Sunday, November 2, 2008

Faith & Science

Once in a while in the fall, the Holy See convenes a scientific meeting at the Vatican. Reuters filed a report on this year's event on Oct. 31. The current theme is "Scientific Insights into the Evolution of the Universe and of Life." The Holy See seeks to showcase eminent scientists and Nobel Prize-laureates who pursue research deemed of particular importance to the Church. Last Friday, Oct. 31, the physicist Stephen Hawking, author of "A Brief History of Time From The Big Bang To Black Holes", spoke about his insights into the evolution of the universe. Though, the head of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences at the Vatican presides over these conventions, the Holy Father himself usually addresses the assembled and gives his blessing. No doubt, the Catholic Church takes science seriously.

I attended this meeting twenty years ago. I am not Catholic. I went regardless. The theme was "Longevity and Quality of Life." Advances in the understanding of nerve cell repair after brain injury were presented. I am interested in brain plasticity. John Paul II was pope. A pharmaceutical firm named Fidia from Abano Terme, a beautiful spa in Italy, co-sponsored the convention. Fidia-supported research had provided evidence that gangliosides were involved in nerve cell repair after spinal cord injury and the company would apply for a U.S. patent for gangliosides as therapeutics in coming years. The hope at the Vatican meeting was that research on the role of gangliosides might eventually yield potential remedies for neuro-degenerative diseases. Sadly, not much has come of this hope. Fidia's fortune evaporated in a political scandal involving the bribery of high-ranking Italian government officials.

Little did we know how important this type of research would become to John Paul II personally. He passed away three years ago after a long struggle with Parkinson's Disease. Perhaps he knew at the time. Close up, this pope was strikingly warm and personable. He seemed to care about people. I was deeply moved by the reverence he was paid. I saw him with mixed emotions. I shared a number of his passions, not the least his love of skiing and hiking in the alps, particularly in the Mont Blanc massif near Courmayeur high up at the source of the Aosta. There you may visit the Val Veny, the Punta Bronner, the Val de la Fenetre, the Mont Dolon. The views are spectacular. He traveled there on one of his last trips, sat on the deck of his favorite spot, and watched these magnificent mountains for hours on end. When I saw the pictures of him reposing in a chair, studying the panorama in solemnity and silence, I immediately understood. He had a passion for life. However, many consequences he drew from this passion I could not agree with.

Before I left for this trip, a colleague and friend told me that a pendant of the Virgin Mary worn during the papal blessing would protect you from harm for the rest of your life. I bought a pendant in one of the numerous religious nick-knack shops on the ascend to St. Peter Square and took it to the blessing. Two days later I returned home, carrying with me a blessed pendant for my friend and the insight that the Holy See strives for and cares deeply about an understanding of science as a method of enlightenment.


  • As Philip Pullella reports in his post on Reuters dated Jul. 2, 2009, the Holy See embraces scientific discovery, only on its own pace (07/02/09).
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Election Day Dreams

I published this post on my blog on The Tennessean on June 30 in anticipation of the Presidential Belmont Debate between John McCain and Barack Obama that was held in Nashville on Oct. 22. From a kind responder I learned afterwards that the debate at Belmont University was going to be the second to last before Election Day. However, this fact did not diminish the importance of the event. In my post re-published below I list problems that I believe affect people locally as much as across the nation and must be urgently addressed by the new administration and the new congress.

I did not foresee the crash of the economy that dominates the debate between the candidates now. Leaving the securities market unregulated, only to be confronted with the fact that the banking industry has to be nationalized to save the country's economy, may turn out to be the current administration's greatest failure and will touch the lives of all Americans deeply. It is high time for change! Vote!

In yesterday's Issue Section of the Tennessean, Mark Silverman informs us about the planned debate between the presidential candidates at Belmont University this Fall. It will be the last time that the candidates discuss their ideas before the election. The debate may take the character of a town meeting. Nashville could be the ideal sounding board for the candidates. Nashville's problems are the nation's problems. Nashvillians should embrace this event as an opportunity to make their expectations heard. Mine are summed up in the five points below.

Good Governance
I expect from the government to step in when the challenges are greater than the individual can possibly meet. In the recent past, two great catastrophes befell this country. One was man-made (Sep. 11). The other one was natural (Hurricane Katrina). In both instances many Americans were left wondering whether the government's response was adequate. The perpetrators of the first catastrophe are still at large. The levies protecting New Orleans were rebuilt to about the strength they had before. Only half of the city's populace has been able to return.
Meanwhile, the infrastructure in the country is crumbling. In Tennessee, severe structural problems were detected in several large hydroelectric dams. A dam on the Cumberland River upstream from Nashville was in such peril that the Corps of Engineers was forced to drastically lower the water level, leaving recreational businesses on the dry. Every year now, waves of food and medicine contamination plague the country. Just two weeks ago, we could not buy tomatoes. Quality checks seem overwhelmed wherever we look. Not enough money seems available. The nation's debt is roughly ten-times its annual budget. If my family owed that much money on our house, our children would still have to pay the mortgage.
On the other hand, the nation is spending more on defense than all other nations of the world combined. The ongoing wars swallow more than 100 billion dollars each year at an extraneous human cost. Must Americans afford these expenses in the face of the existential challenges at home? How do the candidates intend to improve good governance?

