Echoes of the Silent Spring

Rachel Carson [Image via Wikipedia Commons]
The renowned nature writer Rachel Carson, a marine biologist by training, was at her poetic best when writing about the interconnectedness of nature with all living things. Humanity’s unquestioned faith in the power of science and technology was at its highest, post the Second World War. It was then that Carson combined meticulous research and eloquent writing skills to expose the vulnerability of nature to one of the technological byproducts of the World Wars: synthetic, agricultural pesticides. In 1945, Carson began documenting the environmental hazards associated with the most powerful pesticide the world knew then, DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane). She started work on her book in 1958 and the result was one of the 25 greatest science books of all time, Silent Spring.

Even five decades after its publication in 1962, Silent Spring continues to inspire (or instigate, depending on whom one is speaking with) and is often credited with stirring the modern environmental movement. The book contains detailed descriptions of how DDT contaminated the food chain, caused cancer and other serious, harmful effects. The book’s most (in)famous depiction is that of an unnamed American town, where all life – birds, fruits and humans – has vanished, “silenced” by the effects of DDT. Despite fierce opposition from the pesticide industry, Rachel Carson’s book became a best seller and was instrumental in the eventual ban of DDT in the USA. Continue reading “Echoes of the Silent Spring”


Can parents be gardeners of children’s creativity?

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In the 1964 classic How Children Fail, John Holt concluded that traditional methods of school-based teaching did/do more harm than good to children’s natural ability and desire to learn. His book was a game-changer in alternate ideas on child-rearing.

In her review of Alison Gopnik’s 2016 book, The Gardener and the Carpenter, science journalist Josie Glausiusz remarks that the multi-billion dollar industry of ‘right parenting’ is not exactly on the “right” track. Gopnik, a developmental psychologist and philosopher, argues that using expertise to sculpt your child into a “successful” adult is akin to a carpenter making a product – like a chair with perfect symmetry and function. But there is little scientific evidence to show that expert child-rearing techniques (such as sleep-training) have any predictable positive effects on how children turn out in the long run. Alternately, she suggests the gardening metaphor: parents have to “dig and wallow” in a messy environment, to nurture creativity and innovation in their children because children are born to be messy and unpredictable, playful and imaginative. Parents, as gardeners, can create a secure and loving environment (the “manure”) for children to innovate and survive in an unpredictable world. Continue reading “Can parents be gardeners of children’s creativity?”

Revisiting the two cultures

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In April 2016, Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada, gave a concise explanation of quantum computing at a theoretical physics research institute, amidst much public applause. The academia and the media welcomed the ease with which the literature graduate engaged with cutting edge scientific research. Much earlier in May 1959, at a similar public event, another public figure called for bridging the widening gap between scientists and “literary intellectuals”. The event was the annual Rede lecture at the University of Cambridge and the speaker was influential physical chemist and novelist Charles Percy Snow.

As a scientist, CP Snow had collaborated with Lord Rutherford (“the father of nuclear physics”) in the Cavendish Laboratory, beginning in 1928. CP Snow gained greater recognition as a novelist in the 1930s and later in public office, becoming (among other things) the United Kingdom’s government spokesperson on technology in the House of Lords in 1964. But it was CP Snow’s Rede lecture of 1959 and the public debate it spawned that gave him prominence in science and public policy, and continues to generate discussion even half a century later. The fiftieth anniversary printing of The Two Cultures with an introduction by Stefan Collini gives us an opportunity to revisit CP Snow’s notion that our society is threatened by a “destructive” lack of understanding between two “cultures”. Continue reading “Revisiting the two cultures”