Tag Archives: science

life and times of a species

We are by nature very self-centered. At every stage in our lives, we look at those younger than us as being ‘young’. And those who are older than us are ‘old’. People from other countries, or other cultures, are ‘alien’. But we’re okay, we’re ‘normal’.

When relating to the animal world, I myself have a special regard for butterflies and frogs. Both of them have two incarnations, and I can very well identify with them. I have a feeling that we too have more than one incarnation, so to speak. The butterfly starts out as a worm, and the frog as a pollywog. Anthropology has always fascinated me because of both the similarities and the differences between people around the world.

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I remember reading an article many years ago about the life of species. I don’t remember who it was that wrote it, and don’t remember the name of the article. But what impressed me then, was that some researchers had found a type of snail that had lived slightly off shore of a Greek island, and they were able to evaluate the age of the shells by carbon dating. They came to the conclusion that they had before them the history of that species; from when it was a very young species till it had grown old, and was nearing extinction. As the species became more mature, the form of the shell became more beautiful. But at a much later stage, some of the round areas became more angular. The species was getting decadent.

This same process is seen in individual people, and in societies… and in nations. Sometimes it evokes sadness. More often contempt. Life at the height of its development, has contempt for weakness… but even in decadence we often see ourselves as superior to others, more aware… more connected to the truth. It takes a rare wisdom to be aware of the world as a whole; to leave our egocentric point of view and start searching for the wonders outside of ourselves.

Why do it? Because we are connected to all of the world, and the more we learn, the more we understand the world around us, the richer this life of ours becomes.

the upraised flag

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a tractor resting in the shade

My dear friends, one of the hardest things in life is to see ourselves as we really are. How often does it happen, that a person looks at the image of himself in a photograph, and says, ‘that doesn’t look like me’. And similarly when a person first hears his own recorded voice. Don’t we all ask, ‘is that what I sound like?’ The same is true of society as a whole. We’re all part of a greater organism. But each of us focuses on what matters most to himself or herself. It is so hard to see ourselves from the outside, or how we fit into the greater picture.

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And though there are a lot of cheaters and tricksters in this world… who are just after our money… there are some institutions and teachers who can help us along the path, and share with us the wisdom of generations as well as some very practical steps to make life easier. Yes, there are some bad teachers out there. And some very boring classes in school. But there are good teachers too. I believe, more good teachers than bad ones. And plenty of fellow students who are happy to share the knowledge they’ve gained. You can see that, if you just visit a forum on the internet. So many people are willing to volunteer their time to help others.

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Last week I shared with you the terrible story of the kidnapping of the three teenage boys, not far from Jerusalem. What happened caused great pain to the families and the community. The boys have still not been heard from. Their disappearance is an open wound. But in hard times as well as in good times, it is essential for us to keep the whole picture in perspective. Long ago, our prophets filled that role as teachers and moral leaders.

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In ancient times, when Israel was a great country, and truly an example among the nations… we got carried away by riches, and intoxicated by pride… our prophets warned us that we were losing sight of the essence. When we were insensitive to the poor and the handicapped, they warned us that even the strong among us would one day be weak, and the proud would eventually be humbled. When those among us were tempted by corruption, we were warned that if we were piggish we would lose all we had. We would suffer terribly for the abandonment of our ideals and principles.

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And when the armies of other nations came to beat us, to break down our walls and to defeat us, to subjugate and enslave us, even to scatter us among the peoples of the world so that we would never again be the proud nation that we once were, our prophets consoled us with visions of repair and rebirth. They promised us that the day would come when the Jews would come home from the four corners of the earth, and our national home would be rebuilt. And that we would be a light to other nations of the world… sharing our knowledge and understanding.

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Our prophet Isaiah promised us that one day the flag would be raised in the hills surrounding Jerusalem, and the ram’s horn would be sounded… and we would know beyond all doubt that we had returned to our ancestral home. In Hebrew, the word for flag is the same word as miracle. For a miracle is like a flag in that it reminds us of what is beyond our personal interests; what is greater than the individual’s concerns.

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And so, this week, I set out with Chana to visit the little community of ‘the raised flag’ on the hills outside of Jerusalem. It was an opportunity to gain a wider perspective. For centuries, we have been the wandering Jews, persecuted and black listed… invited to contribute to a society, and then thrown out on our ears. We have been housed in ghettos, and forbidden to farm the ground. Lauded for our wisdom and our crafts, and then persecuted in pogroms and reforms… libeled and murdered and exiled from one country to the next.

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But in the last century, the Jews have come home. In 1867 Mark Twain described the situation here in Israel; how the land was infertile and abandoned and abused. You can read his view of the holy land in his book, ‘The Innocents Abroad’. One hundred years later, in 1967, Israel was threatened and attacked by 4 belligerent enemy states supported by eight other Arab countries. The personnel and the weapons were overwhelmingly greater on the side of the Arabs. But Israel vanquished its enemies. Since the beginning of the 20th century, more and more Jews have returned to our ancient home, building institutions of learning, and improving methods of farming, industry, healthcare, and technology. Today Israel is the second largest innovator of digital technology after the USA despite the fact that we are infinitesimal compared with that great nation.

