Describing nature to a daughter – from a prison camp

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1934 Sketch by Alexey Wangenheim [Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons]
Ever since humanity stepped into the era of the Internet, the art of letter writing began its slow descent into oblivion and is now lodged in the limbo of pleasant nostalgia. The jury is out on whether we ought to feel sad about the loss of the handwritten letter but many of us would acknowledge that some of the best known works in literature came to us in the form of letters. More specifically, history looks favourably upon those literary works that emerged from within the four walls of a prison cell.

Long before he became the first Prime Minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru spent several years in prison for dissenting against the government in British-occupied India. Like  his mentor Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru also spent his days in prison, writing – specifically, writing letters to his daughter Indira. Among these letters, those introducing his daughter to the vast expanse of global history hold particular relevance in the literary world. This collection of letters was published as Glimpses of World History in 1934.

In 1934, another father holed up in prison began writing letters to his family, particularly to his daughter. But this father was not as fortunate as Nehru was, for he ended dying in prison. The man was Alexey Feodosievich Wangenheim, the meteorologist who was sent to the Solavki prison camp in 1934 for alleged counter-revolutionary activities against Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. Continue reading “Describing nature to a daughter – from a prison camp”

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The Mystical Origins of Modern Science and Medicine

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Portrait of Paracelsus [Image source: Wikimedia Commons]
Theoretical scientist and astronomer Stephen Hawking recently warned that the best way to ensure the survival of humanity was to “spread out into space, and to other stars, so a disaster on Earth would not mean the end of the human race.” On the brighter side, he added that the end of planet Earth would become a certainty only in the “in the next 1,000 or 10,000 years.” Still, the search for habitable planets has gained momentum with efforts led by government agencies like NASA and billionaire entrepreneurs like Elon Musk.

Humanism is the ethical and philosophical stance that emphasizes the value of human beings, affirmed by their ability to improve human lives through reason. We do not know if Hawking and Elon Musk call themselves “humanists”, but they do believe that the challenges of this age demand new and ingenious solutions even if it goes against conventionally accepted wisdom. Interestingly, a group of alternative medical practitioners in the Renaissance Era, the Paracelsians , also believed that theirs was a “violent age”. The Paracelsians sought new sources to solve the challenges of their age—including mystical. divine and occult sources—as Allen Debus elaborates in his book, Man And Nature In The Renaissance. Continue reading “The Mystical Origins of Modern Science and Medicine”

Echoes of the Silent Spring

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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”

Galileo: The heretic who wasn’t

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Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Students venturing into the social studies of science will quickly realize that the origins of modern science cannot be studied without understanding the role that organized religion played in its development. Indeed, there has been a legacy where historians of science have overplayed the hypothesis that science and religion are fundamentally opposed to each other. The condemnation of Galileo Galilei by the Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church in 1633 is widely presented as the paradigmatic case of the interminable conflict between science and religion. However, the study of Galileo’s life, work, and his trial requires more than the simplistic thesis of an authoritarian, religious institution silencing a singular, scientific genius.

Continue reading “Galileo: The heretic who wasn’t”

Awaiting the 4th edition of the STS Handbook

The period after the Second World War saw the recognition of science as a “social problem”. Academics became interested and started exploring the relationship between science, technology and society, which resulted in a new academic field – Science and Technology Studies (STS). This “social” study of science essentially looks at (1) the nature and practices of science and technology, and (2) the impact of science and technology on society (and vice-versa).

Continue reading “Awaiting the 4th edition of the STS Handbook”