Massimo Polidoro is a writer and an internationally recognized “mystery detective.” He began his career as James Randi’s apprentice and is the cofounder and head of the Italian skeptics group CICAP. He is a TV personality in Italy, a research fellow for CSI, and a longtime columnist for Skeptical Inquirer magazine. He is starting a new series in English, “Stranger Stories,” on his YouTube channel. He will be speaking twice at CSICon, Thursday, October 18, at 8:00 pm with James “The Amaz!ng Randi” and Saturday, October 20, at 2:30 pm.
Susan Gerbic: Massimo, so great to talk to you again. And it was wonderful to spend time with you in Prague, Wrocław, Poland, and then at CICAP Fest in Cesena, Italy. I can barely believe that I was able to visit all those amazing places. Can you please tell readers a bit more about yourself?
Massimo Polidoro: Well, you already said a lot! My fascination with mysteries started when I was a kid, and it never stopped. Thanks to Randi, and to Piero Angela’s support, I was able to transform my dream of making the investigation of mysteries and unusual things into my job. I write a lot of books (my fiftieth is coming out this November, and it will be about Leonardo, the topic that I will cover during my talk at CSICon), but I also love talking in public. I teach a course in science communication at the University of Padua and I appear weekly on TV, with Piero Angela, who is a sort of Carl Sagan for Italians, debunking “fake news” and false myths. As you said, now I am developing my presence on YouTube, a vehicle that I see as a most useful instrument, one that we, as skeptics, should use more today to spread our work.
Gerbic: First off, let’s give a mention to CICAP Fest that is happening this September 14–16 in Padova, Italy. That is very unusual to have it annually, isn’t it? Mark Edward, András Gábor Pintér, and I had such a great time last year. I think you had over 800 attendees and such a beautiful location; the Pope even tried to crash the conference. The entire conference is in Italian. Mark, Randi, and I were the only people who didn’t speak Italian, but that wasn’t a problem as everyone was wonderful and helpful and enough of the attendees speak excellent English that we didn’t have problems. I highly encourage people to attend. András is really excited to go again and has been working on improving his Italian in time for the event. There was so much work that went into the 2017 one, why not skip a year like usual? And tell us what you can about what people can expect at CICAP FEST this year?
Polidoro: You are absolutely right! We should have skipped a year… but, things don’t always go the way we wish. We were offered this very precious chance, by the University of Padua, to hold our CICAP Fest this year, and we took it. You were in Cesena last year and it was quite a big event. This time it is, I think, at least four times bigger. It’s now a science festival, with over 200 events in ten different locations: lectures, panels, workshops, laboratories for kids, shows, exhibitions, poster sessions, street performances…. We are really going big this time and we will “invade” Padua with science and reason during that weekend. After all, it’s the city where Galileo lived and taught! We will hold many of our meetings right next to Galileo’s original wooden tribune from where he taught. If anyone is interested (and I know there are friends coming over from various parts of Europe and even the United States!) the full program is here at cicapfest.it.
Gerbic: Oh, that looks amazing! This is so tempting; I’m seriously wondering how I can get myself there.
You have written many books, in Italian as well as English. Mystery novels, biographies, and deep dives into history. You just finished Secrets and Treasures of the Vatican and The Adventure of the Colosseum, and I believe both are only available in Italian? Today I was listening to the European Skeptics Podcast and our friend András told the story that he was giving a tour (he is a professional tour guide) at the Colosseum and went into the gift shop and there was your book. He said he got a thrill as he showed it to the entire group and was able to say, “I know this guy.”
Polidoro: That’s very nice! Yes, as I said, I write a lot and it is something that I can’t stop! Even if today the book market is no longer what it used to be, I keep doing it because for me it is still the best way to go deep into a subject. It’s a fantastic way to constantly learn new things … and you get paid for doing it! You don’t get rich with money, however, but at least you get richer with knowledge. And then, all this research gives me material for my lectures, tv shows, and, of course, YouTube episodes!
