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 End to Malaria

Malaria has been a scourge of humanity for thousands of years, and as recently as a century ago, was a problem in almost every country. The GIF below shows how far we have come towards completely eradicating this debilitating disease:

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Courtesy of Global Health Sciences, University of California, San Francisco

As recently as the 1950s, developed countries like the U.S. and the U.K. were still dealing with malaria infections; by the 1970s, most wealthy countries had completely wiped it out. Today, over a hundred nations across both the developed and developing world are free of malaria, with nearly thirty others in the process eliminating it. 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

Ten Great Things That Happened in 2016

It pretty much goes without saying that 2016 has been a rough year for a lot of people and for a multitude reasons, none of which need to be rehashed here. Suffice it to say, I am all the more grateful to have had a largely great year, due in no small part to the support and companionship of loved ones and the good fortune of my life circumstances.

And contrary to popular belief, there was more to 2016 than celebrity deaths and political decay. As Swedish writer and historian Johan Norberg reminds us, the past year has seen plenty of amazing progress in areas as wide ranging as conservation, public healthy, and conflict resolution. Here are just ten examples: Continue reading

The World As 100 People

To better grasp just how much human conditions have improved only over the past two hundred years, consider the following summation, which imagines humanity as just a hundred people.

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Imagine if you were surrounded by abject poverty and misery, but only years later find most people lifted out of deprivation and living comfortable lives; imagine nearly half of all the kids around you dying before their fifth birthday, but over the span of just a couple of years, such tragedies are virtually unheard of.

When you consider that these conditions were the norm for most of our 200,000 year history, and that only in the last two centuries — a relatively small blip in the timescale — have they reversed so rapidly, it is astounding how so many of us fail to realize how incredibly far our species has come.

Learn more about human progress from the source of this infographic.

An Effective Ebola Vaccine Has Been Developed

Following a horrific epidemic in West Africa that claimed the lives of over 11,000 people — the deadliest the world had ever seen — we finally have a breakthrough vaccine against Ebola. As Vox.com reported:

Today, the same researchers — who hail from the World Health Organization, Guinea’s Ministry of Health, Public Health England, and other international partners — have unveiled their final results in the Lancet, and they’re just as remarkable. The vaccine was tested in a trial involving nearly 12,000 people in Guinea and Sierra Leone during 2015 and 2016. Among the 5,837 people who got the vaccine, no Ebola cases were recorded. By comparison, there were 23 Ebola cases in the control group that had not gotten the vaccine.

“This trial, confirming the 100 percent efficacy of the rVSV Ebola vaccine, is a simply remarkable outcome”, Dr. Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust, said of the research. “We’ve shown that by working collaboratively, across international borders and sectors, we can develop and test vaccines rapidly and use them to help bring epidemics to an end”.

You can read the published study here. It was one of fifteen clinical trials for an Ebola vaccine conducted around the world in a single year, and is a vindication of what collective action and responsibility by the international community — including the U.N., NGOs, and national governments — can accomplish. It is a shame it took so many deaths spanning a nearly three year period to finally come up with a promising form of prevention, although the vaccine is far from ready to hit the market.  Continue reading

The Rapid and Massive Decline of Global Poverty

While too many people still struggle with deprivation and abject poverty worldwide, it is crucial to acknowledge just how far humanity has come in this regard. Over  at OurWorldInData.org, Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser have put together an extensive, data-rich report on world poverty, and the results are outstanding to behold: in less than 200 years, our species has halved the rate of overall poverty while reducing the most extreme forms of it to a fourth of what it once was.

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Poverty has declined not only proportionally, but in absolute numbers: in 1820, the world’s population was just under 1.1 billion, of which more than 1 billion lived in extreme poverty — defined by the World Bank as living on less than $1.90 a day.

As of 2015, there were more than 7.3 billion people on Earth, of which 705 million live in extreme poverty. In other words, despite a seven-fold growth in population, there are fewer poor people now than two centuries ago, when the world was much smaller.world-population-in-extreme-poverty-absolute

The rate of decline in poverty began to accelerate as we approached the 21st century. From 1990 onward, the number of people living in extreme poverty declined by 47 million annually — or 130,000 a day. It is sobering to imagine that as of my writing of this post, tens of thousands of people have climbed out of poverty since the previous morning. (I know it is not evenly distributed day to day, but you get the idea.)

share-in-extreme-poverty-by-world-region

Granted, progress in poverty reduction remains highly uneven: while Asia is no longer home to the most abjectly poor people, Africa has taken its place with the largest number and percentage of people in extreme poverty, at 383 million (although this is far fewer than the over 1.4 billion people living in extreme poverty in Asia and the Pacific in 1990). And the Asia-Pacific region is still close behind with 327 million people struggling with dire poverty.

Here’s the breakdown along national lines:

tree-map-of-extreme-poverty-distribution-750x525

Nevertheless, most of the countries still struggling with high rates of poverty have still seen some progress over the years, even if it has been slow and at times sporadic. The gains may be tenuous, but they’re still there, and there are more than enough encouraging examples of previously poor nations making incredible strides over the last several decades (South Korea, Singapore, Ghana, etc.).

Indeed, if we assume that the current rate of poverty decline continues, the number of extremely poor people will decline by more than half by 2030.

 

What a time to be alive, no?

If you’re interested in learning more about the above data, including methodology, data quality, and the definition of terms, click here.

Heartwarming Moments and Stories from the Rio Olympics

The 2016 Olympics in Rio came and went with the usual bevy of political and social troubles — though in fairness, the games have been tainted with controversy and poor sportsmanship since their inception in ancient times. Brazil, like most Olympic hosts, will no doubt continue to endure the economic and political repercussions, and such problems should not be discounted.

But for all those issues, I think it is worth looking at the bad with the good, and thankfully this year’s Olympics had plenty of touching milestones worth appreciating. Consider the following: Continue reading