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bus stop

I take comfort in knowing that lives have been saved around the world by the medical inventions produced in Israel, and that we have taught people to produce better food, and to turn salt water into sweet water in far away places, including Africa, Australia, and even China. We are still hated by some. But we have come back to our own place in the world, and that is my consolation. There are still those who would like to push us into the sea, as they threatened to in ’67, but I believe they will eventually learn to live with us in peace.

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I believe that when Isaiah spoke of the wolf and the lamb, and the tiger and the goat, and the cow and the bear, he was speaking of the personalities of people and nations, who will overcome their individual characteristics, and learn to co-exist in peace. We are getting closer to that prophesy all the time.

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hummingbird

It’s summer time. School has let out. The sky is blue, and the days are getting warmer. The pictures here are from our excursion to Nes Harim, named after the upraised flag in Isaiah’s prophesy. I’ve included a photo of an interesting sculpture I found there between the houses, and concluded with a picture of a female humming bird who came to drink from a bird feeder on Chana’s balcony after we returned. That’s my tip of the hat to my dear friend Janet, who paints the most beautiful hummingbirds.

intelligence and emotional intelligence

Medical researchers, and social workers, and psychologists have become aware over the last generation, that there has been a remarkable increase in the number of people who suffer from what is now called, “post traumatic stress disorder” (to be referred to as PTSD in this article). This is just one of the syndromes that have become more common over the years. There are others. And within the community of health workers and care givers, there is a certain feeling of frustration. For with the passage of time, we human beings have developed more and more answers to the greatest threat to human happiness; that is, ill health. But despite our progress, we have been surprised and dismayed by new illnesses and problems that we didn’t suffer before. In the case of PTSD, it really baffled the researchers. For one thing, the disorder has been known for hundreds of years. It was once called ‘shock’, and it was closely followed during different wars, because it was known that this disorder could cause a soldier to cease to function normally. A serious study of the subject was made during WWI. And since then there have been many more studies, with much learned about the subject.

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when walking on a tight rope, best to use four legs

But there was no explanation why there were so many more cases of people completely disabled by the syndrome as the years went by. Some skeptics opined that the soldiers were probably trying to avoid the dangers of war and were faking their distress. But it became clear that the increase in cases of PTSD was not limited to the armed services. People who had been injured in traffic accidences, and those who had been in the vicinity of acts of terror showed up with the well known symptoms in ever greater frequency. Doctors tried different methods to alleviate the symptoms, and researchers tried to develop a medicine which could treat the disorder, and save the sufferer years of great emotional distress.

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an intelligent animal rests in the shade

The answer to this riddle has only recently been discovered. It turns out that there is a natural hormone, that exists in the human being, and is secreted in large amounts after experiencing intensive stress. The name of this hormone is cortisol, and it is regulated by the endocrine system. One of its functions is to soften the memory of the traumatic experience, before the short term memory becomes a permanent memory. It protects our hard disc from serious damage. But unfortunately, the administration of a drug to calm the nerves, such as valium, gives the impression to the mind that the situation is not so bad. And this interferes with the natural healthy function of the body.

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talk about integration; these swans are both black and white…

Our history is filled great discoveries and inventions, and ideas that have changed the course of history. We learn about these discoveries and innovations in school, and they are part of our cultural heritage. But for every successful invention, there have been many that were originally welcomed with enthusiasm, and later rejected as being unhelpful, or more dangerous than they were helpful. The many mistakes along the road are less remembered. They get swept away with the past. Not too long ago, a great part of humanity believed that communism was the answer to inequality, and the method by which we could bring true happiness to the masses. And those who believed in that system had a hard time explaining why so many East Berliners were willing to risk their lives to escape to west Germany, but it did not lessen their belief.

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when it comes to the study of equality, watch out for pinkos

In the west, there has been a great effort for the past half century, to try and equalize the playing field. It seemed only fair and just to force integration in America, after years of slavery and discrimination of a part of the population. And what better place, to start the process of integration, than in the public schools. But at approximately the same time, the school systems became interested in encouraging the most intelligent students, as part of an awareness that there might soon be international competition in the areas of technological advance. It became a national concern to find the brightest students and offer them the advantages of the best possible education. It became a national priority. The IQ test became important.

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he may have a bird brain, but he lives a happy life in harmony with nature

But in the 60s and the 70s there was a sense of dismay among ‘forward thinking’ people, that students who had already been blessed with a greater intelligence than others, were to be blessed twice, and get more than other students who were less fortunate in what nature had provided them in the way of intelligence. And it was then, that the great question, “Nature or Nurture” arrived on the scene. Some very brilliant intellectuals proposed that the difference between different young people, was not to be found in the genes or the DNA of their physical bodies, but in the manner they were brought up. According to this theory, if a person who might be evaluated as having an average intelligence or a below average intelligence were to get the same sort of nurturing that highly intelligent people received, they too could be highly intelligent. The idea being, that it was possible to teach intelligence. Unfortunately, this bright idea was disproved over and again.

