Astonishing Life, Astonishing Performance

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Stephen Hawking is the most celebrated and renowned physicist of our time, not only because of his astounding theory about time, but also because of his personal struggle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). He has spent his career searching for that “once simple, elegant equation that would prove everything.”

If you, too, are looking for clues to Hawking’s elusive equation, The Theory of Everything isn’t the place to look. Although it does contain a few brief and basic conversations about Hawking’s research along the lines of “quantum theory governs subatomic particles; relativity governs the planets,” the film decidedly is not about physics.

Instead, it is an intensely personal film about how a family copes with the day-to-day emotional and physical trauma caused by a debilitating disease. And yet, it’s not about that either. Stephen Hawking has managed to survive for half a century with a disease that kills most people in less than two years. It is a horrifying disease that gradually destroys the body from the outside in. Known variously as “motor neuron disease,” “Lou Gehrig’s disease,” and more recently “ALS,” it prevents the brain from communicating with the muscles, first in the extremities (hands and feet) and finally in the torso, face, and organs. The brain continues to think, but it can’t direct the muscles to move. It is simply devastating, and most people succumb soon after diagnosis.

But not Stephen Hawking. And I want to know why. Fifty years! I want to know something about the medical treatment and the personal regimen that have made the difference for him. Is it because he has such a strong sense of purpose and satisfaction derived from his research? Is it because he doesn’t believe in the “better place” that makes it easier for believers to “shuffle off this mortal coil”? Or is it because he can afford the reported millions it costs each year for round-the-clock healthcare and personal assistance? The film completely ignores these issues, so if you’re looking for a theory, either of astrophysics or of medical physics, you won’t find it.

Stephen Hawking has managed to survive for half a century with a disease that kills most people in less than two years.

The Theory of Everything is a love story. It includes the giddiness of first love, the devastation of being rejected, the warm settling in of married life, the trauma of dealing with chronic illness, the addition of children, and even the conflicts of infidelity. Stephen’s wry boyish smile belies the crippling devastation of his body and lights his face with charm and desirability. The emotional connection between Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) and Jane (Felicity Jones) is so raw and so tender that it sometimes feels like an intrusion to watch. The stunning musical score by Johann Johannsson contributes to the emotion of the film and will keep you in your seat through the final credits.

In short, The Theory of Everything is more Jane’s story than Stephen’s. According to the tag line of the film, “His mind changed our world. Her love changed his.” This should not be surprising, since the screenplay is based on Jane Hawking’s memoirs, Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen (2007) and Music to Move the Stars: A Life with Stephen (1999). But it also very well may be true that her influence helped him continue his research and live, not as an invalid but as a scholar. Hawking himself has said that the film is “broadly true” and said of Eddie Tremayne’s performance, “At times, I thought he was me.”

Indeed, Eddie Redmayne is the reason this film works so well. He studied with therapists and dance instructors to learn how to isolate his muscles and contort them in just the right way so that he never becomes a caricature of Hawking but remains an embodiment of him. He expresses devastating frustration, unending optimism, witty charm, emotional pain, and tender love, all within the confines of a deteriorating body. Despite the pain, his eyes, his mind, and his smile remain bright. Both Hawking and Redmayne are remarkable.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Theory of Everything," directed by James Marsh. Working Title Films, 2014, 123 minutes.



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When You Wish Upon a Czar

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Two minutes after President Obama gave his political crony Ron Klain the job of Ebola Czar, I got a text message from a friend. He’s a political scientist, so I was expecting him to complain about Klain’s being nothing but a Democratic Party hack, but he didn’t. His comment took an historical turn. What he said was, “If trends continue, America will have more czars than Russia had in its whole history.”

I saw that as a protest, not against the Russian monarchy, but against the current assumption that words prove their worth, not in use, but in overuse. To my friend, a word is valuable because it’s both appropriate and fresh. To many other people, it’s valuable because it’s capable of being used over and over again, in any possible circumstance.

There’s nothing wrong, in itself, about the use of “czar” to mean something like “an official appointed to exercise full power over a designated matter.” Czar is an admirably brief, concrete, imagistically evocative word to express that meaning. But one can be driven to suicide by other people’s overuse of even the finest words. No one wants to hear “I love you” every minute of every day, and certainly no one wants to contemplate an endless sequence of organization charts in which every position is labeled “Czar.”

We don’t consider the fact that “czars” have one important characteristic in common with actual czars: it would take the Bolsheviks to get rid of them.

