With the advent of the Internet, there is an endless supply of information that we can access every moment and at any time we decide to do so. But in the nature of things our span of interest will necessarily be limited and that is why, despite the unlimited opportunity, we forcibly have to pick and choose. But there is no doubt that this development allows us to keep learning about so many things, and what we make of what we thus come to know can provide much food for thought.
The other benefit of such a profusion and wide diversity of information is that it helps to take our minds away from the unpleasantness of what is happening in our immediate environment. Call it escapism if you wish, but there is no gainsaying that y en a marre of scams and scandals with the stink that they raise, such that one wishes one could shut off one’s senses in permanence so as not to have to be exposed to all that muck going around. There is no need to list what is known to everybody, we will leave that to chroniclers who enjoy such fare, but to be fair they too are helping society in their own way. After all, people do have to earn their living.
One of the pieces of news that caught my attention yesterday was an obituary. It was that of astrophysicist Margherita Hack, ‘a popular science writer, public intellectual and the first woman to lead an astronomical observatory in Italy, who died on Saturday at the age of 91.’ She was popularly known as the ‘lady of the stars’, whose research contributed to the spectral classification of many groups of stars, and the asteroid 8558 Hack is named after her.
What struck me in particular were some of her unconventional views, such as for example being an ‘outspoken atheist in a predominantly Catholic country’ and ‘her opposition to the influence of religious beliefs over scientific research’, lobbying as she did for legalized abortion, euthanasia, animal protection and gay rights. In fact, at the age of 89, she published a book, ‘Why I am Vegetarian’, in which she outlined ‘her belief that there was no difference between human and animal pain and that eating meat damaged the environment, sparking debate in a country with a proud tradition of meatballs, beef pasta dishes and cured hams.’
On all of these issues she touched humanity is still grappling with, and is likely to continue doing so for a long time to come, but increasingly it is the voice of rationality that will have to carry the day, if only for very practical reasons (geographical, environmental, economic, financial amongst others). A case in point is the rise of cremation as a form of disposal of the dead in America, estimated to become the choice option of 1 in 2 Americans by the year 2017, against the current 40% approximately, as an article in a recent TIME magazine highlighted.
But more to the point for me was that in December 2012 she told a reporter ‘she had decided not to have a heart operation that could prolong her life, wryly commenting that she might as well save the Italian public health service the money, and saying she preferred to stay at home with her books and her husband of seven decades, Aldo De Rosa.’ Wise decision indeed, I thought, an example of altruistic patriotism if one may call it so.
In fact, one of the major issues in developed countries is the soaring expenditure on health. Whereas for countries at one end of the spectrum, such as in Sub Sahara and that includes us, it amounts to around 3% of the GDP, at the other extreme is the health expenditure of the richest country in the world, the US, where it currently stands at about 18% of GDP, and is expected to reach 25% in perhaps a decade. In Europe this figure hovers between 10 to 12% – but is rising too. Governments are finding great difficulty finding the resources to fund healthcare, which is driven by both supply (new technologies, drugs) and demand (rise of chronic diseases, people’s expectations, etc).
So while the single decision of this late brave lady may be a drop in the ocean, it is no doubt commendable. All the more so when we know that the majority of people refuse to let go even when the medical options have run out, not to speak of those who are known to abuse of the health services because of their position, and thus waste precious resources that could have been available to others more deserving. This is a bigger debate that has several dimensions.
But let us return to astrophysicist Margherita Hack. The reporter concluded with, ‘”I do not believe in the afterlife,” she said, chuckling and animated, in her final television appearance in March. “When I die my particles will flutter about the terrestrial atmosphere.”’ Which reminds me of what astronomer Hubert Reeves said in an interview in 2010, that ‘la voûte céleste nous renvoie… à la dimension de notre humanité. Nous sommes poussières d’étoiles. Nés des atomes formes des premiers instants de l’Univers. Inscrits dans l’histoire du Cosmos. Essentiels… et insignifiants.’
Dust we are… but of cosmic origin! How many of us will be prepared to be as altruistic and brave come the time? As for me, I hope I will still have enough of my sense about me to make the wise decision…
* Published in print edition on 5 July 2013