The Teacher And The Stars

“It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.”
Albert Einstein

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:

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Don’t Let The Spring Die

“Never give in–never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy”.

Sir Winston Churchill, Speech, 1941, Harrow School

If someone were to prepare a recipe to acquire political power, I cannot think of a more powerful one than the following: add a big dose of an emotionally explosive component, that can stir the basest human instincts of your fellow humans and spice it up with distorted representations of another community that can be used as a target for violent attacks. The most successful example of the first ingredient is dogmatic religious belief and the most efficient choice for the second one continues to be a different nation or ethnic group. One will provide you with unquestionable authority, impervious to rational argument, and the other with a target to focus your followers’ fears and frustrations.

Most of the Western European countries have excelled at delivering countless varieties of this lethal dish over centuries. Thankfully, the heroic efforts of  enlightened thinkers and the sacrifice of many in violent conflict has led to the acknowledgement of political methods, values and legislation to mitigate the proliferation of that poisonous combination. Yet, the recent establishment of democracies in countries like Libya and Egypt has created the perfect environment for ruthless manipulators that are keen to try their hands at recreating that recipe for disaster. After the excitement and hope brought about by the Arab Spring, the murder of the US ambassador in Libya and the tide of violence unleashed across the Middle East have reminded us that democracy and freedom are difficult to achieve and harder to preserve.

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A Dangerous Fallacy

All men having power ought to be mistrusted.” James Madison

A few days ago, a major announcement was made by Mario Draghi, current president of the European Central Bank (ECB), intended to exorcise the spectre of the Euro disintegration. On September 6th, he announced the ECB would resume buying the bonds of troubled countries but upon the condition that those same countries submit to formal and externally monitored reform programmes.  Mr. Draghi justified the ECB’s action with the argument that high yields faced by certain European governments are not only the product of a higher credit risk, but also the result of markets’ “unfounded fear that the euro would break up”. My intention is not to assess the decision in technical terms but rather, the extremely worrying political assumptions and contradictions that can be detected in some aspects of the announcement and related press commentary.   Continue reading

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Voices set in stone

Among the many treasures that the waves of history have washed up on our shores, few are as tantalizing as the grave steles that tell us about lives from previous centuries. Sometimes they capture a quotation from the deceased that they saw fit to define the essence of a lifetime. Others record how the owner of the tombstone was regarded by family or friends. The messages they convey are certainly humbling and moving.
Consider the grave stele of Mentor, the gladiator, from II c. A.D. that stoically states: “I, Mentor, have defeated everybody in famous stadiums and died according to fate. Powerful Moria has dragged me to Hades and now, I lie in this grave. My life has ended in the bloody hands of Amarantos.” It is worth noticing that “Mentor” was probably just a pseudonym adopted to evoke a connection with the mythological hero. It is also possible that the grave stele was paid by the same gladiator that killed him.

Mentor, the gladiator

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Atomic Imagination

The year is 1932 and a promising hungarian physicist, Leó Szilárd, has just finished reading the “The World Set Free” by H.G. Wells. First published in 1914, it foretold the invention of atomic weapons decades before the idea of releasing large amounts of energy from atomic reactions was considered even possible. In fact, as late as 1933, the famous physicist Ernest Rutherford was quoted as saying “anyone who looked for a source of power in the transformation of the atoms is talking moonshine”. Continue reading

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The Old Knight

Liz Wirth: What do you care? What do you care about Black Rock?
John J. Macreedy: I don’t care anything about Black Rock. Only it just seems to me that there aren’t many towns like this in America. But… one town like it is enough. And because I think something kind of bad happened here, Miss Wirth, something I can’t quite seem to find a handle to.
Liz Wirth: You don’t know what you’re talking about.
John J. Macreedy: Well, I know this much. The rule of law has left here, and the guerrillas have taken over.

 

Variations of the same story have been told many times but I find this one especially moving. The old  knight wears a cheap suit and his eyes show the pain of old wounds. His body has withered but not his determination to repay a personal debt and stand up for decency. We are not told much about him but his actions speak louder than words. Continue reading

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The Roman Manifest

A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of the Euro disintegration…. first issued as a physical currency almost thirteen years ago, the Euro quickly became more than anything else, the embodiment of the European Union dream. That same currency, full of symbolic value, is now on the brink of collapse. The financial crisis has washed away the appeal of the notion of closer integration in Europe and old national rivalries and grudges are quickly resurfacing. If the Euro breaks apart, it is hard to see how the European Union will be able to survive.

At this time of crisis, the European politicians would do well to look back into European history and see what they can learn from the past. In particular, the history of Rome provides extremely valuable principles to guide us through the present turmoil. Let us not forget that Rome, first as a republic and then as an empire, lies at the very foundation of Europe and lasted, at least in the west of the continent, for over a thousand years. What made Rome so successful? Continue reading

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The Just

Jorge Luis Borges

A man who, as Voltaire wished, cultivates his garden.
He who is grateful that music exists on earth.
He who discovers an etymology with pleasure.
A pair in a Southern café, enjoying a silent game of chess.
The potter meditating on colour and form.
The typographer who set this, though perhaps not pleased.
A man and a woman reading the last triplets of a certain canto.
He who is stroking a sleeping creature.
He who justifies, or seeks to, a wrong done him.
He who is grateful for Stevenson’s existence.
He who prefers the others to be right.
These people, without knowing, are saving the world.

Jorge Luis Borges
Translated by A. S. Kline © 2008 All Rights Reserved

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Body Snatchers

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

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A Ghost Library

In 1952 Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. published a series of books with the goal of presenting the so-called “Great Books” in a single package of 54 volumes. This was just one of endless attempts at defining the set or “canon” of books that exemplify the peak of human intellect. Confronted with those attempts, I am always left wondering about the ones that are not even considered because, although we are aware of their existence, they were destroyed by wars or human ignorance or even those for which no indirect references were preserved and have been utterly obliterated by the sands of time…
In many ways, we must realize that we are just cataloguing and ranking the remains of a shipwreck that we happen to encounter on the vast shore of human history.  A few examples can easily remind us of what is regrettably beyond our reach. Continue reading

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