Consider: the United States now has two czars in the same realm. The first was Dr. Nicole Lurie, whose existence no one remembered until the president started being urged to appoint an emergency preparedness czar. Then we learned that we already had one, and it was Dr. Lurie, who is Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response for the Department of Health and Human Services. But that made no difference; another monarch was added to America’s ever-growing College of Czars.

In 1908, when Ferdinand I, Prince Regnant of Bulgaria, proclaimed himself Czar of Bulgaria, his action excited much unfavorable comment from other monarchs. There already was a Czar of Russia, and the general opinion was that one was enough. Contemporary Americans are clearly without that kind of taste and discrimination. We want a czar in every pot. We don’t consider the fact that “czars” have one important characteristic in common with actual czars: they are very hard to get rid of. Even if they’ve finished their job and wiped out Ebola or baseball or whatever else it is they’re supposed to handle, they or their bureaucratic progeny remain in office. It would take the Bolsheviks to get rid of them.

There’s another term that has been spread by the nation’s romance with Ebola — the old but increasingly dangerous abundance of caution. How long those six syllables had, until recently, been incubating deep in our linguistic organs, only the zombies know, but now, suddenly, the contagion is everywhere. Whenever a government official delays some urgent job, it’s out of an abundance of caution. Whenever an American citizen is prevented from exercising his rights, it’s because an abundance of caution led the FDA to deny him a drug, or led the gun suppressors to deny him a permit, or led the cops to arrest him for reminding them of the law, or led the high school principal to tell him not to wear a flag-print t-shirt, thereby offending non-Americans. Once it gets going, abundance of caution can do a lot of damage.

State-friendly terms such as czar, abundance of caution, and of course national crisis have been big winners in this, the Ebola Period of our history. Meanwhile, phrases dear to the hearts of (certain) libertarians have suffered badly — indeed, have virtually disappeared from public use: open borders, freedom to immigrate, right to immigrate, and the like. I confess that such terms have never been favorites of mine. To the disgust of (certain) other libertarians, I have argued at length against the concepts they express (Liberty, October 2006). Those terms will have a difficult time regaining the spotlight now occupied by domestic terrorists, the terrorists’ wacko foreign exemplars, and the Ebola virus. It’s hard to see how a radical immigrationistwould answer the question, “Do you mean that Thomas Eric Duncan had a right to enter America and spread a deadly disease?”, or the obviously succeeding questions, “So you’re saying that the right to immigrate isn’t universal, after all? So why do you think it’s a right?” We’ll see what the friends of open borders do to revive their favorite words. I’m sure they’ll think of something.

Where would we be without "adults in the room" and the other pseudo-psychological clutter that appears in almost every political analysis?

While they’re thinking, we await in horror the coming election. The political results may be bad or good — more or less crippling to our actual rights — but the linguistic phenomena are already gruesome. A friend recently asked whether American political commentary could do without stupid sports metaphors. The answer is, Apparently not. Where would we be if elections weren’t up for grabs, if the trailing candidate didn’t need to hit a home run, if the leading candidate weren’t trying to run the clock out, orif one of the two parties weren’t just playing DE-fense, never managing to get across the goal line?

And where would we be without adults in the room and the other pseudo-psychological clutter that appears in almost every political analysis? Protestors, for example, never yell and scream; they vent their frustrations; they act them out. Their actions are signals that our communities need healing, and that healing can come only from a therapeutic national conversation or bipartisan dialogue — both parties on the psychiatrist’s couch.

Does Biden understand the poem that he slightly misquotes? Clearly not.

But here I must apologize. At some point in this column, I went out of bounds. I stopped blaming the victims — blaming phrases that started their lives with hope and promise, only to lose it because of community pressure to be something they’re not — and I started displaying my phobias about expressions that were losers to begin with.So I’ll adopt a more proactive stance and pose the challenging question: what would happen if an American public figure actually tried to ignore all insipid current clichés and restore the greatness of the English language, the language of Shakespeare and Emerson and Jefferson, of Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost and . . . oh, maybe, of William Butler Yeats?

Well, here is what would happen, and did happen, when, on Oct. 3, Vice President Biden spoke at the prestigious John F. Kennedy Forum, “Harvard’s premier arena for public speech.” “Folks,” said Biden,

Folks, “all’s changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty has been born.” Those are the words written by an Irish poet William Butler Yeats about the Easter Rising in 1916 in Ireland. They were meant to describe the status of the circumstance in Ireland at that time. But I would argue that in recent years, they better describe the world as we see it today because all has changed. The world has changed.

There’s been an incredible diffusion of power within states and among states that has led to greater instability. Emerging economies like India and China have grown stronger, and they seek a great force in the global order and global affairs. . . .

