“The Prelude (Book Fifth — Books)”
While listlessly I sate, and, having closed
The book, had turned my eyes toward the wide sea.
On poetry and geometric truth,
And their high privilege of lasting life,
From all internal injury exempt,
I mused; upon these chiefly: and at length,
My senses yielding to the sultry air,
Sleep seized me, and I passed into a dream.
The year is 1959 and the place is New York City. Outside the “Birdland” club, a young musician is taking a break when he is told by a patrolman to “move on”. The musician tries to explain that he works at the club. The policeman punches the musician in the stomach and is then joined by another one that beats the musician in the head. Later that night, the musician receives five stitches for a wound on his head. A few days after the attack, he tries to pursue the case in court but has to eventually drop it in order to recover his license to work in the city clubs.
The young musician was none other than Miles Davis who, in that same year, produced his great masterpiece “Kind of Blue”. One of the many fascinating aspects of that amazing album is how its creation epitomized Davis’ commitment to freedom. A sense of freedom that transpires in the more technical aspects of the work that broke the bebop tradition of complex chord changes in favor of modal scales. Freedom also highlighted by Davis’ decision to give a pivotal role in the album to a white and classically trained musician, Bill Evans. Davis made the change despite the ferocious opposition of some followers and even other members of the band like Coltrane.
Some places deserve more attention than are usually given. In modern cities like London, the underground system is, in my opinion, a prime example. Based on a rough calculation, I reckon that I have spent the equivalent of over one hundred and sixty full days in the London “tube” during the last eight years.
However, I think that the underground is interesting in many ways and not merely because we, poor commuters, are forced to spend long periods of time there.
While suffering the winter cold that the air conditioner fails to mitigate and longing for the ideal holiday portrayed on the inevitable myriad of ads that cover it, there are many things that can be appreciated.
Consider, for example the relentless regularity of certain patterns in the behaviour of the “tube” tribes. Groups of builders discussing football and reading “The Sun” at 5:30am, bankers and lawyers religiously reading the “Financial Times” at 6:30am, noisy children in uniform comparing mobile phones at 8am, the inevitable pack of foreign students wearing their “I love London” t-shirts and going back to the hotel at 8pm, the football fans on their way to Wembley wearing the prescriptive scarfs and face colours, the group of young girls with too much make-up and impossibly high heels going clubbing on Friday nights…
“It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.”
Some individuals are born with great talents but among those, there are a few who will use their gifts generously to enlighten others. Carl Sagan is the perfect example of someone endowed with not only a colossal intellect but also boundless generosity to bring joy and knowledge to others. He devoted his life to science and was professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences and director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University. He also played a key role in several spacecraft expeditions such as Mariner, Viking, Voyager and Galileo. Among countless awards he received the NASA medals for Exceptional Scientific Achievement and for Distinguished Public Service.
Yet, alongside his successful scientific career, he made great efforts to popularise science among the wider public. His TV series “Cosmos” was viewed by over 200 million people in more than 60 countries and exemplified how to explain scientific discoveries rigorously and engagingly. In the book that accompanied the series (also entitled “Cosmos”), he explained the importance of making science relevant to all. After describing the intellectual achievements of the scientists and philosopher working at the Library of Alexandria and how their legacy was virtually obliterated, he says:
Every evening, the ant would leave the colony and climb to the top of a blade of grass. Then, the ant would pierce the top of the grass with its strong jaws and wait there. At dawn, it would return to the colony and continue to perform its daily routine. Yet, night after night, the same ritual would be repeated until one evening, a passing sheep ate the blade with the ant on it and, inadvertently, gave a successful conclusion to the complex process behind this apparently unremarkable scenario.
One obvious question to ask would be: what benefit could possibly accrue to the ant from a behavior that caused its death? However, the question that can point us in the right direction to solve the mystery is “Cui bono”. In other words, “who benefits?” On closer examination, the real beneficiary is a parasite called “Lancet fluke” (Dicrocoelium dendriticum) which needs to reach the intestines of grazing mammals in order to reproduce. A group of them will start their lives in the digestive tract of a snail and after being excreted, will invade the body of an ant. At that point, one of them will take control of the ant’s nerve cells. That will enable them to direct the ant every evening to the top of a blade of grass until a sheep eats both the ant and the grass. Afterwards, the parasites will live their adult lives inside the sheep and reproduce. When the new parasites (in a larval state) are excreted by the sheep, a passing snail will give a new beginning to the reproductive cycle. Continue reading