What is Inspiration?

4 April 2009

Notes on an Unassuming Man

Fire walk with me, by by chaosinjune, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution 2.0 Generic)I have often wondered what it means to be inspired, pondered the mechanisms by which a state of subdued awe can be generated, and in turn generate action in me. Inspiration seems to be ethereal, the purely subjective identification of a best case scenario according to which we might live, or at least aspire to live. The word actually comes from the Latin inspirare, to breathe in, and in that time-worn connection we should be able to grasp its significance. Something or someone who inspires us makes us breathe in new ways of understanding, or at least ways of understanding the common place anew.

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of interviewing a man who did just that for me, a professor at one of Hong Kong’s universities. He’s a chemist, which might not sound inspiring in itself, but it is when seen in its proper context. As a child he wanted to be a doctor, to help and to heal, but it soon became obvious that the blood and associated gore doctors have to deal with would make him squeamish, to say the least. So, in his youthful enthusiasm, he decided to become a chemist, to research the means by which diseases might be cured.

That might sound like all too much idealism but the professor is in his 50s now, still searching, still working on molecules that might yet attack and kill cancer cells. Like all good scientists he doesn’t have a timetable for achievement, just a desire to search, try and fail, and then try again. Despite decreases in funding each year over the last 12 he continues because he has never forgotten that he set out to make a difference.

And recently he made a breakthrough in another disease. His university wants him to patent his efforts, to show that the institution is leading the advancement of knowledge no doubt, but he has quietly deflected the requests. When I asked him why he said it was simply because research wouldn’t progress if anyone had to pay him royalties before a form of medicine could be developed from his work. As always, his object was to help, to play a role in healing one day, somehow. As I left his office I realised what really inspired me the most – selflessness.

Cosmic Flight School, by nflorence2012, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic)It’s somewhat ironic that the most inspiring people sometimes have to remain anonymous, cloaked because they need to dance a delicate little jig in doing what it is they do that inspires others. Inspiration is about the shifting of perceptions, the act of influence by deed and not necessarily by name. But, of course, I know who the professor is and each time I read his name I’ll be cheering him on. It’s kind of personal now – having spoken to him, my life has changed.


Infinity and Before!

15 November 2008

The Profound Possibilities of Impersonal Beauty

Thank you my friend, by Janusz I, with Creative Commons licenceBeauty, we so often say, is in the eye of the beholder. It’s personal, a matter of perception. But what of those things we can’t exactly perceive? Consider first the limits of personal beauty.  The old Shakespearian saw still holds true in our thinking: “that which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet”. We tend, far too often, to limit our conceptions of beauty to the finite and knowable. If we can imagine its essence, name it in one way or another, limit it and presume that we can know it, then an object can be beautiful to the highest degree, or awesome when we are less inclined to emphasise adoration over other, less comforting, impressions. And we are so very often inclined to extend these limits to the inspiring infinite.

If we believe in the Christian God, who should be a vast and mysterious presence that transcends our infinitesimally bounded experience, we point out his characteristics. Compassion, vengeance, love, even omnipresence – all these rubrics define as purposefully as they limit. And things unusual, notions grand beyond our reckoning, become little more than tawdry, usual, restrained.

This unfortunate turn of perceptions often applies to our understanding of what other people have made possible, even when we don’t really understand their logic and would struggle to follow their words. I’ve been reading a great deal about Albert Einstein lately, largely to understand the background of a little-mentioned episode in his life. I’ll discuss more of that in a post soon, but for the moment I want to consider reactions to what he achieved.

For most of us Einstein is the quintessential genius, an emblem of the possibilities explored during the Twentieth Century that we’ve dragged lovingly into the Twenty-First. Amongst other things he gave us the equation E = MC2, using different notation but still meaning that an object’s energy is equal to its mass multiplied by the speed of light squared. This boils down to the observation that a small mass can hold nearly unlimited energy.

Welcome to the nuclear age.

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Lost in Space

17 April 2008

A Confusion of Concepts in Commentary on the Outer Space Treaty

Floating in outer space, by Laura Mary, with Creative Commons licenceOuter space is a huge concept. Its sheer scope eludes our Earth-bound brains, hinting at innumerable unknowns speckled across enormous distance. It is, in a sense, our one great uncertainty, surpassing metaphysical questions with an unfathomable physical presence. That’s why we have the Outer Space Treaty, signed under United Nations auspices in 1967 at the height of Cold War tensions.

The treaty offers a guide to how we can think about outer space and its possibilities, at least from an international relations perspective. But recent commentary on the treaty has become rather slippery, stumbling over notions that are marginally relevant to the final frontier.

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Being Led Astray

6 April 2008

On e-Books and Eugenics

Shock, by Meredith_Farmer, with Creative Commons licence The Internet is a bit like the sea here in the Pearl River Delta: sometimes it washes up curios, little gems of information, but at others it vomits grotesquries upon us. Clicking through the Clustr map in the sidebar on the right today to check visitor locations I noticed an advertisement for a free online book. Having spent time this week watching someone grow increasingly frustrated with actually trying to use Google Adwords, and given my previously mentioned interest in e-books and copyright-free sharing, I decided to take a look.

The link led to the dedicated website for a pamphlet by a retired professor of Russian literature, John Glad. Not entirely interesting you might think. A quick search of Amazon will produce a list of volumes edited and translated by the good professor. He apparently gained a little notoriety in the 1980s by predicting the collapse of the Soviet Union. But his is hardly a household name. Wikipedia has a posted a notice on his biography stating that it “may not meet the general notability guideline” for such entries.

figurines, creator unknown, dowloaded from whatwemaybe.orgSo what’s the fuss? Glad’s pamphlet is entitled “Future Human Evolution: Eugenics in the Twenty-First Century” and the site’s only graphic is a play on the famous monkey to man illustration that often accompanies latter day editions of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species. Except this is of what appears to be South Americans in a line, the last sitting on a Donkey. Mexicans waiting in a US immigration queue?

Maybe not, but it’s suggestive and pulled me away from what I was already writing about. Eugenics, put mildly, is the selective breeding of humans. Like cattle. The elimination of the weakest genetic strains, to be a little more precise. It might be possible to do that humanely, but who decides? And what ethical right does anyone have to make the choice? Eugenics reached its ‘scientific’ zenith during the First World War and its horrific climax with the Nazis in the Second World War.

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Thinking About God . . . Or Not

12 February 2008

Mary Midgley Misses the Point

In a recent issue of Philosophy Now, Mary Midgley, the venerable English moral philosopher well known for her attacks on creationists and evolutionists alike, let loose with ‘A Plague on Both their Houses’. Her argument, though profoundly flawed, is worth considering as a classic fallacy of moderation.

Da Vinci’s Creation of Adam

Is that a genome I see before me?

It’s often tempting to think that opposing extremes are best met with something comfortably in-between. Most commonly, the black and white of change and stability are moderated by gradual progress in a world made grey. But there is nothing intrinsically logical about this sort of balance – it’s an ideology, and it makes philosophy as a guide to the world a little mundane.

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