The international order that we painstakingly built after World War II and defended over the past several decades is literally fraying at the seams right now.

Now, let’s see. Yeats did write a poem, called “Easter 1916,” about the Irish nationalist Easter Rebellion. His poem suggests that commonplace people were transformed, at least in imagination, by their participation in that failed revolt:

All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Does Biden understand the poem that he slightly misquotes? Clearly not. No good poem, and particularly not Yeats’s poem, “describe[s] the status of the circumstance” of something. But does Biden understand his own remarks? Again, clearly not. What terrible beauty could he possibly see in “the status of the circumstance” that he himself describes — “diffusion of power within states and among states that has led to greater instability,” an “international order” that is “literally fraying at the seams” (and can ya believe it, “right now,” too)? That’s not beautiful. It’s not even terrible, in the sense that Biden wants to import from Yeats. A person who doesn’t understand that literally means literally, not figuratively, or that something that was “built” doesn’t have “seams” and therefore cannot “fray” . . . this person should stay as far away as possible from other people’s poetry. We’re used to the vice president’s torrent of clichés; must we now be visited with his attempts to be learned and original?

It’s interesting to speculate how many people would say what they say, if they understood it. Here’s a passage that the vice president presumably wouldn’t like; it’s from a political analysis by Jennifer Rubin, issued on Sept. 30 by the Washington Post.It’s about a number of Democratic senators who may not win their elections. I’ll put the most obvious clichés in italics:

They were napping while the Islamic State surged and were asleep during the wheel for other Obama foreign policy flubs. They didn’t raise any objection to zeroing troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan. They were unmoved by the atrocious Iran interim deal. They were quite happy to watch the sequestration cuts wreak havoc on military preparedness. Now the bill has come due for circling the wagons around Obama.

The quantity of clichésis bad enough, but does she really mean to say that the senators were happy to watch even when they were asleep? Is she really able to picture a cut, much less such a passive, somnolent thing as a sequestration cut, wreaking havoc? Does she really think that people who circle wagons get a bill for it? And what picture was in her mind when she thought of people sleeping during the wheel?

Enough. I’m tired. I’m going to find some wheel to sleep during.




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More Environmental Extremism

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A recent report out of England is a perfect illustration of the thesis that a major component of the modern environmentalist movement consists of religious worshipers of a decidedly peculiar pagan proclivity, to wit, worshipers of Thanatos, the god of death.

The story is about the famous BBC broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough, brother of the famous British actor Richard Attenborough. Sir David is a fixture of British TV, hosting various nature shows, including the acclaimed series Life on Earth.

Sir David has just put forward the simply lovely view that human beings are a disease afflicting the planet. He is greatly perturbed by the bête-noirs of the environmental movement: global warming and overpopulation. “We are plague on the Earth,” he cried piteously, adding, “It’s coming home to roost over the next 50 years or so. It’s not just climate change; it’s sheer space, places to grow food for this enormous horde. Either we limit our population growth or the natural world will do it for us, and the natural world is doing it for us right now.”

Need I add that Sir David is a big supporter of the Optimum Population Trust, an NGO devoted to curtailing growth of the population?

With folks like him, Thanatos is God and Malthus was His Prophet.

Citing as an example Ethiopia, the “compassionate” Sir David averred, “We keep putting on programmes about famine in Ethiopia; that’s what’s happening. Too many people there. They can’t support themselves — and that’s not an inhuman thing to say.”

No, Sir David, it isn’t an inhuman thing to say — just a stunningly simplistic thing to say. The endemic famine in Ethiopia — like all famines in the last century — is mainly the consequence of a bad government and economic system, merely triggered by natural calamity. In the case of Ethiopia, it was most recently a drought, a natural weather cycle that has happened throughout recorded history. In fact, as the brilliant Bjorn Lomborg noted just recently, there hasn’t been any significant increase in drought worldwide over the last 60 years. There has been more drought in southern Europe and western Africa, true enough, but there has been less in northwestern Australia and central North America.

And by the way, if you do want to limit population growth, what you need to do is limit government and promote free enterprise, which invariably results in higher living standards. As the middle class increases, population growth declines. Depend on it.




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Grim, Gripping, and Curiously Refreshing

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In the 14th century, bubonic plague killed an estimated 75 million people, including, perhaps half the population of Europe. Historians calculate that roughly the same number were killed by the Spanish influenza in 1918 — 5 to 6% of the world's population at that time. Several films have speculated on what would happen worldwide if another supervirus broke out; they range from 1971's The Andromeda Strain andOmega Man to 1995's 12 Monkeys and Outbreak — and this summer's Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Contagion. That last movie opened this weekend.

