Lessons of Hope from

Life is beautiful, extremely beautiful. And when you are old you appreciate it more. When you are older you think, you remember, you care and you appreciate. You are thankful for everything. For everything.”

My temperament. This optimism and this discipline. Punctually, at 10 a.m., I am sitting there at the piano, with everything in order around me. For 30 years, I have eaten the same — fish or chicken. Good soup, and this is all. I don’t drink — not tea, not coffee, not alcohol. Hot water. I walk a lot with terrible pains, but after 20 minutes it is much better. Sitting or lying is not good.

That was Alice Herz-Sommer, the world’s oldest-known Holocaust survivor, in a 2006 interview with the Guardian. died in London this past Sunday at the age of 110. Most people her age (or even younger) would hardly be as sprightly and enthusiastic, yet despite both her years and her tremendous personal tragedy, she remained this way to the end. As NPR noted:

Bear in mind: In 1943, Herz-Sommer and her husband, Leopold Sommer, and their son, Raphael, were sent from Prague to a Nazi camp for Jews in the Czech city of Terezin. According to The Guardian, “she never saw her husband again after he was moved to Auschwitz in 1944 and many in her extended family and most of the friends she had grown up with were also lost in the Holocaust.”

According to the BBC, Herz-Sommer and her son “were among fewer than 20,000 people who were freed when Terezin was liberated by the Soviet army in May 1945. An estimated 140,000 Jews were sent there and 33,430 died there. About 88,000 were transported on to Auschwitz and other death camps, where most were killed.”

Even amid the unspeakable misery and despair of a concentration camp, she did everything in her power to keep hope alive. As shown in the Oscar-nominated documentaryThe Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life, Herz-Sommer, then already a pianist, joined others to perform music in order to lift the spirits of prisoners.

On the film’s website, Herz-Sommer was quoted about the role music played in her life:

She speaks with great pride and passion of playing more than 100 concerts inside the concentration camp and she likens that experience, both for the performers and their imprisoned audience as being close to the divine. Alice is unequivocal in stating that music preserved her sanity and her life — while bringing hope into the lives of countless others. To this day Alice never tires of saying ‘music saved my life and music saves me still.’ ”

The film’s creators added an even more remarkable observation:

Despite all that has befallen her, Alice insists that she has never, ever hated the Nazis, and she never will. Some see in her tolerance and compassion a secular saint who has been blessed with the gift of forgiveness, but Alice is far more pragmatic — she has seen enough in her life to know all too well that hatred eats the soul of the hater, not the hated.

I’m at a loss on how someone can be so liberated of hate and despair despite so much tragedy (indeed, her son had died abruptly in 2001, but years later she remained no less positive about life). Even as she approached the end of her 110-year-long life, she remained a passionate and accomplished musician — in fact, she was also the oldest pianist. Here is a brief but touching video of how she was still touching lives even at a 109.

The Amazing Hero Rat

A “hero rat” being trained to detect landmines by a member of APOPO, a Belgian NGO with its operational headquarters in Tanzania. Numerous landmines remain live and undetected in dozens of countries, reportedly claiming several lives daily (generally children). Mine detection remains costly and difficult, but rats remain surprisingly ideal for the task.

For starters, they are hardy, adaptable, and found all over the world. They are also cheap to acquire and easy to breed and care for. Most importantly, however, rats are intelligent, sociable, and quick learners. With one of the most sensitive olfactory systems of any mammal, they are capable of detecting trace amounts of TNT and mine casing. After around nine months of training involving clickers and rewards, the rates prove incredible efficient: in a mere 20 minutes, they cover around 100 square meters — over 1,000 square feet — which would take an entire day for conventional detectors.

Thankfully, the rats are too lightweight to set off the mines, and none have reportedly died thus far. They’ve cleared thousands of mines in such hotbeds as Thailand, Mozambique, and Tanzania itself, with programs being primed in Angola (with Norwegian assistance) and Cambodia.

As if all this weren’t amazing enough, the aptly named hero rats are also trained to detect tuberculosis, which infects millions of people worldwide, mostly in poor countries lacking healthcare facilities. They can determine who is infected by this chronic disease in just ten minutes; it would take a medical lab at least one day.

Learn more by checking out the official website. It’s remarkable what human innovation can develop, especially in combination with the amazing natural ability of animals.

The Inshango Bone

The first known ostensible mathematical tool in history is the Ishango bone, discovered in 1960 in what is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and believed to be more than 20,000 years old. It is the fibula of a baboon bearing a distinct series of notches and a sharp piece of quartz affixed to one end.

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Scientists differ on what its precise purpose was, with suggestions including that it’s a tally stick, lunar calendar, a measurement of the menstrual cycle, or even the record of a previously unknown numeral system, which predates the earliest known examples by several thousand years. Some believe the scratches might simply have been created to provide a better grip on the handle for some other non-mathematical reason, such as engraving.

Read more about it here.

Girl Regains Hearing in Both Ears

A few months ago, I shared a heart-warming video about a young deaf woman who was overcome with emotion as she heard herself for the first time. I also reflected on the miracles of both scientific innovation, and the simple things we take for granted, such as having our full senses.

A friend has informed me that the woman, 29-year-old Sarah Churman, has now had the implants activated in both ears, allowing her to hear in stereo sound. You can learn more details about this on her blogbut below is the video.

It’s always great to see how science can improve the condition of our species, one individual at a time. I wish stories like this could encourage more public investment in scientific research. I hope to see the day when conditions and disabilities like these are overcome, when these sorts of solutions like implants are widely-available so as to be unexceptional.