We Are All Stardust

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We Are All Stardust

Author – Stefan Klein compiles interviews with 19 top scientists

Genre – Science

Why should management practitioners study science? Because it deals with the final frontiers of knowledge, the very human quest to know more. Einstein always said, “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” This unbounded curiosity to know more separates the best of us from the merely average ones.

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Stefan Klein (best selling author of The Science Of Happiness) reaches out to 19 of the world’s top scientists and interviews them on their path breaking discoveries. The resulting compilation is a treasure to read for all curious minds. He quotes da Vinci: “Love of anything is the offspring of knowledge; the more certain the knowledge, the more fervent the love”. What we really understand, we come to value. Read on then and fall in love with science!

We start with the eminent cosmologist Martin Rees (Astronomer Royal to Queen Elizabeth and President of the very exclusive Royal Society, a post earlier held by Newton himself!). He talks of how we, if we were less romantically inclined, could call humans nothing but “stellar nuclear waste” for all life and non-life forms are made from dead stars! And how quasars in space are not just evidence of the big bang, we may even speculate that they are light beacons of a highly advanced civilisation! Martin is convinced there is intelligent life somewhere else in the universe and also that species more intelligent than humans will one day inhabit the Earth. On the question of God, he says pragmatically, “I am a practising Christian, not a believing one… I simply follow the customs of my tribe… I like the rituals and the music. If I had grown up in Iraq, I would go to a mosque.”

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Richard Dawkins comes next, probably the world’s most vocal atheist. His t-shirt says “Atheists for Jesus”, meaning that Jesus was a good man, and if he was present today with the latest scientific knowledge we have, he probably would have been an atheist too! In his path-breaking book The Selfish Gene, he explains that humans are “robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes”. Our core nature may be selfish because, in survival of the fittest, “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.” [I disagree]

Next comes V S Ramachandran (Time magazine’s list of most influential people in the world; his book The Tell-Tale Brain is in my recommended list of must-reads). He explains how during an epileptic seizure, people have mystical experience and the same experiences can be had in healthy individuals if we medically stimulate the temporal lobe of brain. We may be entering “a golden age of mind-body medicine… based on neurology and psychophysics.” He also thinks the eastern doctrine of Maya (illusion) cannot be wished away as hocus pocus: If we visualise consciousness as information, then, in a sense, we are ‘reincarnating’ every year, since the atoms in our brain are replacing every year but the I is still there.

Jared Diamond, the very famous author of Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse (both in my recommended list of must-reads), is an absolute treat. He explains scientifically that “it is no accident that terrorism has flourished in ecologically devastated lands”, since an “Osama bin Laden requires a poor, desperate country without hope.” His only wish for the future is to have a far more sustainable economy because the world’s current course of action is so unsustainable that it has no future. [I agree completely!]

Jane Goodall (who suffers from face blindness, meaning she can’t recognise people even after meeting them many times) is probably the most famous scientist in America after Einstein. She explains her seminal research on apes (spent 20 years in the African forest with them) and how they are more similar to humans than ever thought before.

Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg says, “Anything that we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in fact in the end be our greatest contribution to civilisation.” He also predicts (later proved) the discovery of Higgs boson.

Peter Singer talks on ethics and explains that it is immoral to enjoy luxury when so many poor suffer in the world. He does not even support a flight unless absolutely essential (think of the carbon footprint). Unfortunately, he says, “where self-interest and morality clash, people will often choose self-interest.” He gets into a very deep (and disturbing) discussion on whether killing newborns with permanent disabilities (where we know their future quality of life will be extremely poor) can ever be justified.

Craig Venter, the maverick scientist and founder of Celera, was the first person to map his own genome, and has just created the world’s first synthetic life, creating a self replicating bacteria from non living molecules. He feels this is the cusp of a new era in humanity, and has started a new company focussing on increasing the average age of humans (Celgene and Astra Zeneca are investors). Many futurists believe it is absurd that the most intelligent species on earth should live only a mere 80 or 100 years when the life of earth is 9 billion years.

Ernst Fehr moved from theology to science because he “realised (he) wanted a just world here on earth, not just a paradise somewhere else”. He teaches morality and how no one acts altruistically without regard to costs. “First comes eating, then morality”. He also explains how revenge, unfortunately, is but the dark side of a sense of fairness: “only when the members of goodwill can punish the freeloaders does the cooperation become stable.”

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There is more. Mirror neurons and empathy; female side of evolution; the poetry of molecules; neurobiology and memory; pain as a learned emotion and so on.

While the overall read is brilliant, there are parts that disappoint. Some discussions could have been sharper, and some end too abruptly. Sometimes the discussions skirt far away from the main discovery of the scientist. And often the discoveries are already dated. But let us not judge too harshly.

Why should we read this book: When so much gray matter is condensed in few pages, the book can hardly disappoint. Read the book as a primer on many topics – ethics, religion, cosmology, behaviour, neurology… Use this as a bait to start a love affair with non fiction reading. My suggestion will be to read one interview at a time (with wikipedia if needed), stay with it for a few days and only then move to the next.