A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall

A lot of ink has been spilled over the past two months on the decision to award Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize in Literature. Well, now the ceremony is done with, and Dylan being Dylan, gave it a miss. But he did care enough to write an acceptance speech which was read in his lieu by the United States Ambassador to Sweden.

But this post is about Patti Smith. About what she made evident when performing Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall at the ceremony. Patti Smith has been my recent discovery. Curiously enough, it was her Advice to the Young that I first listened to even before listening to her sing. But that Advice reeled me in to her — her very human self. And strangely enough, I have read Smith more than I have listened to her sing. Maybe I am just wired that way; reading and writing appeal to me more than music.

But back to Smith. At the Nobel Ceremony. She begins her rendition, but the enormity of the occasion soon gets to her, and is unable to go on. In her own words from her New Yorker piece,

Unaccustomed to such an overwhelming case of nerves, I was unable to continue. I hadn’t forgotten the words that were now a part of me. I was simply unable to draw them out.

Simply unable to draw them out. How very real is that! Just reaffirms my admiration for her and her work.

Smith, as you can see in the video that follows, apologises and continues with her performance to a cheering applause. She further goes on to write in her piece that the next day the Nobel scientists congratulated her on her performance and called it a metaphor for their own struggles. Such grace, I am bound to think.

Smith continues on in the piece and brings up something that I have been personally struggling with for the past few months. Why do we do what we do? The search for meaning. Here’s Smith articulating it:

Words of kindness continued through the day, and in the end I had to come to terms with the truer nature of my duty. Why do we commit our work? Why do we perform? It is above all for the entertainment and transformation of the people. It is all for them. The song asked for nothing. The creator of the song asked for nothing. So why should I ask for anything?

I teach and I write. I love what I do. But there are times when the voices in my head become just too loud for me to ignore, and I am forced to sit with them. And just listen to them, for I have no answers to the questions they relentlessly throw at me.

Why do I do what I do? Edify young minds, is what I wrote once when drafting my teaching philosophy. And truth be told, the phrase felt so dead that I haven’t finished the draft till date. Where do we get answers to such questions from? Passion is good. The desire to be a change is better. Being with the students is the best. But despite all this, there is something that is still missing. I evidently need to dig deeper for answers. And as I dig, lend me your ears (and spades, if you can).

Smith’s answer in her piece linked above is not lost on me. About an year back, besieged by a massive writing block, I asked myself: why should I write at all? I surmised that everything that needs to be written had been written, and that all that we write today is a variation of the same singular story. Perhaps the block resulted from the question and the answer I gave myself; I can never be sure. This is what resulted from that tumultuous time.

For I don’t know if there’s anything called
an original thought — man made fire, rolled
out a wheel, then along chugged a steam engine;
we now stand on the shoulders of giants; did
original thought stop at history o’clock? and
do we now live by the hourly gongs of progress and
mimesis? all stories have been told including this one.

Gradually enough I told myself that I write because I tell a story in the way that only I can. And I found it to be true to live with it.

Perhaps, I need to start digging here. Or maybe not at all, if I listen to Smith.

Sir Harold Kroto (1939 – 2016)

Sir Harold Kroto, co-winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of fullerenes is no more.

With a PhD in Molecular Spectroscopy from the University of Sheffield (1958), and following postdoctoral stints at NRC, Ottawa, and Bell Labs, New Jersey, Sir Kroto was appointed at the University of Sussex in 1967. He rose to full professorship in 1975. It was at this time that he was carrying out microwave measurements on long chain linear carbon molecules along with David Walton at Sussex. This lead to a collaboration with Canadian astronomers which resulted in the important and surprising finding that these carbonaceous species were found in large abundance in interstellar spaces.

