"Everything worth saying about life has long been said – but nobody has said them my way"
TO VAX OR NOT TO VAX, THAT IS THE VEXING QUESTION December 2020 (updated Feb 15, 2021)
As the wonderful 2020 nears its end, I bet that Covid pandemic and vaccines are on your mind. That’s not different for Christine and me either. Both of us have been thinking about writing down our thoughts on our websites.
Christine has had a long and successful scientific career (associate professor with expertise in biochemistry, biophysics, protein synthesis, etc., with 50+ peer reviewed articles, including in Nature). She has always been fascinated by science. Her entry explores technologies being used to develop the vaccines. Here is her blog.
I too, have had a long scientific career working with synthetic polymers, adhesives, dental materials, antimicrobials, wound healing materials, etc., with 50+ patents in these fields. For me, science is a tool. My attention is not needed for the advancement of science and technology - they are inevitable. But how they are being used and will be used are not inevitable. Coming from that perspective, my piece deals with the conundrum of whether or not to get vaccinated.
This is not a scientific paper. It is a layman's discourse. I am not a virologist nor an epidemiologist, nor a physician, nor a public health expert. To make matters worse, my trust in the press, responsible authorities, and our politicians, is at an all-time low. Many observations I have made while researching for this piece (and listed in Section F), have only strengthened this view - which was expressed long ago by my favorite American author Mark Twain: "If you don't read the newspaper, you are uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you're un-informed". Just replace newspaper with media of all sorts and color!
So what is a layman like me (and probably you) to do to make such a serious decision as taking the Covid-19 vaccine or not? I know, I am going to hire a team of trusted specialists of the kind listed above, and ask for their recommendation. I am of course joking. In reality, I have to make my decision based on incomplete, and possibly biased information, further tainted by biases and perceptions of my own. In such situations, I have found it useful not to dig too deep in the unending and innumerable tunnels of individual technical fields, and thereby totally lose sight of the task at hand. Instead, I try to get a bird's eye view of the reality, make use of analogies to understand what's happening and then trust my judgment. That's what I am going to do here as well.
Accordingly, my decision will be entirely personal, with no expectation of being valid for others. Moreover, unless asked to, or unless it directly impacts me, I feel no obligation to change others' opinion. I have no "save the world" gene in me. How selfish of me!
With that, let's clarify two things. First, I am afraid of Covid-19. It is a dangerous and nasty disease, potentially with severe long-term consequences. And since I live in the USA, my likelihood of dying from Covid-19 is much, much higher than in many other countries! More on this in Section F. Therefore, I take precautions not to get infected. I have stopped playing indoor tennis or going to the gym. We don't attend parties or throw any. I avoid crowded indoor spaces, wash hands frequently, and wear a mask (indoors, not outdoors). Second, I take vaccination seriously. I get the flu shot every year and keep all traditional vaccines updated.
A. It's All About Comparing the Risks (Easier said than done)
Should I get vaccinated against Covid-19? This is a matter of comparing two risks - the risks from Covid-19 vs. the risks from the vaccine, as shown below:
Risk from Covid-19 > risk from the vaccine …… get vaccinated
Risk from Covid-19 < risk from the vaccine …… DON’T get vaccinated
Any risk has two components - an objective risk, and a subjective perception of the risk. Both are important. Two people facing an identical (objective) risk will make different decisions if their (subjective) perception of the risk are different. Things are not as simple as I am trying to make out - even for the supposedly "objective" part of the risk, unless you have a team of trusted specialists to advise you :-)
A risk assessment should always include a risk-benefit analysis. If the benefits of doing something are high, then a higher risk is acceptable. Even though it was my original intent, I never got to doing a proper risk-benefit analysis. That's because once I started the project, I was stunned by the misinformation being peddled by the media, authorities, and politicians, and even the lack of scientific understanding of some "professionals". Therefore, debunking these misinformation became more important than a rigorous risk/benefit analysis.
With that said, let’s look at the two risks – from Covod-19 and from a vaccine. Here I’ll focus on the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine made with mRNA technology, but the assessment would not be much different for the Moderna or the AstraZeneca vaccine.
B. Objective Risks From Covid-19
The risk from Covid-19 can be simplified as a tug of war between the left side and the right side as shown below. The more the left side wins, the greater the trouble; and the more the right side wins, the safer it is.
Virus Virulence & Level of Exposure (Dose) <----> Age, Comobidities & Strength of Immune System
The above is vastly simplified because there is another, external cascade that adds to the risk, as described in Section F. But for now, on the left hand side is virus virulence, which is what it is. But we can limit the level of exposure by practicing physical distancing, using protective equipment, etc.
On the right side is our age, which too is what it is. But we can avoid/reduce our comorbidities and enhance our immune system by having a healthy lifestyle (exercise, fresh air, sunlight, reduced stress, healthy nutrition, possibly taking immune boosters, etc.).
It is too early to pin down Covid-19's objective danger. Just ask a few friends, and the answers will be very different. That's because excess death, the suitable metric, will take a while to be calculated. There is also a lot of disagreement on Infection Fatality Rate (IFR) because the true number of infections are still imprecise, and because assigning death to a single cause, like Covid-19, can be problematic. The IRF value for non-institutionalized vary between 0.15 - 1.7 (Wiley Online Library, Annals of Internal Medicine). Others claim a higher IFR, sometimes confusing IFR with CFR. The variation can also depend on the age group, which increases significantly with age. To me, this value is not excessively high.
One should remember that Covid-19 mortality increases significantly with age. This is different than other pandemics (see chart). For me that means that Covid-19's higher mortality with age is actually due to "higher comrobidities" and "lower immune strength".
The assessment would not be complete without looking at the benefits of getting Covid-19 :-) Yes, there is one - that of becoming immune to the virus. That would allow you to lead a freer life. But it is not clear how long the immunity lasts.
If I consider my individual case, I am 64 years old and have no major comorbidities. I also have a healthy lifestyle (plenty of outdoor activities in all seasons, healthy diet, etc.). Besides, being retired, I have a lot of leeway in deciding whom, when and how I come in contact with, thereby minimizing exposure.
Considering all these, I conclude that my objective risk from Covid-19 is moderate.
C. Subjective Perception of Risks from Covid-19
My subjective perception of risk from Covid-19 is lower than that of most people, and that for the following reasons.
C1) Many, if not most, people think that the “number of Covid cases” in the news are all severely ill Covid-19 patients. That's not true. In reality, these are the people who got a positive result in a PCR test. This test cannot, and does not, diagnose a disease called Covid-19. A diagnosis can only be made by a clinician. In the vast majority of ases, a routine PCR test does not include a consultation with a clinician.
C2) A positive result in a PCR test only means that live, dead or fragments of the SARS-COV-2 virus have been found in the sample. The test is run in cycles, where the target protein is doubled in each cycle. Therefore, if too many cycles are run, then it it can identify viruses and their fragments even in such small quantities, that would not pose any danger, even if they were live viruses. See here and here. Cycles are typically run 25-45 times, whereby after 40 cycles, the initial concentration is multiplied 1.1 trillion-fold! More importantly, if the same sample is tested in one lab that runs 25 cycles vs. in a second lab that runs 45 cycles, then the difference in the signal between the two labs will be million-fold!