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they seem well balanced, but do they have emotional intelligence?

Still, the very idea that some folks are born more intelligent than others continued to cause agony among many sensitive and clever social thinkers. How much simpler it would have been, if they had found solace in the fact that each person is different, and each of us has certain natural characteristics and talents which are unique and beautiful in themselves, and that we don’t have to judge all people by one standard… But no. they went searching for a new idea which could compensate somehow, those people who got low scores on the intelligence test. And (drum roll), a new type of intelligence was found! Emotional intelligence. Isn’t that great! To call this new invention a myth, is to do it kindness. To study it, is like putting a chair on a cloud. But some people still do. On the other hand, those in the intellectual community are well aware that intelligence is no promise of success.

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sitting with Nechama on two rocks in our backyard; she can’t hold a pencil, so I haven’t given her an IQ test…

It is well known and incidences have been recorded of highly intelligent people who’ve had tunnel vision, and found interest only in very narrow aspects of life. There are countless examples of brilliant people, scholars, scientists, inventors, and artists, who couldn’t find their glasses or their hats; who talked to people like they were dirt; who used bills of high currency as book markers, and who wore their trousers inside out. And in contrast, there have been great and wonderful people who have given happiness and joy to others, who were not all that intelligent. The understanding of music is a type of intelligence that doesn’t usually appear on the standard intelligence tests.

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a very intelligent boy, but he doesn’t talk much

I started thinking about this because of the pursuit of my friend Kathryn, in search of an answer to why intelligent people can be so insensitive to their fellow man. I would suggest ‘selfishness’. And believe it or not, I have a friend who is a genetic researcher, and has studied extensively the genetic basis for an altruistic personality. But more about that some other time. I think I’ve said enough.

science museum

Being that it is the middle of summer, and all the kids are out of school, I have the honor of hosting some of my grandchildren who’ve come from the city or agricultural villages, from different parts of the country, to our capitol, Jerusalem. And these visits give me the opportunity of visiting places that I don’t visit often… and some that I’ve never visited before. This week, I had the pleasure of visiting the Science Museum.

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understanding the optical illusion

The visit brought to mind a lot of problems connected to education, and the study of children. We have quite a few museums here, in our city, covering all sorts of subjects, ranging from fine arts to history. And some of these museums have won the praise of experts from all over the world. Not to speak of a very large number of educational institutions, many of which are as interesting to visit as any museum.

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the history of scientific exploration

A curious tourist, or a cultured local citizen can view tools and antique objects found in archeological digs, giving us a peek at the life style enjoyed here thousands of years ago. One can look at model rooms with furniture and clothing from different places of the world, showing how people lived in different cultures a hundred years ago, two hundred, five hundred and a thousand years ago. One can see manuscripts of important literature and religious writing from thousands of years ago. I have visited an automobile museum, photography museums and one of motion picture history, as well as museums of natural history, and of pre-history, and of clocks. But it seems to me that the museum of science and technology presented the greatest challenge to the planners and designers of the museum.

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a guide explains with the help of audio visual support

In most museums, it is enough to have displays of various sorts, and objects attached to the walls and the ceilings or protected in display cases. And people can walk around quietly, and examine the different exhibits. But the museum of science tried to introduce the visitors to the exploration and the understanding of the physical world, to the process of learning, and to that of innovation. And assuming that the visitors come from many different backgrounds, and levels of knowledge, and age levels as well, getting their message across is a complicated and difficult task. And as if that weren’t enough, the exhibits are explained in three languages, Hebrew, Arabic, and English.

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separate exhibits on a cental subject

The first hall that one enters, is dedicated to examples of optical illusions. Because many of us believe that reality is what we see. And this exhibit shows us, by way of numerous examples, that we are influenced by what we expect to see, by our prejudices and preconceptions, and by our point of view. For someone who has the patience to study the subject, in the best of conditions, and has an open mind, this exhibit alone could be a turning point in his or her understanding of the world around him.

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the guide explains innovation

The museum itself is three stories high, and has many rooms and halls, filled with countless exhibits on the many aspects of the study and understanding of science, including the last hall which is dedicated to understanding innovation and. invention. The subjects are fascinating, ranging from the development of the cherry tomato, to the improvement of the modern computer chip, and the behavior and utilization of water. Groups of visitors can join in a guided tour and listen to an expert guide explain the exhibits and tell about the history of the innovation. But many of the separate exhibits had headphones attached to them, and if individuals visited the museum when there weren’t guided tours, they could listen to an explanation of the exhibit in one of the three languages of the museum.

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a large display of the behavior of water

Unfortunately, I saw many children moving quickly from one exhibit to the next, from one room to the next… without much pause to take in the messages of the exhibit, and on the search for play and for spectacular examples. It seemed to me that the designers, in their effort to make the place as appealing as possible to young people interested in science, might have put too much emphasis on game playing. And as a result there was less depth to the study of the many exhibits. But perhaps this is a general problem, related to appealing to a generation that has gotten used to passive reception of the many offerings of the TV and other modern media.