Saturday, January 31, 2009

Scent-triggered memories

Yesterday I found myself wondering why the scent of the dentist's rubber (or latex) gloves was so disturbing to me, almost as much as the sound of the whirring equipment.

One possible explanation is that I subconsciously associate that smell with the rubber gas mask I had to wear during the Gulf War in 1991. For seven weeks, Israel was attacked by Iraq with Scud rockets. Since it was feared that chemical weapons might be used, the population had to wear gas masks and take shelter when the sirens sounded. It appears that since then I have been disturbed by the scent of rubber, which I probably associate with fear, helplessness and confinement.

This is a well-known phenomenon, of scents triggering associations and memories. If any readers have similar experiences, please share them by commenting on this post.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis

Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis, Vintage, 2006. Translated by Anjali Singh.

This is such a well-known book, that most readers may already be aware that it is an autobiographical graphic novel, which has been made into an animated film.

The author tells her story on two levels: her personal life and development, along with the story of her country, Iran. Both levels are interesting and well-presented. We follow Marjane from childhood, through adolescence to early adulthood. At the same time, we see what the Islamic revolution and the Iran-Iraq war did to people living there.

I don't often read graphic novels, so I'm no expert on the visual side. The drawing style seems quite simple and clean, but it is also very expressive. Sometimes complex emotions are conveyed with very few lines. I haven't seen the animated film to compare.

The lesson to be learned from this book seems obvious. The Iranian regime denies its citizens the basic freedoms most of the world takes for granted. People there try to live, at least in the privacy of their own homes, just like people anywhere. Their public lives are restricted, and they have to think about every small detail of clothing or behaviour.

The assumptions behind the religious doctrine enforced in Iran are not flattering. It is taken for granted that every individual is weak and easily led into extremes of hedonism. Thus, people must not show any outward sign of pleasure, sexuality or independence.

It seems to me much more meaningful for people to live a moral life when they have freedom of choice and are not forced into certain behaviours by fear of punishment. I believe that morality is compatible with freedom, and that the sort of force applied in totalitarian regimes is counterproductive. When people are stifled by repression, they may choose to rebel against restrictions that would have been natural boundaries had they been free.

Those who think of Iran as "the enemy" should be aware that a nation is not identical with its regime. Many, or perhaps most, Iranians might prefer to live under different laws. It is true that the current Iranian regime poses a threat to the Western world (and especially Israel) with its nuclear weapons program and its funding of terrorism. This threat is worsened by the ideological commitment of the regime. People who sincerely believe that acts of violence can be justified and will be rewarded in heaven are more likely to act than those who see more shades of grey in the world.

I would like to conclude with a short quotation from the Introduction: "I believe that an entire nation should not be judged by the wrongdoings of a few extremists". This is a sentiment I wholeheartedly support.

Details of Hebrew version.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Nightmares and reality

Sometimes the science stories I come across make a strong impression on me. The latest literally gave me nightmares...

Yesterday I listened to one of my favourite podcasts, The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe (episode 182), and they were discussing a recent report that there could be a serious solar storm in the next few years, possibly in 2012. Such a storm, a electromagnetic bubble emerging from the sun to engulf the earth, could disrupt electrical systems and communications networks, and even cause fires. If it were severe enough, it could effectively destroy all the electronics throughout the world, throwing our civilization back into the dark ages.

The news items I have found suggest that we can prepare for such a possibility by protecting vital electronic systems. Whether that will actually be done in time is another matter. It seems difficult to find funding to protect against future risks of any sort, even earthquakes and hurricanes, which happen more often than solar storms.

My nightmare drew on familiar themes from many apocalyptic science fiction scenarios I have read. I was waiting for the solar storm to hit, getting news of whole cities burning, before the airwaves fell silent and the power failed. I knew that life would never be the same again.

I cannot imagine myself surviving long in a post-technological world, and that is not the life I have been aiming for. Like most people, I have based my life's plans, hopes and actions on the assumption that our current level of technological development will increase, and that the future will be generally similar to the present, or better in various ways. I am normally optimistic, but it seems that my subconscious has been primed to fear this sort of threat, by both my eclectic reading and my experiences of living through war and terrorism. There are moments when it does not seem irrational to fear the total and irreversible end of life as we know it...

From my reading I know that it is likely that if our civilization collapses (due to war or natural disasters), it will be incredibly difficult to recreate. First, the knowledge necessary would quickly be lost, since survival of the fittest would take over and our scientists are not necessarily among the strongest and most willing to fight... More importantly, it is likely that the remaining natural resources of the planet would be insufficient, now, to start rebuilding a modern civilization. This is one reason why it is imperative to get the human race out into space as soon as possible. All our eggs are in one basket, meaning that all the genetic material of our species is on one small planet.

Let us hope that neither natural events nor human stupidity can lead to the total destruction of our species.

Monday, January 5, 2009

The science of love

Sometimes I come across a science news story that turns out to be more interesting than I could have expected. In this case, the news story said that MRI scans have shown that people in long-term relationships (married over twenty years) still show the same brain patterns in reaction to photographs of their partners as those of people recently in love. This did not surprise me, as my own experience has not made me cynical about love the way so many people seem to be, assuming that it must fade over time.

This is how I discovered Helen Fisher, an anthropologist who studies various aspects of love. Her work on love has found that there are three types: lust, romantic love and long-term attachment. This classification may not seem new, but these types have now been shown to be reflected differently in our brains. She also believes it is, unfortunately, possible to experience these different types of love simultaneously for different people. Obviously, this causes much of the world's unhappiness.

Here is an interesting lecture she gave, containing insights into love, society and the role of women.

It is good to know that subjects like love are being studied scientifically. I don't think that understanding what love is diminishes the experience in any way. It will always be mysterious for the individuals involved.