Here, two anecdotal examples may be helpful. Each of us harbors (in our microbiom) several trillion bacteria and viruses. Most of them are beneficial, but not all. If the mere presence of a pathogen were to mean being sick then each and every one of us would be considered sick. Whether one is sick depends on the load/lethality of the pathogen vs. the strength of the immune system of the host.
Then, about 30% of humans harbor the tuberculosis bacterium. But only a tiny fraction of them become sick because of the relationship shown under section B. Have you ever seen a headline about 2,300 million TB cases in the world? I haven’t.
What this means is that a very small fraction of the reported number of people will get the disease. From those, a very small fraction will need medical intervention. From those, a very small fraction will have serious conditions. And from those, a very small fraction will die. So, the numbers vastly exaggerate the danger.
C3) Even the use of the reported “number of Covid cases” to make decisions on lockdowns is problematic. That’s because, as astounding as it seems, the PCR test method is not standardized! See here, here, and here. Different labs run it differently, especially the number of cycles can vary between 25 to 45. To make matters worse, the labs and the kit manufacturers consider the test parameters to be proprietary information. For example, the 180 different labs, that run PCR tests in Germany, do not share this information with Robert Koch Institut (German equivalent of CDC). See at 40:00 minutes in this video. I doubt it is different in other countries.
C4) It is also strange that the number of PCR positives are being reported as the number of “cases”. Traditionally, the term "case" has been used to mean incidences when a medical intervention was needed. In epidemiology, two different terms are used to mean two different things - Infection Fatality Rate (IFR) and Case Fatality Rate (CFR). But the media's and the authorities' (mis)use and confusion of these two metrics have led to a biased perception of the danger.
This video gives a good summary of many issues raised above. BTW, the PCR is an amazing tool for basic research, but not for routine testing - especially if it is not standardized, and in the hands of operators of questionable skills.
Some of the concerns listed above were recently addressed by a Portuguese court. A second one is in progress in Germany (**).
Based on the above considerations, my subjective perception of the risk of Covid-19 is much lower than that of the general public.
At this point you may rightfully ask, if the reporting exaggerates the real danger, then why are so many people dying and why are hospitals having capacity issues. These are very good questions, which I’ll address in Section F.
D. Objective Risks From Vaccines
The biggest objective risk of Covid-19 vaccines comes from being developed with new technologies. One of the new technologies is mRNA, which is being used for Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, and Curevac vaccines. Another technology is virus vector, which is being used for the AstraZeneca/Oxford/Vexitech and the Russian Sputnik vaccines. mRNA technology have been around for more than 15 years, and has focussed on AIDS treatment, but without much success. Its lack of long term human safety data has prevented its use in human vaccines - until Covid-19 was made out to be such a big hazard.
Until now it has always taken 8-10 years to develop a new vaccine. But the new Covid-19 vaccines are being developed in just 1-2 years. Two of the approaches used to accomplish this are: a reduction in safety testing requirements, and telescoping the clinical studies (running them somewhat parallel, which entails taking risks). Additionally, the definition of
It is especially troubling because although the mRNA technology has been around for a while, its use in human vaccines have not been allowed because of well-founded concerns. So far, mRNA technology has been used in livestock vaccines only. Unfortunately, data from livestock use are useless. Firstly, livestock are not meant to live long – and therefore, cannot provide long term safety data. More importantly, it is universally recognized that animal safety data is only an indicator and can not predict safety in humans.
There are a lot of concerns about potential safety of the new vaccines. For example, the danger of adverse auto-immune disorder when a vaccinated person is confronted with the real "wild" virus (the new technologies, as opposed to the older ones, do not expose the body to a real, albeit weakened, virus). Such auto-immune disorder was observed in an animal study with the vector vaccine from AstraZeneca/Oxford. Other concerns include ADE (antibody-dependent amplification), immune reaction against syncytin-1, side reactions of the nano lipid carrier, etc. And in this video, Dr. Sherri Tenpenny lists 7 possible adverse effects (talk starts at 26:05 minutes) that can be triggered by a vaccine based on mRNA technology. The burden of proof that the vaccine does not cause these adverse effects is on the vaccine manufacturers, but they have failed to provide them. Such evidence takes time. There is a reason, why vaccine development has taken 8-10 years (except for a single case where it took 4.5 years).
I am not alone in my skepticism about the lack of safety data. See the first two bullet points below in PPS (dated Dec. 28, 2020).
What are the benefits of the vaccine? From what I can tell (Chapter 8, Pfizer clinical study protocol), they have defined efficacy as a reduction in symptoms, and not as immunity (e.g. protection from getting the disease), or sterile immunity (e.g. preventing spread through a sick person). Maybe, the vaccines will provide immunity - but the studies have not been designed to capture this. That's probably because that would have taken significantly more time. But without immunity and sterile immunity, the vaccines will not contribute to herd immunity. A recent opinion piece published in the British Medical Journal has a detailed list of concerns about the credibility of Pfizer's and Moderna's efficacy claims.
Another British Medical Journal article states that "None of the trials currently under way are designed to detect a reduction in any serious outcome such as hospital admissions, use of intensive care, or deaths. Nor are the vaccines being studied to determine whether they can interrupt transmission of the virus."
There is already one iron-clad immunity though. And that is the total immunity of the pharmaceutical companies from any liabilities stemming from adverse effects caused by their vaccines that lack long term safety data. Details of this outrageous deal is explained by Prof. Mary Holland in this video (starting at 15:45 minutes). Ain't life sweet for Big Pharma!
I wonder how many people who are getting the Pfizer vaccine realize that the vaccine's clinical study is expected to be concluded in January 2023. Thant means they are all participating in a post marketing clinical study!
Considering the above, the objective risk from the Covid vaccine is high (while providing moderate benefits).
E. Subjective Perception of Risks From Vaccines
There are several additional issues that make me uncomfortable about Covid vaccines. They belong rightfully in the subjective perception category.
E1) Almost all previous vaccines needed 8-10 years to be developed. And in one case (AIDS virus) scientists have not found a vaccine even after 30+ years. How is it then, that right at the beginning of the pandemic, governments in several countries had stated that we’ll get back to normal only after there will be a vaccine against Covid-19? What did they know that we do not know?
E2) Why is the public being led to believe that the mere presence of even fragments of a dead virus, identified with a test method that is neither standardized, nor approved for diagnosis, is the same thing as having the disease?
E3) Why have all Covid death projections been higher by a factor of 100 – 1,000 than what actually ended up happening?
E4) Why did, several years ago, WHO remove “mortality” as one of the criteria from the definition of a pandemic?
E5) Why has WHO recently modified the definition of Herd Immunity by removing "immunity developed through previous infection" as one of two ways of getting there, and retained vaccination as the only pathway? (see WHO definition from June 9, 2020 vs. now)
Here, some might be thinking of the C-word. But what I am doing is listing some verifiable observations and asking questions (call them “yarns”). What cloth you, dear reader, weave or not weave out of these strands is up to you.
Considering the above, is it any wonder that my subjective perception of risk from Covid-19 vaccines is high?
F. Why Are So many People Dying From Covid?
When I share the above thoughts, I am usually asked two questions; both are very valid. If the perception of danger from Covid-19 is exaggerated, then why are so many people dying? And isn’t Covid-19 putting our hospitals under immense stress?
