral student Paolo Giordano wanted an escape from the academic rigors of numbers.

So he wrote about love and misunderstanding with a sprinkling of science and unwittingly became a literary sensation.

Now Giordano is the youngest person to win Italy’s top literary prize, the “Premio Strega,” for his novel “The Solitude of Prime Numbers,” recently published in the United States to rave reviews.

Giordano, 27, wrote the book while pursuing a doctorate in physics.

“I decided to dedicate all of my free time, nights and weekends to this,” he told Reuters this week in New York, where he is promoting his book. “Later, I realized that subconsciously I was looking for a way out of science.”

He completed his degree, but since then has quit physics to focus on writing. He discovered a love for the craft amid a trying time aged in his early 20s, he said, as youthful idealism was replaced by more adult preoccupations such as finding a job and making a living.

“I felt this void and had to fill it with something,” said Giordano, who described himself as sensitive, shy and methodical. “I always feel very lost when I have a lack of ambition toward anything ... my motivation came from the ambition to write a novel.”

Giordano tackled writing with the same intensity he had his scientific work. But he was hesitant to call himself a writer, telling just a few friends of his endeavor. Even his parents were surprised when the book was published.

“It’s very beautiful when you have your own relationship with your writing and no one knows,” Giordano said. “It’s like a hidden love affair.”

“The Solitude of Prime Numbers” sold more than a million copies in Italy and has been translated into 30 languages.

Its title comes from the mathematical concept of a prime — a number divisible only by itself and one. But it is really a meditation on loneliness, irony and sadness told through two characters, a boy and a girl, who stumble through childhood, adolescence and adulthood feeling like they don’t belong.

Despite becoming a celebrity in Italy — he’s frequently recognized when he goes to the movies or bookstores — Giordano is very low-key about his success. And while the book is not based on his life, he admits parts are based on his feelings.

“What is most autobiographical is the collection of fears in the book,” he said. “I really start with my own fears and try to go through them with the writing.”

American reviews have been top notch, with The New York Times calling the novel “an exquisite rendering of what one might call feelings at the subatomic level.”

Giordano is already working on his second book about two brothers, based in Italy, spanning the course of many years. But he won’t have the kind of anonymity afforded to him when he was a particle scientist working in obscurity. Now, the eyes of the world are on him.

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