Surprisingly, given the familiarity of the theme,Contagion is a compelling film. Its calm, subdued tone, almost documentary in style, creates a growing sense of tension and authenticity that is somehow more riveting than the hysteria evoked by other films. Here, a character reacts in an unflustered, uncomprehending way to the news that his wife has died; his lack of emotion shows his unwillingness to process the horrifying information. The scene is profoundly moving — more poignant than if he had broken down in tears.

Contagion follows several plot lines, as health workers from the CDC (Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet), WHO (Marion Cotillard), and private industry (Elliott Gould, Jennifer Ehle) try to trace the disease back to its original human host, contain its spread, and devise a vaccine. Director Steven Soderbergh deftly demonstrates how quickly we can be exposed to disease as we go about our daily lives, touching objects that others have touched. If you weren't a germaphobe before, you are likely to become one after seeing this film.

The film's title refers, of course, to the contagion of disease, but it offers multiple layers of additional meaning. We see how fear, rumor, and warnings can also be contagious, passing quickly from one person to another in an exponentially widening circle.

Meanwhile, we see the breakdown of normal distribution chains as people stop going to work, either from sickness or fear of sickness, and others are unable to purchase necessary supplies, such as food and medicine. Interesting moral problems arise as well.Situation ethicists often use the survival scenario to justify stealing. Ordinary people do also: when pondering whether a person should die in a snowstorm rather than break into a privately owned but unoccupied cabin, most would argue that it is all right to break the law in order to save one's life. But what if thousands of people are faced with starvation at the same time?

In this film, looting erupts as people become desperate — but that is not presented as an acceptable solution. Nor is the government's welfare solution — distributing food and medicine "fairly" — presented as working well, especially when there isn’t enough for everyone. In fact, if the film suggests anything, it is that people should prepare for disaster relief themselves, by stocking up in advance on food, medicines, bottled water, and yes, guns, for a self-imposed quarantine. I found this call for self-reliance refreshing in a Hollywood film.

It was also refreshing to see the pharmaceutical companies portrayed as good guys for once, as people working around the clock and taking personal risks to discover a vaccine. Yes, there are the usual barbs about profiteering, but the film acknowledges that everyone, not just the corporate bigwig, is strongly motivated to earn money, and that this is not such a bad way to control the distribution of goods. The alternatives — looting, or lining up for insufficient handouts from the government — are shown as leading to chaos.

Contagion is a fascinating, gripping thriller. The story is believable, and the acting is superb. But let me warn you: you will probably feel compelled to stop on the way home for a few gallons of bottled water and several cases of canned tuna and ramen noodles. And don't forget the plastic gloves — you won't want to be touching anything for a while . . .


Editor's Note: Review of "Contagion," directed by Steven Soderbergh. Warner Brothers, 2011, 105 minutes.



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Das Rinderpest Getilgt Wurde!

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Whenever people disappoint me (such as when they vote for liberal Democrats) and I think that humanity is just useless, I like to reflect upon the progress of science. It is therapy that builds eudemonia. In this regard, a recent report from medical science is worth noting.

For only the second time in history, mankind has apparently wiped out a major disease. Smallpox was finally eliminated only fairly recently, and now a long-standing pandemic disease — rinderpest — has been eradicated. Rinderpest is a disease not of humans but of animals — specifically, cloven-hoofed animals. It means “cattle plague” in German, and has been around for at least a millennium, killing off animals — cattle, water buffaloes, Himalayan yaks, pigs, and other fauna—that are important to human survival. Given the historically crucial dependence of people on these beasts, the disease has been a plague on us as well.

The rinderpest virus is closely related to the measles virus, and would periodically break out in epidemics (such as the one that the Mongols brought with them to Eurasia in the 1200s). The modern campaign to rid the world of it began at the end of World War II, with the founding of the Food and Agriculture Organization. It took about $5 billion in total worldwide expenditures — a mere pittance, really, considering that the recent Royal Wedding in Britain cost about $8 billion.

The key to wiping out the pest was threefold. First, a vaccine had to be developed that didn’t need constant refrigeration. Second (and related to that), the limited number of medical personnel (big-game veterinarians) devoted to the eradication campaign had to learn to employ locals and to focus their efforts on an area of Central Africa (the lowland areas of the Rift Valley) where the disease was persistently endemic. Finally, a quick diagnostic test for the disease had to be developed.

All this has now taken place, and it is cause for quiet satisfaction. We can, it appears, occasionally do something right.




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