Progress Across Boundaries

It is telling that all the Nobel Prizes this year — as in recent years — have thus far been awarded to multiple laureates, often of different nationalities and/or for research done in a country different from their birthplace. Like so much else nowadays, science is becoming an increasingly globalized endeavor, conducted across an international network of institutes, universities, labs, and other academic and scientific organizations.

Of course, this is nothing new: almost every human achievement, regardless of time or place, can trace its origins to gradual, supplementary, or parallel developments elsewhere. Mathematical principles, political concepts, artistic expressions — all of the contributors to these and other fields built (and continue to build) upon the work of predecessors or contemporaries, adding to or refining the growing pool of ideas along the way. Thanks to advances in technology, expanding access to education of all levels (especially in the developing world), and a growing sense of global consciousness, this historical development is accelerating.

Knowledge and talent know no boundaries, whether political, linguistic, or ethnic, and the more we facilitate the exchange of ideas and the collaboration, the closer we will come to greater human progress. This is not easy, due to both practical and cultural challenges, but neither is it utopian; there is thousands of years worth of cross-cultural progress persisting to this very day proving it can be done, and the world has a lot to show for it. Given how much more needs to be done — socially, scientifically, ideologically, etc. — we have all the more reasons to keep it up.

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The Little-Known Russian Soldier Who Saved the World

stanislaw-jewgrafowitsch-petrow-2016Despite helping the world avert a nuclear holocaust over forty years ago, Stanislav Petrov is still little known even in his native Russia, let alone in the United States, which he saved from mistaken nuclear retaliation.

In fact, he died this past May at age 77 in his home near Moscow with little fanfare or media attention; only through the efforts of an intrepid German activist, who sought to contact him this month to wish him a happy birthday, did this fact make it to major media outlets.

USA Today recounts the fateful night that the fate of the world rested on the shoulders of a Soviet lieutenant colonel:

Stanislav Petrov was the duty officer monitoring an early warning system from a bunker outside Moscow on Sept. 26, 1983, when the radar screen suddenly appeared to depict a missile inbound from the United States.

“All my subordinates were confused, so I started shouting orders at them to avoid panic,” Petrov told the Russian news agency RT in 2010. “I knew my decision would have a lot of consequences.”

The alert siren wailed. A message on the bunker’s main screen reported that four more missiles had been launched, he said. Petrov had 15 minutes to determine whether the threat was real and report to his commanders.

“My cozy armchair felt like a red-hot frying pan and my legs went limp,” he told RT. “I felt like I couldn’t even stand up. That’s how nervous I was.”

Even on a good day in U.S.-Soviet relations, such an incident would have been believable. But to top it off, this was a period of increased tensions, as less than a month before, the Russians had shot down a Korean civilian airline that had accidentally drifted into Soviet airspace, killing all 269 passengers, including a U.S. congressman. Both sides had subsequently exchanged warnings and threats, so what Petrov and his troops saw on the radar was perfectly believable.

It would also need to be addressed quickly, as the presumed missiles would strike the country in just twenty minutes. NPR recounts how Petrov somehow managed to keep a cool head and get a handle on the situation:

“There was no rule about how long we were allowed to think before we reported a strike,” Petrov told the BBC. “But we knew that every second of procrastination took away valuable time, that the Soviet Union’s military and political leadership needed to be informed without delay. All I had to do was to reach for the phone; to raise the direct line to our top commanders — but I couldn’t move. I felt like I was sitting on a hot frying pan.”

Petrov sensed something wasn’t adding up.

He had been trained to expect an all-out nuclear assault from the U.S., so it seemed strange that the satellite system was detecting only a few missiles being launched. And the system itself was fairly new. He didn’t completely trust it.

After several nerve-jangling minutes, Petrov didn’t send the computer warning to his superiors. He checked to see if there had been a computer malfunction.

He had guessed correctly.