The number of deaths ascribed to Covid-19 is indeed huge – 1,635,600 worldwide, of which 309,101 in the USA (as of December 15, 2020, according to Worldometer). But the death is not equally distributed. Before explaining what I mean, I’ll make the provocative statement that viruses do not kill people – rather it initiates a cascade of events that can (but must not) ultimately kill a person. For example, the AIDS virus compromises the immune system of the patient. But the patient usually dies from physiological malfunction which can come from many other sources.
Going back to the cascade of events, one leg of the cascade is determined by the patient himself (age, comorbidities, immune system, etc.). The other leg is influenced by external factors (type and time of medical interventions, etc.). Both legs can, and do, determine whether a patient will die. The possible magnitude of impact of external factors dawned on me when I compared Covid-19 death rates in different countries, which are available on the Worldometer website.
It was my intention to make it a layman's piece, and not include too much technical info and data. But I find the following data so stunning that I am making an exception. That's because simple sloppiness of data, which is a very valid concern with this pandemic, cannot explain away these differences.
According to the data (e.g., deaths per million population) the Covid-19 death rate in the USA is 4.4 times higher than the world average. And if compared with some individual countries then the US rate is
3 times higher (vs. Germany)
77 times higher (vs. Cuba)
310 times higher (vs. China)
2,327 times higher (vs. Vietnam)
3,100 times higher (vs. Taiwan)
This spread is astounding! If it makes you feel better, there are several other countries whose mortality rate is even higher than that of USA. Prominent among them are Belgium, Italy, Spain, etc. You can check them out on the Worldometer website.
I understand that the number of reported Covid-19 deaths are not very accurate, and that for a variety of reasons. But that alone cannot explain a 3,000x spread in death rates. This leads me to suspect that other factors, that are unrelated to the inherent lethality of the SARS-COV-2 virus, are at play. Some of them, in no particular order, could be – access to healthcare, socioeconomic inequalities, population-level clinical risk profile (e.g. lifestyle, exposure to pathogens, etc.), quality of public health, healthcare infrastructure, demography, societal and political norms and structures, rate of institutionalization, etc.
Since viruses do mutate for a living, that could explain part of the mystery. It has been proposed that Europe is dealing with a Spanish strain that is different from the original Wuhan strain (see starting at 26:30 min in this video). Maybe we'll learn more soon, considering that more than 100 scientific papers being published on all aspects of SARS-COV-2 every day (at 1:02:00 in this video).
Another conclusion from the above data is that, if the USA had the same mortality rate as some other countries, then the total deaths from Covid-19 in the USA, instead of being 309,101, would be
92,000 (at the rate of Germany)
4,000 (at the rate of Cuba)
1,000 (at the rate of China)
132 (at the rate of Vietnam)
100 (at the rate of Taiwan)
So, why this mad rush to vaccines without even trying to identify other causes that could potentially have a much bigger impact on the number of deaths? I understand that some of these factors cannot be changed in this country quickly, and some maybe not at all. Nevertheless, an understanding of what they are, is essential for effectively addressing this pandemic. But that's not happening.
Sometimes it is useful to think in terms of analogy. Imagine that in Country A, the likelihood of dying from a gunshot wound is 3,000x greater than in Country B. Should Country A mandate that everyone in Country A must wear a full body armor made from depleted uranium (without having tested long-term radiological, ergonomic and societal impacts)? Or should Country A first study why there is such a discrepancy in mortality rate? Pushing for vaccination with an experimental product as the solution to Covid-19 is akin to mandating that everyone in country A must wear a full body armor made from depleted uranium!
Another analogy is that of preparing for a road trip to a remote destination. Instead of ensuring an adequate supply of gasoline and checking the engine and the brakes, we are changing tires, made with a new technology, that has no long term safety record. Here too, by mandating experimental vaccines we are changing tires while the problem lies with the engine.
The other question I am asked is about the stress Covid-19 pandemic is putting on our hospital bed capacity. A quick search makes me wonder if that is true. See data from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. They publish hospital utilization rates (including hospital beds) nationwide and statewide. The nationwide utilization rates for December 15, 2020, are
Impatient beds occupied (by all patients): 74%
Impatient beds occupied (by Covid-19 patients): 16%
ICU beds occupied (by all patients): 64%
I have no idea if a utilization rate of 65-75% is alarmingly high – maybe it is. But if so, then the main culprit is not Covid-19 patients who use up only 16% of the beds. Rather, the problem is a drastic and continuous reduction in the number of hospital beds that has been going on for many decades. Per capita hospital bed capacity in the USA has supposedly decreased by 60% since 1975 (see video starting at 6:27 minutes). Here again, it looks like we are looking at the wrong causes to solve the problem.
Considering all these, it is long past due to critically review our current pandemic approaches - which are a single-minded focus on (untested) vaccines and blanket lockdowns. Yes, lockdowns are essential to "flatten the curve". But lockdown is not the "tool", rather it creates the time and space for the implementation of the real and effective tools against a pandemic. What are those effective tools? Just go and check with a few countries with the least mortality per million. But anyone proposing such a thing might as well commit professional suicide. Thanks god, I am retired :-)
And then, here is a recently published study in Nature, based on a sample size of almost 10 million Wuhan residents, that concludes that asymptomatic Covid-19 patients DO NOT transmit the disease. If this is true, then this would be no different than other respiratory tract infectious diseases like influenza. More importantly, this should raise questions about blanket lockdown measures. Should only the symptomatic patients be under lockdown? Ideally the authorities would also encourage compliance with targeted financial incentives and material support (e.g. help with shopping, etc.). Considering all these, I continue to wonder why this mad rush to vaccines and why this aversion to questioning and learning from other countries?
G. To Get Vaccinated Or Not to Get Vaccinated?
Now to the original question. I consider my risks from Covid-19 to be medium. That requires action. But if I take a vaccine then the risks will increase!
Only data, and not mere assurances from pharmaceutical companies, the media, the government, the politicians, and even regulatory authorities will convince me that my concerns are not valid. All of them have long lost their "Just Trust Me" privilege long ago!
Therefore, my mitigation strategy for lowering the risks is to continue to:
avoid crowded indoor spaces
wash hands frequently
get plenty of exercise, especially outdoors, and in the sun
eat a healthy diet and consider taking immune boosters
wear a mask but minimize its use (indoors and only where enforced)
My decision not to get vaccinated is not an easy one. But I do not see any rationale for ignoring risks from the vaccine either. Ask yourself - would you get a cat that does not catch any mice but might give you rabies? ("cat = vaccine", "catching mice = giving immunity and sterile immunity", and "rabies = long term adverse effects"). I am perfectly aware that by acting according to my conclusions, I could get Covid-19, and even die from it. That's because no risk analysis is perfect, and because even the best statistics can have outliers. Call it God's will or kismet, but there is no elixir against becoming an outlier. But to act contrary to my conclusions would be an emotional, rather than a rational decision.