Gerbic: And now you are writing a new book and will be telling us about it at CSICon, The Mind of Leonardo Da Vinci.
Polidoro: Oh, yes! I have always loved Leonardo since I was a kid. I remember watching in awe a series on TV, in the 1970s, where excellent French actor Philippe Leroy perfectly played the part of Leonardo. It was shot by RAI, the Italian national TV (the same one where I appear with Piero!) with a fantastic budget, I guess, because they were able to recreate Renaissance Italy, often in the actual locations where Leonardo really lived and worked. Lots of perfectly cast actors, with faces that seem to come straight out of Leonardo or Raphael’s paintings! Beautiful costumes and perfect recreations of the great artist’s works; and it was all done without a single digital effect! Next year, 2019, will mark 500 years since Leonardo’s death, so I thought it would only be fitting for me to write my fiftieth book about him. In truth, there are so many excellent works on him that it is very difficult to write something new, but I chose a different path. I imagined finding a lost manuscript from his disciple Francesco Melzi, who was with him until his death and inherited all of his writings. In this way, I can tell the story through the eyes of someone who knew him well, based on all the excellent research that has been going on in the past two centuries…. Sorry, I was a bit long here, but I could talk for hours about Leonardo! At CSICon I will try to define his pre-scientific approach to nature and his very practical way of thinking. His suggestions and ideas can come very handy, even today.
Gerbic: You also will be interviewing Randi on Thursday night. You are going to tell us the Untold Stories, and I’m very much looking forward to that. You have been working on Randi’s biography; how is that going?
Polidoro: That is a dream project for me, as you can imagine. And I almost feel like Francesco Melzi to Leonardo here! Having the opportunity of taking a dive into that fantastic life, so filled with stories and adventures and meetings and genius and care for others. However, the book is still waiting for me to devote all the time it needs (and it’s a lot). And this is the difficult part. As I said last year, at CSICon, since today’s usual book advances could never pay for the work that is needed on this fantastic project, we need to find an alternative way to sponsor it. In the past few months I haven’t had a single moment to think about it (not only did I have CICAP Fest to organize and Leonardo’s book to write, but I was also writing three other books at the same time: a kid’s adventure novel, “The Secret of Columbus,” which just came out; a new edition of my biography on Houdini, which will be out in September; and a “secret” project that will be published in October). However, now I think I know what we can do to solve this riddle and, when we’ll meet at CSICon in October, I should be able to share this idea.
Gerbic: You have a new project, a YouTube channel called Stranger Stories. Tell us about that please?
Polidoro: YouTube today is the best vehicle for reaching a wider, and mostly younger, audience. On YouTube I can talk to people who don’t usually read my books, hear my lectures, or see me on TV. So, last May I started a news series in Italian, “Strane Storie,” where in ten to fifteen minutes I would tell you the story of a famous, or less famous, mystery (the Bermuda Triangle, time travel episodes, X-ray vision, the Shroud of Turin…), and then walk you through the solution. All done with vintage material from my collection or that of other fellow skeptics, and also a bit of humor. I could find nothing of the sort on YouTube and so I thought there could be an audience for it. So I made a plan, wrote a format, then I wrote a few episodes, learned how to film them properly, how to edit them in a smooth and professional-looking way, and finally started putting them online: one episode a week, every Friday. And I was right. From having almost no subscribers to my channel, I raised the first 5,000 in three months. Now my plan is to start a new series in English, “Stranger Stories,” which will take the same approach but address an audience that is a gazillion times bigger. Of course, there’s more competition, but I bet there is a niche out there for a series like this, and I hope that we will make another interview, in a few months, discussing how it went. In the meantime, I hope that your readers will be curious enough to check out my channel, YouTube.com/MassimoPolidoro and maybe subscribe. They will be the first ones to know when “Stranger Stories” will start.
Gerbic: Well I’m a subscriber to your channel and look forward to the English version. Yes, it will get a great audience. We know that the speakers are only half of the conference experience—the rest of the event is seeing old friends, making new ones, and just hanging out enjoying the community. I look forward to seeing you again soon!