Public secondary education performs poorly. Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools provide examples of excellence and failure. Sorting out the problems in Nashville schools may produce solutions exemplary for the country at large. The aim of the effort should be that Nashvillians go to college. Ever higher levels of education are needed to prepare Americans for the jobs that are competitive in the global market. High-technology jobs that are unbound by location must be of particular interest in a rural, lightly-populated state like Tennessee. However, the costs of college education have risen to unbearable levels for many. These costs need to be lowered in order to give talented students the opportunity to use their abilities to the fullest. How are the candidates planning to help citizens in this respect?

Exorbitant fuel prices unprecedented in the history of this country will change the way Americans live. Too little has been done in anticipation and change will come at tremendous personal cost. Soon, we may not be able to afford the use of automobiles and airplanes to the extent we enjoy today. Let us envision an uplifting alternative that could lessen the role of internal combustion engines in our lives.
Twenty years ago, I rode my first high speed train. If it had not been for the speedometer in the coach, I could not have believed that I was traveling at more than 200 miles per hour. These speeds changed people's lives enormously. When I was a young, a trip to Berlin or Munich from my home by car could easily take eight hours one way. Today, my friends travel on ICE trains to these cities for business meetings in the morning and return in the evening of the very same day.
Imagine Nashville had such rail service! We could take a day trip to Washington, D.C., Chicago, Indianapolis, Cincinnati or St. Louis. Memphis, Birmingham and Atlanta would seem next door and Florida a stone throw away. There would be no cancellations and hardly any delays. In Germany, riders get nervous on the platform, when the train is two minutes late. We would step off the train and find ourselves city center with all our stuff. Would not that be great?
Nashville used to have adequate train service and public transportation. The L & N connected the city to the national grid. Trams ran from downtown along 21st and West End Avenues. The neighborhood I live in still shows signs of this past. Passages across blocks provide short cuts to the tram lines long closed. This heritage needs improved revival here in Nashville and in the nation. Nashville could lead the way for any mid-sized city in the country. America prides itself to be the wealthiest nation of the world. Where is my train?

The United States has made over its diverse face yet once more. With the reform of the Immigration Act of 1965, the nation opened mainly to peoples South of the border and from South and Southeast Asia. Today, every tenth resident in the U.S. is foreign born. With the new arrivals, new ways of life introduced themselves to this country raising questions about the identity of Americans. The debate is contentious. The opponents have hardened their views. A few years ago the issue was known as illegal immigration. Today it is just immigration. Some Americans perceive immigration as a threat to this country. In a nation of immigrants, such view must stir controversy.
In this debate it is important to note that applying for permanent residence is no more an administrative act than applying for a driver's license. The application for a green card should actually be easier. Residence does not require good vision and driving skill. Instead, the Immigration Service charges about $40.- just for the application forms. Application fees can reach $1000.-. The Immigration Office nearest to Nashville is a four-hour drive away in Memphis. On my visit, I had to join the line before 7:00 a.m. to have a chance at getting things done that day. When I arrived about 6:45, the line was already snaking around the building. Some smart people had camped out near the entrance. There were no instructions about which line you had to get in until you saw the counter. Chaos ruled. A lawyer may help avoid this torment and provide a smooth ride through the application process. However, a successful application for permanent residence brokered by a lawyer can cost $10,000.- and more. No citizen born in this country would subject to that kind of treatment. Nashvillians should be sensitive to these issues. Every other house in my neighborhood is painted by recent immigrants.
A first small step forward would be to open an Immigration Office right here in the state's capital. The larger step must be to find a consensus, whether Americans want to remain the open, free-spirited nation of the founder fathers or whether Americans actually want to aspire the narrower definitions of identity and belonging that most other nations embrace. What is this new identity supposed to look like? Local measures will not address this issue. National policies will have the most profound immediate consequences. What do the candidates exactly have in mind for immigrants beyond curbing illegality?

Health Care and Longevity
The nation with the best medicine in the world faces the problem that this care is unavailable to many because of its forbidding costs. The costs of health care must be reduced making it more accessible to the populace at large. Perhaps less high technology will free more resources for low technology preventive care to everyone's benefit. What do the candidates intend to do?
Despite the problems with healthcare, Americans enjoy an unprecedented longevity. Prevalence and eminence of the elderly are increasing prominently. We need to confront realistically what we are planning to do with our ever-extending golden years. What government can do to help ought to be on the next president's agenda.

Environment & Energy
Our climate is changing. The temperatures in Nashville are rising. It rains less. In some counties around Nashville the water supply has already been precarious. By the time of the presidential debate at Belmont, we may be running short in drinking water. Regional plans are needed for the management of this precious resource. Much of the control is in the hands of the Corps of Engineers. What will the government do, when the water runs out?
In addition, the costs of electricity and natural gas in Nashville have increased considerably in recent years. Tennesseans must explore alternatives. However, the immediate investments to switch to other sources are high. Tax incentives could ease the necessary transitions. What are the candidates' plans?

These are my questions. I am curious to hear the answers of the next president. Nashville is a great place to raise children. Let us try to keep it a great place for them to live. The presidential debate at Belmont University is going to provide a platform to make Nashvillians' voices heard. The Tennessean's invitation to participate in shaping this event offers possibilities. In the coming months, a list of questions could be compiled. The most frequent questions could be read to the candidates, giving them the opportunity to address the issues Nashvillians care most about.


  • Maira Kalman's excellent artistic opinion contributed to The New York Times on Aug. 27, 2009, illustrates wonderfully how immigrants are changing the face of this country (09/01/09).