Experimental simulation of the interstellar conditions in the laboratory (along with Robert Curl and Rick Smalley at Rice University) lead to the groundbreaking discovery of the C60 molecule. It was Sir Kroto who named this molecule bukminsterfullerene after Buckminster Fuller of the geodesic dome fame. It was for this discovery that Sir Kroto (along with Robert Curl and Rick Smalley) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

sir kroto

Sir Kroto against the backdrop of the C60 molecule.
Photo: FSU

In addition to his research (since 2004 at Florida State University, where he was the Francis Eppes Professor of Chemistry), Sir Kroto was passionate about science education and science communication. The Vega Science Trust, UK was jointly set up by Sir Kroto. He was also instrumental in setting up the Global Educational Outreach for Science, Engineering and Technology, GEOSET, which is an online storehouse of educational videos from leading universities the world over.

Sir Kroto was an enthusiastic participant at the Lunch with Laureate Program of the USA Science and Engineering Festival in 2010, and at the Lindau Nobel Laureates’ Meet in 2012. At FSU, he was also engaged in science outreach activities.

Recipient of a host of honours and awards from all over the world, he was an ardent graphics designer, and was duly recognised and feted for this ability as well.

Talking to the science-fair finalists at the International Science and Engineering Fair last year, what Sir Kroto said resonates very strongly with me. And I quote: “I think the most important thing that young people should be taught at school is how they can decide what they’re being told is true.”

With your groundbreaking research, generosity of spirit, and an agile, creative mind that wed science with the arts, you have left our planet a richer place for your presence. RIP, Sir Kroto.


When scientists turn guinea pigs.

The 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been announced. One half of the Prize is jointly awarded to William C. Campbell and Satoshi Ōmura “for their discoveries concerning a novel therapy against infections caused by roundworm parasites” and the other half goes to Youyou Tu “for her discoveries concerning a novel therapy against Malaria”.

Youyou Tu, a Chinese medical scientist, is just the 12th woman to win the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Tu carried out her research work in 1960s and 70s which was a period of great upheaval in China. Malaria was a major cause of death in China in those days, and chloroquine, the antimalarial drug, was fast proving ineffective. Tu started screening traditional Chinese herbs in a bid to isolate a new anti-malarial drug. After pouring over extensive Chinese literature, and more than 350 herbal extracts later, Tu and her team finally zeroed in on a component from sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua). This component was later called Artemisinin, and Tu and her team demonstrated that it was highly effective against the malarial parasite in mice and monkeys.

When it came time for human testing, Tu became the first ever human subject. The test turned out to be successful, and clinical trials were thereafter carried out.

It is for the discovery of Artemisinin that Tu has been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Exactly ten years back, the Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to two Australian physicians Robin Warren and Barry Marshall for their discovery that stomach ulcers are caused by bacterial infection. These two scientists discovered in 1982 that the bacterium Helicobacter pylori colonised the lower part of the stomach in about 50% of the patients suffering from ulcer. Based on this observation, and inflammation in the stomach close to where the bacteria were seen, they radically suggested that ulcers of the stomach and intestines were caused by this bacterium H. pylori, and not by stress and lifestyle choices as was espoused by gastroenterologists of that time. Their ideas were met with resistance. Warren and Marshall continued working and biopsied about 100 patients with ulcer. After several attempts the scientists successfully cultivated this hitherto unknown bacterium, and found that it was invariably present in patients with gastric inflammation, duodenal ulcer or gastric ulcer. They further showed that the ulcer could completely be cured only when H. pylori was completely eliminated from the human body.

In order to prove this, Barry Marshall turned his own guinea pig. He infected himself with H. pylori. He isolated the bacterium from the gut of an infected patient, stirred it into a broth, and drank it. Soon enough, he developed gastritis, began vomiting and became sick. A biopsy of his gut followed, H. pylori was cultured and an anti-bacterial treatment regime gradually put him back in shape. The medical and scientific community finally took note, and it is now unequivocally established that stress does not lead to ulcer, but the culprit is H. pylori. The Nobel Assembly, in felicitating the two physicians praised them for working against prevailing dogmas.

Youyou Tu, Robin Warren and Barry Marshall. Such conviction and such dedication to research. If this isn’t inspiring, I don’t know what else is!