“Twenty-three minutes later I realized that nothing had happened,” he said in 2013. “If there had been a real strike, then I would already know about it. It was such a relief.”

Imagine being tasked with defending your country and having only a split second to make the call. Strategically, he would have been within his right to alert his superiors so they could retaliate accordingly, as per both Soviet and U.S. protocols. Instead, he relied on his cool reasoning and training to make the right call, despite the obvious risks.

It was later revealed that the false positive was due to Russian satellites mistaking sunlight reflecting off of clouds for nuclear missiles; the simplicity of such an error makes one wonder how more such near-misses haven’t happened — provided they do not remained classified or went unreported.

Indeed, the incident remained under wraps for fifteen years, until a Russian official mentioned the incident well after the fall of the USSR, and a German magazine picked up the story, making Petrov a minor celebrity.

In all the time before the story emerged, Petrov’s heroism was officially neither rewarded nor even acknowledged; in fact, he was formally reprimanded for “failing to provide property paperwork”, which was no doubt due to his superior’s embarrassment of such a potentially catastrophic error.

In 2013, Petrov was awarded the Dresden International Peace Prize, and 2014 saw the release of The Man Who Saved the World, a Danish documentary about the incident. Otherwise, Petrov remained little known until his belatedly-reported death attracted some attention from Western and Russian media — a seemingly surprising fate for a man who saved the world, but perhaps an indication of how much we take nuclear security for granted, given how many other potentially-disastrous incidents, errors, and accidents have occurred or been narrowly averted (and those are just the ones we know about).

While it is sad that a man who saved the world should die largely-forgotten, perhaps it is a fitting death for someone as evidently humble and magnanimous as Petrov was. He once told RT in 2010:

At first when people started telling me that these TV reports had started calling me a hero, I was surprised. I never thought of myself as one. After all, I was literally just doing my job.

Something tells me he was more than happy to have simply saved the world and live into old age, with or without any credit or fanfare. It is a good thing there was someone like Petrov around that night, and hopefully there are more people like him in these delicate and potentially earth-shattering positions.

(As it happens, Stanislav Petrov is not the only Russian soldier to have helped the world avert nuclear disaster during a tense time — look up the story of Vasili Arkhipov, another soft-spoken and humble officer who made the correct call not to launch a nuclear strike that could very well have initiated all-out war.)

The Woman Who Fell From the Sky and Survived

Vesna Vulovic was a Serbian flight attendant who holds the Guiness World Record for surviving the highest fall without a parachute: 33,330 feet (10,160 meters). Her fall occurred in 1972 after an explosion brought down a Yugoslav airliner, killing everyone else on board.

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Although she broke multiple bones (including a totally crushed vertebra), sustained severe brain damage, and was in a coma for ten days, she suffered only partial and temporary paralysis, and made an almost full recovery within a year (she continued to walk with a limp for the rest of her life, owing to the spinal damage). Vulovic attributed her recovery to her “Serbian stubbornness” and “a childhood diet that included chocolate, spinach, and fish oil”. Continue reading

The James Bond of Philanthropy

If you were a billionaire, how much of your wealth would you give away to charity? No doubt most people would donate something, albeit only a fraction of their total wealth. But what about giving nearly every penny you had — and doing so without any credit for your generosity?

As the New York Times reported, 85-year-old Irish American businessman Charles F. Feeney just finished giving away the last of his fortune, after promising five years ago that he would do so by the end of 2016, a commitment few would make let alone follow through on. Continue reading

Canada Shows Moral Leadership In How To Handle Refugees

Count on the Great White North to be an exemplary member of the international community. While by no means just and progressive in all matters — what state or society yet is? — Canada has long been a shinning example of how to create and manage a free, democratic, and pluralistic nation.

Case in point: amid the ugliness and rancor surrounding the accommodation of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa, the Canadians have gone above and beyond protocol to welcome and accommodate the first of thousands of new arrivals. The front cover of its largest daily says it all.