Therefore, I'll wait and see how things develop, especially statistics on excess death, the nature and extent of severe long term complications, and emerging and long-term vaccine safety. In the meantime, I am happy to allow others to generate the missing safety data :-)
- - -
PS: This is not a rigorous risks/benefits analysis for getting vaccinated or not. That's because as I started exploring the issues, I was stunned by the gulf between what most people think the risks and rewards are and the reality. As a result, exploring the root causes of the disconnect became a more interesting endeavor. This disconnect dramatically influences people's decision to get vaccinated or not. But much more importantly, the root causes of this disconnect are frustrating the management of the pandemic with tragic results. Therefore, a more appropriate heading could have been "How to Fail Managing Covid-19". Sounds too harsh? Consider the following:
1) Thanks to our media and authorities, many/most people do not realize that
- PCR, the most important and the most widely used test method (the data from which are used to make the most significant pandemic decisions), is not standardized! See here, here and here. I was stunned at the lack of standardization of the PCR test - it is unheard of. Dr. David Resnik lays out in this video (starts at 1:19:00 minutes) why no standardization was possible.
- the PCR test is not an approved device for diagnosing a disease called Covid-19; rather it identifies a virus called SARS-COV-2
- more accurately, the PCR test identifies proteins that are characteristic of the virus, or its fragments, independent of whether it is alive/active or dead, and even when the level is too low to be of concern (see here)
- the published number of "Covid cases" are not the number of sick people - that's because the term "case" is being misused to equate with "PCR positives"
- therefore, the vaccines are not expected to contribute to herd immunity
- any scientist or engineer worth his mettle knows that data used to make decisions must be generated with a test method that is relevant, standardized and validated. PCR test method fails in all three criteria. It diagnoses neither the disease Covid-19, nor an infection; its most important parameter (count threshold) has not been agreed upon; and it has not been validated for the purpose it is being used. This is simply unbelievable!
2) Several years ago, the definition of a pandemic was changed by WHO to exclude mortality as a criterion, and that without any explanation
3) In the USA, the number of hospital beds per capita has decreased by 60% since 1975
4) The likelihood of an American of dying from Covid-19 is 4.4 times higher than the world average, and much higher than most other countries. It is 3,100 times higher than in Taiwan
5) Even though available data suggest that the dramatically higher Covid-19 mortality rate in the USA could be driven by factors unrelated to the virus’s lethality, there has been no attempts to identify the factors, let alone address them
6) Similarly, even though available data suggest that the dramatically higher Covid-19 mortality rate in the USA could be driven by factors unrelated to the virus’s lethality, there has been a strange and exclusive focus on vaccines from the very beginning
7) Even though previously it took 8-10 years to develop a new vaccine (with one exception), and although a vaccine for the AIDS virus remains elusive even after 30+ years, governments of several countries had declared right at the beginning of the pandemic that people will have to live under emergency conditions until a vaccine will be available
8) The requirements for demonstrating the safety of new Covid-19 vaccines have been dramatically watered down, even though these vaccines are based on technologies which have no long term human safety data
9) The way the pandemic is being covered in the media, has made science a casualty of this pandemic. Controversy is the lifeblood of scientific progress. But that is done best within the scientific community, and not in the public, especially if the dominant media censure views that don't support a certain narrative. There are plenty of examples of reputable experts being blocked from having a public presence. That could be topic of another piece.
All I am doing here, dear readers, is to provide some verifiable dots. How you connect them, or not, is entirely your choice :-) If there are some more dots that I am unaware of, please do let me know and I'll include them here.
Dec 22, 2020: You may have noticed my lack of trust in the corporate media. Here is just one recent example. You have certainly read sensational headlines about a newly mutated, highly contagious SARS-COV-2 virus in the UK. The problem is that mutations are a natural way of life for all viruses. If we ever found a virus that does not mutate then that would be a sensational news. A worthwhile news would be if a mutated virus is found to be more lethal. And the mere fact that a virus has mutated is a no-news. And yet, the media are setting people in panic by reporting no-news as sensational news. Is it incompetent or intention? You decide. Check out this video from a Columbia University medical school professor on virus mutation.
Dec. 26, 2020: Here is a game theory approach to a risk/benefit analysis for getting vaccinated or not (Nash equilibrium). Game theory, unlike traditional statistical analysis, incorporates people's behavior in a dynamic situation. This video is only a demonstration of the approach. Relevant parameters for Covid-19 are not known yet.
Dec. 28, 2020:
Prof. Wolf-Dieter Ludwig, head of the drug commission of German physicians, and a member of the management board of the European Medicine Agency EMA (EU equivalent of FDA in the USA), would not personally take the Pfizer vaccine because of its lack of long term safety data. As for his patients in their 80's, especially those with comorbidities, his recommendation depends on individual situations (see video in German)
Prof. Hockertz, a past director of institute for experimental toxicology and clinical toxicology at University of Hamburg Eppendorf, and a past member of the directorate of Fraunhofer Institutes for Toxicology and Environmental Medicine in Hannover, asserts that there is little toxicological and pharmacological data on the Pfizer vaccine. Those were supposed to have been collected during phase 1 and 2 preclinical studies. He also points out that Swissmedic (the Swiss equivalent of EMA) has recently concluded that the Pfizer vaccine submission package lacks evidence of safety, efficacy and quality! Swissmedic is independent of EMA (see video in German)
READING LIKE A DRUNKEN SAILOR November 2020
"Why do you read?" is an unusual question. But that's what my friend had asked me, and not the usual "what are you reading now?". As I started thinking, I realized that there is another reading question that I have never been asked - "how do you read?". That means there are why’s, there are what’s', and there are how's of reading! I suppose generally the what’s and the how’s ought to follow the why’s. Therefore, I’ll start with that.
I read for three reasons, which is probably true for many others. I read to gain skills – both of professional and personal nature. Then I read to remain informed about what's going on around me. And finally, I read as a muse - just for pleasure, expecting no practical return whatsoever. It is the third kind that interests me most.
Reading of the first kind is what I used to do almost exclusively during my education and during my professional career. Now that I am retired, I have no interest whatsoever in such reading. Unlike most of my former colleagues, who do teaching and consulting after retirement, one of my goals has always been to stay away from activities related to my profession in retirement. It is unusual but may have to do with how I chose my professions – accidentally! Bottom line – I do not do any reading of the first kind anymore.
Reading of the second kind interests me very much. Here the aim is to deconstruct the matrix we live in, or pierce the simulacrum, if you will. This can only be done with targeted and deliberate reading. Otherwise, as my favorite American author Mark Twain had said, "If you don't read the newspaper, you are uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you're un-informed". But that’s a whole different story, for a different time.
Now to the third kind of reading – my favorite kind. I tend to live by the adage that there is nothing more pleasurable than to curl up with a book, especially when so much needs to be done around the house! But joke aside, one of my fond childhood memories is of reading. I remember how, at the beginning of each summer break, my mother would take me to a bookstore. I don’t remember the name of the store, but it was in the then premier shopping center New Market, near Azimpur in Dhaka. There, I’d browse the children’s section and pick up whatever I wanted to read during the long summer break. Then, happy with my booty, we’d go to the neighboring bakery store. There, I’d eat a cool, crispy cream roll, and sip ice-cold Coca Cola. To make it perfect, the Coca Cola came in one of those small, iconic glass bottles, fresh out of a cooler – with small droplets of water condensing on its surface in the high humidity summer of Dhaka.
Then I encountered life – first formal education and then real life. Less and less time remained for pleasurable reading. My high school curriculum in Bangladesh was overly technical, which I took rather seriously. I had little curiosity for most things outside the bubble, including pleasurable reading. Then came an overly technical education in Germany with no liberal arts class during entire undergrad and masters courses! One exception was Marxism-Leninism, which was optional. Regrettably, I did not take advantage of it. And Ph.D. comprised entirely of independent research with no requirement for taking any class whatsoever - not even science classes! Today, this has changed due to EU harmonization.
