Carl Sagan on the importance of supporting basic scientific research

Recently, I had the opportunity to watch this old video of a hearing where late astronomer Carl Sagan spoke about the importance of funding basic scientific research. I have been a huge fan of Sagan all my life since the first time I saw his popular TV series Cosmos in the early 1980s. I was a curious teenager by then–though I’m still quite curious as an adult–with a profound interest in science as well as literature. I still remember the effect of listening to this great communicator, participating in his personal travel throughout our solar system and galaxy as well as throughout the history of scientific discovery. Also, I remember discussions with my inner circle of friends, proud nerds like me, about God, the universe, extra-terrestrial life, evolution and so many crazy things. Great times indeed!

Back to the video, there Sagan shows some of his extraordinary qualities as communicator. When questioned about why he was against NASA’s megaprojects of the early 1990s, Sagan responds that he doesn’t believe in government doing science by decree. To Sagan, the idea that a megaproject may take humanity to a scientific or technological breakthrough such as the development of the TV set without supporting basic research is ludicrous. We need basic low-budget science projects like the one done by Scottish James Clerk Maxwell -who in the mid 1800s developed the theory of electromagnetism and his now famous equations-in order to get technologies such as TV sets and satellite communication.

In my opinion, Sagan is absolutely right: in the race for scientific discoveries, there are no shortcuts, no big fancy megaprojects. The same applies to all fields of knowledge. Or perhaps one may ask if is it possible for governments to create art by decree? Could Felipe II of Spain have ordered Miguel de Cervantes to write a master piece such as El Quijote? Could Elizabeth I have done the same with Shakespeare‘s Hamlet? I doubt it!

Yoani Sánchez, cautiva en la Havana

En días pasados comentaba sobre Yoani Sánchez, una joven escritora cubana de una hermosura tan impresionante como lo es su valentía. A Yoani le otorgaran recientemente el premio Ortega y Gasset al periodismo digital y desde entonces ha estado luchando con la inepta burocracia del régimen cubano para obtener un permiso de salidad que le permita recoger su premio en España. Desafortunadamente, el régimen decidió negarle el permiso, reiterándole su condición de prisionera, de “blogger cautiva” como ella misma ha dicho.
La decisión es muy triste; de verdad verdad, es absolutamente lamentable. Una decisición que confirma lo que todos sabemos, aunque alguno insistan en negarlo: que el régimen castrista no aprecia ni la crítica ni la libre difusión de ideas; al menos no sin que ello acarree el ostracismo y la discriminación tanto social como política y cultural de aquellos que como Yoani se atreven a cuestionar. !Qué verguenza!

Witold Gombrowicz and youth

I just started reading Witold Gombrowicz’s Pornografia. Witold Gombrowicz (VEE-told gom-BROH-veetch) was a polish author of novels, plays, short stories and some autobiographical works. He wrote most of his works in Argentina; where he lived as a refugee for almost twenty five years. Gombrowicz is best known for his novel Ferdydurke; a novel intended to reveal the “Great Immaturity of Humanity.” Pornografia was written years after Ferdydurke and, according to Gombrowicz, the former originated from the latter.

Gombrowicz also translated many of his works into Spanish. And he did such a good job that some of Gombrowicz’s translations are considered original works in their own right. Also, Gombrowicz has sometimes been called the (Joseph) Conrad of Latin America—due in part to the fact that he wrote in Spanish with the same perfectionist eagerness we recognize in Conrad’s works in English (as well as in many other L2 authors such as Ayn Rand and Vladimir Nabokov among others).

In his preface to Pornografia, Gombrowicz affirms that his novel is an exploration of humanity’s “need for the unfinished…for imperfection… for inferiority… for youth…” Pornografia’s preface is really interesting. Somehow, Gombrowicz develops a personal philosophy about human existence; while at the same time he develops his own theoretical foundation on the art of the novel.

For Gombrowicz, men conceal their true selves behind a tangled web of forms. We learned these forms from other people; the same people with whom we interact everyday during our lifetime. We adapt ourselves to these forms simply because we need the approval and recognition of the rest of the world. Thus, men “create each other by imposing forms on each other.” And humanity is the intricate web we spin on our own existence out of these forms.

As Westerners, we all aim “to the absolute.” We believe in perfection as the ultimate ideal. Perfection is synonym of God, salvation, and eternal life. Perfection is the realization of the impossible: eternal youth without impurities, without immaturity–which is something that bothers Gombrowicz a lot.

To him, Western civilization’s obsession with perfection is totally wrong. Our fixation on absolute values; our eagerness for absolute maturity, and our idealization of God’s absoluteness are all wrong simply because they represent the achievement of total fulfillment. What’s left of humanity if we all are totally content about our existence? We are what we are because of our dissatisfaction, because of our incompleteness, because of our youth. However, Gombrowicz is not an existentialist; he refuses the idea that men want to be God, as postulated by existentialists. For Gombrowicz, men simply want to be young but at their own discretion. And that’s why youth is the main theme of Gombrowicz’s novels.

Yoani Sánchez

Yoani Sánchez, a 32-year-old Cuban blogger, recently won the Ortega y Gasset prize for digital journalism. At the same time, she got recognized by Time Magazine as one of 2008 Heroes & Pioneers.
Yoani is a trained philologist who because of the regime’s political exclusionism makes a living in Cuba’s tourist industry. Last year, more precise in April, she started blogging about her life in Cuba on her web blog Generación Y.
Her posts are full of intelligence and chivalry. Particularly, I like the sense of humor and poetic instinct that she uses to portrait Cuba’s everyday life, its political foolishness and its sad but very real bureaucratic morass.
A sample:

Habito una utopía que no es mía. Ante ella, mis abuelos se persignaron y mis padres entregaron sus mejores años. Yo, la llevo sobre los hombros sin poder sacudírmela.

Algunos que no la viven intentan convencerme –a distancia- que debo conservarla. Sin embargo, resulta enajenante vivir una ilusión ajena, cargar con el peso de lo que otros soñaron.

A los que me impusieron –sin consultarme- este espejismo, quiero advertirles, desde ahora, que no pienso heredárselo a mis hijos.”

That’s poetry!!