Welcome to Canada

As Foreign Policy reports, Canada pulled out all the stops to be hospitable. Continue reading

My Serendipitous Garden

I decided at the last minute to pop into Home Depot to get some plants for the garden. It just so happens the distributor had just arrived with a fresh batch, which the delivery men were kind enough to assist me with. We struck up a nice conversation and I left with gratitude to their thoughtfulness and my lucky timing.

As if that were not enough, as I was on the way out, one of the guys calls me back and starts giving me all these plants that they were going to take back for composting (since they were on the shelf so long, despite being otherwise health). Needless to say, I was left touched and grateful.

Now I have an even bigger and more fun project to look forward to. Most importantly, this casual display of kindness really put me in a good mood

Turkish Couple Spends Wedding Feeding Refugees

Speaking of moral exemplars (in reference to my previous post), CBC has reported that a newly couple in Turkey has used their wedding banquet, and all the money given to them for the occasion, to personally feed over 4,000 Syrian refugees. The groom’s father pitched the idea, which the couple and their guests more than happy to make it happen.

You can see a video in the hyperlink above, or catch some of it from Al Jazeera’s video below.

What a way to kick of a loving union.

The Woman Who Curbed An Ebola Outbreak In Africa’s Largest Country

Nigeria had never had a case of Ebola before, so when Dr. Adadevoh, a UK-trained consultant endocrinologist, ordered he be tested for the disease and placed in quarantine, she had to stand firm against those who disagreed.

— The Independenton Dr. Ameyo Stella Adadevoh and her quick identification of Nigeria’s patient zero.

Although it sadly ravaged three nations in West Africa, Ebola’s impact in neighboring countries like Senegal and Nigeria had been successfully minimized. As the largest country in Africa and the seventh largest in the world, Nigeria would have likely suffered even more horrific losses.

It is also worth pointing out that the number of new cases in infected countries were just one percent of what was estimated. So even though it did a lot of damage to afflicted nations, the Ebola outbreak could have been much worse — all the more remarkable considering the shortfall in funding.

The hundreds of unsung health workers who willingly put themselves on the frontlines, and in many cases lost their lives in the process, deserve an incredible amount of praise and recognition.

A Worthy Lesson to Start Each Day With

While cleaning up my room, I stumbled upon this beautiful scroll; I think I had purchased it years ago from some Tibetan Buddhists that had visited my university. It seems like a great way to prime every day, regardless of one’s religious beliefs or lack thereof, since it is an easy lesson to forget. I should hang it somewhere more visible.

A Portrait of Ebola Survivors

Amid all the fear, panic, and misinformation regarding the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, it is easy to overlook the human element, especially insofar as the main victims have been abjectly poor and marginalized (from well before the disease emerged).

But thankfully one Pulitzer Price-winning photographer, James Moore, is determined to tell the stories of those who have endured one of the most horrific and deadly diseases. His highlights from a trip to Liberia, one of the epicenters of the outbreak, are featured at National Geographic here.

As you would imagine, each story is powerful and nuanced, combining the obvious joy of survival (and subsequent immunity to the disease) with lingering sorrow and uncertainty. They highlight the sheer randomness and cruelty of life, in the way some survived when others died despite not discernible difference in circumstance or changes between them. The following story I have excerpted especially stood out for me:

Like several other Ebola survivors, Lassana Jabeteh, 36, now works in the high-risk ward at the Doctors Without Borders Ebola Treatment Center in Paynesville. Jabeteh used to be a taxi driver; he thinks he caught Ebola while transporting a sick policeman who vomited in his car. Like many people who contract the virus, he was trying to help someone else with the disease, which Moore calls “one of the many cruelties of Ebola.”

Thankfully, Liberia at least seems to be recovering, although its equally impoverished and unfortunate neighbor Sierra Leone seems to be getting worse. It is remarkable what tremendous suffering these people (and so many more around the world) senseless endure. I am glad to be seeing a glimmer of hope in some of these resilient stories.