Things didn't get better as I started working. Besides having to focus on my professional career, and raising a family, I had to cope with two immigrations to two different continents! No wonder that one day I realized that I had become a Fachidiot! To explain, Fachidiot is a compound German word consisting of two words: Fach, meaning technical subject matter, and Idiot, which requires no translation. I also realized how much I had been missing reading for pleasure.
So, I planned to kill two bird with one stone. Why not design reading for pleasure also to be a remedial course for recovering Fachidiots? In practical terms, that meant reading things that I have missed out in my one-sided education - which is practically everything outside of my technical field. That’s when the drunken sailor made his appearance. I started reading randomly - anything from fiction, history, philosophy, (geo)politics, (auto)biography, psychology, anthropology and what not. The only condition is that the book
1. is not on any recent list - bestseller, book club, pundit recommendation, etc.
2. was published at least 20 years ago, preferably even earlier
3. is not of self-help or how-to type, and
4. has nothing to do with my training or profession
Then allow for an occasional violation of the first two rules and you are all set!
Idiosyncratic? May be; but I am in good company. Haruki Murakami speaks from my heart when he says that “if you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking”. What a nightmare! I am also with Nassim Nicholas Taleb when he says that "the show running the longest on Broadway is more likely to outlast the younger ones". That speaks to my rule #2, which weeds out books with a poor signal to noise ratio.
So, you see that I am in good company. Interestingly, I happened to find these quotes long after I had made up my rules. How does the saying go? Another proof that great minds do think alike!
WORDS OF WISDOM TO LIVE BY July 2020
Grown on my own muck (literal translation of Auf eigenem Mist gewachsen)
1. Wisdom is pattern recognition. Knowledge and experience are merely the raw data.
2. To be wise, you don't have to be right all the time. You don't even have to be right most of the time. All you have to do is to be right more often than others.
3. Think radically but act rationally.
4. Being fooled is entirely a voluntary act.
5. Don’t end up being like everyone else even before you are dead.
6. All human activities, including altruistic ones, are driven by self-interest. The difference lies in the definition of self.
7. Your life is a self-portrait painted with strokes of every decision ever taken. Make it a colorful one – use a palette less chosen.
8. Decision is the mother of all actions – even the ones not ventured.
9. The first step in overcoming any adversity is to stop considering yourself a victim. A victim, by definition, is powerless.
10. Intellectual greatness is elusive in the contemporary because it requires both being right and popular.
11. If "War is the continuation of politics by other means" (Claus von Clausewitz), then politics is the continuation of finance by other means.
12. The road to hell is paved with successive, unconditional, votes for the lesser evil.
13. Make change in plan part of your plan.
14. You can use adversity as an excuse or as a challenge to excel.
15. True friendship is nurtured by emotional and intellectual compatibility - and not merely by a shared experience
1. "When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years." - Mark Twain
2. "It is easier to fool a man than to convince him that he has been fooled.” – Mark Twain
3. “Before you criticize someone else, first put yourself in his shoes. That way, if he gets mad, then he’ll have to chase you barefoot.” - anonymous
4. "Everything we call real is made up of things that cannot be regarded as real.” – Niels Bohr, a founding father of quantum physics
5. “The expert you want to consult is not the one who knows all the rules, but the one who knows the exceptions.” – anonymous
6. “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”. - Christopher Hitchens
7. “Everything the State says is a lie, and everything it has, it has stolen.” - Friedrich Nietzsche
8. “You can’t connect dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backward.” – Steve Jobs at 2005 Stanford commencement speech
9. “Everything the Soviet government told us about our country was wrong, but everything they said about the west was right.” – popular saying in contemporary Russia
10. "All models are wrong, but some are useful." - George E. P. Box
12. "In the long run, luck prefers the one who is more capable." - Prof. Dr. J. Fuhrmann, my Doktorvater (Auf die Dauer Glück hat nur der Tüchtigere)
13. "The United States its also a one-party state but, with typical American extravagance, they have two of them." - Julius Nyerere (1922-1999), President of Tanzania
14. "One cannot do everything at the same time, but one can stop doing everything at the same time." J. Spennhof, my onetime 3M colleague (Man kann nicht alles auf einmal tun aber man kann alles auf einmal lassen)
15. "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." - Sigmund Freud
16. "The self does not know anything except its own feelings, and while projecting these feelings it creates its own world." Nikolai Kulbin
17. "Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation." - Oscar Wilde
18. "The idealists and materialists see the possibility of change only through revolutions, while realists say that real change only happens through gradual evolution.” - Dmitry Mendeleyev
19. "Property is theft" - Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
BAD WATER ALONG THE SCENIC ROUTE March 2020
It was not exactly a warm welcome, and it was also pretty clear that I ignore the warning at my own peril. Clearly, I had no choice but to suffer through three uncomfortable days. Then I tripled my vocabulary. Not m making much sense? Let me start from the beginning.
It was many years ago. Bangladesh had barely emerged from a bloody war of independence, and I had freshly graduated from the former Momenshahi Cadet College. The times were uncertain. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the President and Father of the Nation, had been assassinated in a military coup, together with most of his immediate family. Just a month later, I was on an Interflug turboprop headed for Berlin. The decision was surprising and abrupt. My parents did not agree, and yet they let me go.
It was my first flight ever, and my first journey abroad. As if that were not enough, I was traveling to a country where I did not know anyone and the language of which I did not speak. But I was well prepared. My mother had packed a small suitcase with things I might need. And I had tucked away US$50 in a bag tied around my chest. It was my emergency fund. Quite audacious considering that I have never been adventurous. And yet, looking back, I recall no fear, apprehension or doubt. The youth, lacking life’s experience, must resort to ignorance; sometimes it works out.
Traveling abroad was still a novelty. That meant a festive farewell at the airport. My extended family had gathered at Tejgaon International airport. They bade me goodbye with much fanfare. After the formalities, I walked out on the tarmac to the plane. On my way, I looked back. I saw my family waving at me from the rooftop visitor platform. I remember it was a beautiful, sunny September day. But I do not remember being aware of my mother’s grief. Who can tell whether that was a failing or a blessing?
I climbed up the roll-on gangway into the plane, found my seat, and buckled up, waiting impatiently for my maiden flight. Finally, we took off. I was mesmerized by the view. First the airport, then the city, and finally the country of my birth become smaller and smaller, and then disappeared altogether. All the while, I remained blissfully unaware that once you step out of a stream, you can never return to the same stream again.
Memories of the flight are sketchy now. But I remember the breathtaking view of the Hindukush Mountains in the warm glow of a late afternoon sun. Our first stopover was in Tashkent. As the plane refueled, we had snacks in the lounge. That's where I got my first culture shock - I could eat as much grapes as I wished. Until then, grapes generally went with being sick. Grapes do not grow in Bangladesh and must be imported. They were expensive. I suppose that’s why grapes had a special healing power. Things may be different today. I haven’t been to Bangladesh since 2000.
The next stop was Moscow – Moscow Sheremetyevo International Airport. We arrived shortly after midnight. I had to wait for the connecting flight in a quiet and deserted transit hall. Suddenly, chatter and laughter woke me from my stupor. A group of middle-aged cleaning women had arrived. It may sound trivial, but I was struck by their portliness. Women in Bangladesh are small statured and lean, especially those, who do menial work. Clearly, from now on, different rules will apply. A harbinger of new things to come?
Then another long flight to Berlin - this time with Aeroflot. We arrived in Berlin at the crack of dawn, Berlin Schönefeld to be exact. By that time, everything was a blur. I vaguely remember someone from Herder Institut taking care of immigration formalities. I was going to learn German language at Herder Institut in Leipzig, and then go on to study chemistry on a scholarship. Both decisions – to study chemistry and to go to East Germany – were abrupt and unusual. Just a month earlier I had other plans. But life would be so much duller if it always followed a well laid plan.
The last leg of the voyage was a long train journey from Berlin to Leipzig. A Bangladeshi student, who had come to study the previous year, came to accompany me. We took a train and rode on for many more hours. Bleary eyed, I watched the landscape pass by the window – a cloudy countryside interrupted by gray small towns; occasionally stopping at a somber train station.
Finally, we reached Leipzig. The senior student dropped me off at the dormitory of Herder Institut. Then he left for Halle, the neighboring city where he attended college. The long journey and the jet lag had taken a toll. I was happy to finally settle down and rest. Then I saw the ominous sign.
It was a handwritten sign on the door of the dorm’s bathroom. It showed a running showerhead, accompanied by the word “Bad”. Obviously, something was amiss. The semester hadn’t started yet, and few students were around. Besides, they wouldn’t have spoken English, and I spoke neither German nor Russian (their obligatory foreign language).
Fortunately, I spotted another dorm across the cobblestoned street. I collected my towels and cosmetics, walked across the street and used that facility. This became my awkward routine for the next few days. Every day I thanked God that winter had not arrived yet; all the while wondering when anybody was going to take care of things.
On the third day, the senior Bangladeshi student returned. He solved the problem with just three sentences. First, Bad means bath in German. Second, Bad's grammatical gender is neuter and therefore its definite article is das. And the final one was a stern advice never to learn a German noun without knowing its gender. Then and there, and even before my language course had begun, I tripled my German vocabulary. Until then, the single German word I knew was Achtung. That was thanks to dog-eared, WWII comic books I used to buy at Sakura Market. Does it still exist, across from Hotel Intercontinental?
Soon afterwards, my German class began at Herder Institut. With that began one of the most delightful experiences in my life. I learned the language in complete immersion. Not a single explanation was ever given in any language other than German. More than four decades later, I still remember the first two German sentences we had learned on the very first day" "Ich bin Frau Lehmann. Ich bin ihre Lehrerin". I vividly see the teacher standing in front of the
First winter in Germany
Fichtelberg, Thuringia in the former East Germany (December 1975)
blackboard, with those two sentences written on it. She repeated them over and over, while gesticulating to herself, until we all understood that she is Mrs. Lehmann and she is our teacher. From that point on, it was pure bliss!
I had found myself in an opaque world – immersed in a language I did not understand and surrounded by a culture I did not know. With every new word I learned and every idiom I understood, bit by bit, little pieces of a veil continued to disappear. As I walked around in the city, each day, I deciphered another signpost. As I looked out while riding a tram, I understood another nugget from a billboard on Hotel Astoria next to Leipzig Hauptbahnhof. Sometimes, it was part of a political slogan that I tried to decode. With every improvement in my comprehension, I could catch more bits and pieces of conversations of fellow commuters speaking in their colloquial tongue. The experience was like moving gradually from deafness to hearing, from incomprehension to comprehension, and ultimately from darkness to light. It was simply beautiful – or as I said, pure bliss!
I do not know anyone who was cured of blindness. But that is the closest analogy I can come up with. How I wish I could repeat this experience. But globalization and the Internet have made it difficult to find such secluded and opaque environments. And I have become even more comfortable.
Latest winter in USA
Yellowstone National Park, WY (March 2020)
That was two score and five years ago. Much water has flown down the Ganges since - I am tempted to say – ignoring Strunk and White’s advice not to strain the readers’ power of mental math or to overuse figures of speech. By now I have been living in Minnesota for almost three decades. Count to that another 17 meandering years through Europe. I have studied, worked and lived on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Along the way, I have experienced new cultures, lived life under different rules, and broadened my perspective.
Now after the fact, it would be disingenuous to pretend that everything was deliberate. It was not. On the other hand, the line between free will and destiny is hazier than one would like to believe. But there is one thing I am sure of. My life’s path along the scenic route has enriched me in ways that no money can buy. I would not trade them for anything.
As I was making those important life’s choices, I didn’t know about Robert Frost, let alone his poem. Today, all I can say is how true he was, and how blessed I am!
“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
HONESTY IS THE BEST POLICY (or is it?) February, 2019
My grandfather told me that honesty is not the best policy, and I could not disagree with him. Ever since, my life has not been the same again ….
Relax, he did not lead me astray – neither was he known to be dishonest. In fact, he was a distinguished educator. He was a longtime principal of Dhaka College - one of the premier educational institutes of East Pakistan (and later Bangladesh). A generation ago, it was difficult to meet a successful professional or administrator in the country who did not revere him as a teacher. His former students would lovingly remember his popular and entertaining classes. At the same time, they would recall stories of his strict and principled administrative style.
Unfortunately, I did not know him very closely. That was partly because I was just one of his 22 grandkids (which later grew to 29). It did not help that I was a child of one of his eight daughters, rather than of one of his three sons. Yes, such small distinctions do matter in the in the South Asian culture. It certainly did back then. But it was also because I had left home early, attending a distant, residential school, from which I came home only twice a year. And right after graduating from high school, I had left Bangladesh – never to see him again.
As a young man he was, as I have it from my mother, a dandy, and a brilliant scholar. He was awarded a gold medal for graduating at the top in entire Bengal. That was during the British rule of India.
For me, and for most of my cousins, a frequent reason for interacting with him was to play cards. That was one of his passions. Whenever he missed his card playing friends, he would commission whichever of his numerous grandkids happened to be present to play cards with him. In return, he would entertain us - sometimes by reciting long Shakespeare verses or English poems or historical speeches from memory, sometimes by explaining English idioms, and sometimes by analyzing plots of romance and chivalry in famous literature pieces.
On one such occasion he challenged the notion that honesty is the best policy. His contention was that policy (as opposed to principle) is subject to expediency and as such negotiable. In other words, the idiom does not mean what most people think it does. I found his argument convincing and agreed with him. Then I forgot all about the conversation.
Fast forward more than four decades. It is a crispy, sunny Minnesota autumn morning, and I am raking the yard. On such occasions, when I am engaged in a routine, mindless and physical activity, my mind wanders. I can easily trace the origin of a few of my patent ideas to exactly such a state of mind. Other times, it wonders elsewhere
But joke aside, during that lawn raking, it occurred to me that I have acquired the habit of taking conventional wisdoms and putting them on their head in order to scrutinize their validity. This is the habit of a contrarian - that of asking, “why not” instead of “why”. This has benefitted me not only professionally, e.g. by helping me come up with unobvious solutions to problems, but also in my day to day life. Because when thus scrutinized, many conventional wisdoms fail to hold up to what they seem to imply at first glance. This is a great tool for cutting through the spin, manipulation and propaganda that has become so pervasive in the world we live in.
Then came the aha moment. Suddenly I remembered that short conversation with my grandfather held more than four decades ago. A conversation held between two hands of cards. He had taken a conventional wisdom and challenged its validity. I wonder what influence that short conversation had on my way of thinking throughout the years and unbeknownst to me. It is one of my life's regrets not to have had the opportunity to get to know him better....
BAD WATER IN GERMANY (or how I tripled my German vocabulary) December, 2018
The water was bad, but there was nobody around to explain why and how. Reluctantly, I had to stop using it. It took three days to fix the problem. By that time, I had tripled my German vocabulary. Let me start from the beginning because I don't think I am making much sense.
It was many years ago. Bangladesh had barely emerged from a bloody war of independence, and I had freshly graduated from high school. The times were uncertain. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the President and the Father of the Nation, had been assassinated in a military coup, together with most of his immediate family. Just a month later, I had boarded an Interflug turboprop machine in Dhaka, Bangladesh, heading for Berlin.
It was my first flight ever, and my first journey abroad. I was traveling to a country where I did not know anyone. This was unusual because I have never been adventurous. I am still a homebody. But I was well prepared. My mother had packed my clothing in a small suitcase, and I had US$50 in my pocket as emergency fund. I also knew the most important German word: Achtung. That came from reading WWII comics. But joke aside, and looking back, I recall neither apprehension nor fear. The youth, lacking life’s experience, must rely on ignorance. Sometimes that works.
I had boarded the plane on a sunny September afternoon. Earlier, the extended family had gathered at Dhaka’s Tejgaon international airport to see me off. The fanfare, and the novelty of my experience, had made me unaware of my mother’s grief. I do not know if that was a blessing or a curse.
The memories of the flight are hazy. I do remember the breathtaking view of the Hindukush Mountains as we flew northwest. Later, we had a brief stopover in Tashkent. As the plane refueled, we waited in a lounge, eating as much grapes as we wanted to. This was my first culture shock. Until then, eating grapes generally went with being sick. This is because grapes do not grow in Bangladesh. The imported, usually not so fresh but expensive grapes, like most non-indigenous and costly things, were thought to be especially good for you. Never mind that Bangladesh is a tropical country, where an amazing variety of delicious fruits grow. Things are different today. Thanks to globalization, grapes are not a specialty anymore.
Next stop Moscow. We arrived at Sheremetyevo International Airport at midnight to change plane. There I had my next culture shock – fortunately also a mild one. As I waited in the quiet and deserted transit hall, my attention was suddenly drawn to chatting and laughter. A group of cleaners, all middle-aged women, had come to clean the area. It may sound trivial, but I was not prepared for their corpulence. Bangladeshi women are small statured. Especially those, who do menial work, tend to be rather scrawny. Clearly, different rules apply here. This was a harbinger of things to come.
Before long, we were on our way to Berlin – Berlin Schönefeld, to be exact. By that time, everything was a blur. I vaguely remember having landed in Berlin at the crack of dawn. Someone from Herder Institut took care of the formalities. Herder Institut was the place where I was going to learn German, and then go on to study chemistry on a scholarship. Both decisions – to study chemistry and go to East Germany (or to Germany for that matter) – were unexpected and unusual. But that is a whole different story altogether.
The last leg of the expedition was a train journey from Berlin to Leipzig. That’s where Herder Institut was located. Fortunately, they had arranged for a senior Bangladeshi student, who had come to study the previous year, to accompany me. By that time, it had dawned, and I must had been observing the country through the train window. Amazingly, I have no recollection of what I had seen.
Once we reached Leipzig, the student dropped me off at the Herder Institut dormitory, and left for the neighboring town where he lived. The long journey and the jet lag had taken a toll, and I was totally exhausted. I was finally happy to settle down and rest. Then I saw the ominous sign.
- - See Newer Version here - -
It was the sign on the dorm’s bathroom door, showing a running showerhead, accompanied by the word “Bad” underneath it. Obviously, something was wrong with the water and should not be used. I couldn’t ask anyone because the semester hadn’t started yet, and few students were around. More importantly, their preferred foreign language was Russian. They didn’t speak English, and I spoke neither German nor Russian.
In my distress, I looked around and found another dorm across the street. I collected my towels and cosmetics, walked across the street and used that facility. This became my awkward and inconvenient practice for the next few days. All the while, I kept on wondering when anybody was going to fix the problem.
On the third day, the senior Bangladeshi student stopped by to find out how I was doing. I owe him my second and third German words: das Bad = the bathroom. That’s how I had tripled my German vocabulary in three days even before the language course had started.
OF SCIENCES AND ARTS November, 2018
I think everyone will agrees that sciences and arts are different. Where we may disagree is how they are different. But let’s start with the easy part. It is pretty obvious that people who do (hard) sciences and who do arts are quite different.
A typical scientist is an “aging white male with crooked teeth and messy hair; wearing a lab coat and goggles, and preferably holding an effervescent test tube.” To be honest, this is what you’ll find in Wikipedia under “mad scientist”. But who reads the fine prints anyway? We also know that scientists are nerdy and socially awkward. For them, it is a great improvement in social skills if they can bring themselves to stare at the other person’s shoes rather than at their own, when having a conversation. Fortunately, they prefer to stay in their labs and leave us in peace.
Artists, in contrast, are open-minded, expressive and flamboyant. They love to congregate with others in bistros or cafés, unless they are working on an artistic endeavor in some artists’ enclave. The more fortunate among them hobnob with the society’s culturally high-minded Who’s Who, and are celebrated by philanthropists. And the less fortunate ones, possibly even the starving ones, exude a romantic aura about them. How can their outputs not be very very different?
And to continue this line of thought …. artists have beautiful visions, and get elated by uplifting emotions - out of which they produce works of art using words, melodies, colors, sculptables, or some other media. These works of art are their way of sharing their vision and emotions with us. How creative!
How about scientists? Let’s take Einstein and Max Planck, two scientists who have developed theories of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, respectively. They each had a vision about how certain things in the nature work. Out of this vision, and with the help of logic, mathematics, etc., they have crafted a model - something that did not exist before, and which expresses their vision to everyone else. The simplicity and the elegance of their models that capture the complexity of nature is nothing short of beauty. There you have it – vision, imagination, creativity, beauty - all right there.
But is it artistic? Albert Einstein thought so: “New ideas are not generated by deduction, but by artistically creative imagination.” Yes, artistically creative imagination! And then there is the German chemist Friedrich August Kekulé, who had solved the mystery of benzene’s chemical structure after dreaming of Ouroboros – the snake consuming its own tail. How imaginative, how creative and how beautiful!
Ouroboros and benzene
No, that line of thought will not lead anywhere. The differences between sciences and arts cannot be measured by degrees of creativity and imaginative power. Both qualities are needed both in sciences and arts. Neither can they be differentiated by the scale of beauty created. Rather, the answer lies in the answer. This is not a typo – the answer lies indeed in the answer. Let me explain.
A fundamental difference between what scientists and artists do lies in the nature of the answer they seek. Scientists strive to find the simplest common answer, for example, to explain something that has caught their imagination. And the giants among them go even one step further and try to find an answer that transcends many phenomena – even attempting to find the one answer that explains everything.
In contrast, artists want to, and thrive from getting answers that are as different as possible from those of other artists.
Imagine a scientist enjoying a crimson red sky at sunset. At some point, his scientific mind will most likely try to figure out how and why the sky, the cloud and the sun appear so spectacular right now. He will try to find an answer that will not only explain this exact scene, but many similar scenarios at different times, locations, etc. Equally importantly, the success of his answer will be measured by how many other scientists agree with the answer.
Now imagine an artist in the same place. The artist’s response may be to capture the beauty as a painting, or may be in a photograph he takes, or by composing a poem, or in some other way. But for sure, his output – his answer, will be as personal and as different as possible from that of any other artist.
That’s where the real difference between sciences and arts lies. For sciences, the pinnacle of success is the single answer; as for arts it is the death knell.
If you are surprised to see science and simple being used in the same sentence, then remember what Einstein is supposed to have said: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”. But then, the least cited Einstein quote is “I never said half the crap that are attributed to me”.
BTW, if you ever thought that a scientist could not be as funny, as entertaining, as witty and as charming as anybody else, then you need to read this book about Dr. Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist.
READING ENGLISH WITH CHANACHUR September, 2018
Bangladesh was still East Pakistan, and I was just a 6th grader. I recall playing endlessly with neighborhood kids on the then sprawling compounds of DIT quarters in Malibagh in Dhaka. And I recall being a bookworm - reading anything that came in my hands. I had unlimited freedom within a cage. Life was good. Sadly, all good things must come to an end.
One day, my parents decided that I needed to go to Momenshahi Cadet College - a prestigious, all-boys boarding school with strict disciplines, located outside the capital city of Dhaka.
That was a surprise. At least in my family, Cadet Colleges were thought to be educational correctional facilities for the bright but unruly boys. Many years ago, my maternal grandparents had sent their youngest to Faujdarhat Cadet College near the port city of Chittagong. But as soon as my grand parents had left my uncle there, he had bribed the guards to sneak out. He found his way back home in Chittagong - never to return. That experiment was an abject failure. But he was a rebel and I was an “exceptionally good boy” - back then, and for a long stretch afterwards. So, why me? Of course, my parents knew the difference between the uncle and the nephew. What they wanted was to sacrifice my present happiness in pursuit of happiness and success in a distant and elusive future.
Cadet Colleges were selective and had rigorous entrance exams. I was not too worried though, because I was a reasonably good student. Except for one matter. Cadet Colleges taught in English, and I went to Government Laboratory High School - a Bengali medium school. Don’t get me wrong; we had English too. But what we learned was pretty basic. I remember showing up for the final English exam wondering why a colorful umbrella was dangling from a door. Later I found out that the tough part of the exam was not to call it “a” umbrella.
The entrance exams came in due course. I took them and, to my parents’ relief, I was accepted to attend the school. But contrary to all expectations, I did surprisingly well in the English test. How? By visiting my grandparents just a few days before the tests.
My maternal grandfather was the principal of Dhaka College, and the grandparents lived in the principal’s quarters within the campus. Back then it was safe to do so. (Dhaka College was one of the premier educational institutions of the country, and my grandfather was its longtime and almost legendary principal. Back then it was rare to meet a successful academician, civil servant or professional who was not his student and did not revere him. Pursuing business as a reputable career in Bangladesh came much later. I might write more about my grandfather someday).
Anyway, my grandparents’ home functioned also as the watering hole for the entire clan. On any day of the week, in any week of the month, and in any month of the year, you’d be guaranteed to find clan members there – close or distant, from Dhaka, Bhairab, Chittagong or elsewhere. We visited my grandparents frequently. My mother could meet any number of her eleven siblings and their families, and forget us children for a few hours. And we children could bond with whichever cousins happened to be there.
On that particular visit, sometime in the afternoon, one of the adults had sent a servant to buy snacks for all of us. He went out to the sprawling street food bazaar, right outside the college gates on Mirpur Road, and brought back chanachur (a snack consisting a variable mixture of spicy dried ingredients). As we ate our snack, it did not escape my eyes that the snack was packaged in book pages. Being the bookworm I was, I started reading. Those were pages from an English book that had something to do with slow lorises and sloths. Intrigued, I waited until everyone was done and collected the pages. I retreated to the empty drawing room, found a quiet corner and lay down on the floor and started reading the difficult text. I read and reread, until it made sense.
Imagine my surprise, when just a few days later, I found the same text in the English entrance exam. The task was to read it and answer multiple questions. That would have been a big challenge for me. But this time I aced it. Good for me, you say? Not if you were in my shoes.
Main building of Momenshahi Cadet College (MCC, now Mirzapur Cadet College) in 1968
As the batch of the 50 incoming 7th graders started at Momenshahi Cadet College, we were split up in two parallel sections of 25 each – one for those coming from Bengali medium schools and the other for English medium schools. There was one exception – I was put in the latter one, thanks to my high scores in English.
Things were fine on the first day, until the English period began. A lanky, stern looking Englishman walked in. He was Mr. Simpson - our English teacher. Until that day I had never interacted with a native English speaker, let alone be taught by one. As Mr. Simpson spoke, I listened. I am sure he spoke proper English, but I hardly understood him. I did understand though, that this was not going to be umbrella stuff. My instinct told me to avoid attracting undue attention. Luckily, I succeeded. At the end of the period, Mr. Simpson gave a dictation. Then he collected the papers and left. I heaved a deep sigh of relief.
The next day was different. Mr. Simpson returned with the corrected papers. He had a unique way of grading. Every paper started with a balance of 20, but one point was subtracted for each spelling mistake. You see the problem? Any risk expert will tell you that this is a classic “convex” (or frowny face) risk situation – the kind you must avoid in life. You have a limited upside but an abyss of downside. (Hint: what you want is a “concave” or a “smiley face” risk)
To this day, I promise that I had written down what I had heard Mr. Simpson dictate. But obviously that was not what he had said. I don’t remember my score, except that it was in the rarified negative territory. I am convinced that my psyche had automatically switched to survival mode and erased the number. Thus, a childhood trauma was prevented that might have derailed my pursuit of happiness and success in a yet distant and elusive future. On the other hand, there is something to Nietzsche's saying that what doesn’t kill you makes you only stronger.
Classrooms and a group of 7th graders. Pictures taken in 1968
As I pen these last few lines, it is late summer in Minnesota. I sit in our gazebo, looking out to the pond in the backyard. A mother duck swims - trailed by a train of cute little ducklings. At the other corner of the pond, perches a snow-white egret, motionlessly waiting to pounce on the next fish. We had stocked the pond with small fish two years ago and they have multiplied. The pond has always been full of tiny turtles and frogs. No wonder, so many uninvited guests stop by, including river otters. Christine has transformed the backyard to a native plant habitat, all the way to the pond. Does find this place inviting and come with their fawns – sometimes leaving them alone for hours under the willow tree right at the edge of the pond.
My mind wonders and thinks of winter, which is only a few months away. Minnesota winters are hard. The pond will freeze over and will be covered with fluffy white snow. I like winter and I’ll look forward to it. And in the morning, there will be tracks on the fresh snow going across the frozen pond – some familiar, some not. I’ll wonder, who might have came along last night?
I wake up from my present-day dream. It has been a long and interesting journey. Where and how did it all start? One hunch is as good as any other. I close my eyes and dream again, longing to relive that distant afternoon. I see the 6th grader me, lying belly down on the floor of my grandparents’ drawing room – reading English after having eaten chanachur.