Copernicus Rediscovered?

What are the chances of digging up the remains of the man who revolutionized astronomy in your local church? Doubts have swirled around the 2005 claim of a Polish archaelogical team that they had unearthed skeletal remains of the 16th century astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) [1]. A team of forensic experts, including the Central Forensic Laboratory of the Warsaw Police, examined the claims by investigating the bones and teeth of a 60 to 70-year old man found in Frombork Cathedral, Poland.

The task at hand was daunting, as outlined in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) journal article [2]. Copernicus died in 1543, at age 70, and was interred at Frombork Cathedral, which unfortunately has a large percentage of unnamed tombs. Scientists used facial reconstruction and comparisons with paintings, including a self-portrait, to narrow down the list of skeletons to one individual. They struck gold with the discovery of a seeming match. There was a forehead scar and evidence of a broken nose between one cranium and a key portrait. The next step involved DNA analysis. Here, the team was aided by Swedish researchers who retrieved hairs from a book annotated by Copernicus (on exhibit at Museum Gustavianum in Uppsala, Sweden). Genetic detective work enabled them to match two of the hairs to DNA segments from a well-preserved cranial tooth, thereby adding to the notion that the remains of Copernicus had finally been discovered.

 

Interestingly, the authors point out that Copernicus may have had blue eyes, even though early portraits of the astronomer show him with dark eyes. The authors explain their findings by noting that the painting technique, chalcography, used during the lifetime of Copernicus, does not reflect actual color. Therefore it is possible that science has now corrected an artistic impression reproduced in the ensuing centuries of dark eye color by showing that Copernicus, in fact, had light-colored eyes. The editorial commentary accompanying the article was favorable, with doubts mainly centering on the number of hairs and books tested before zeroing in on the Calendarium, the book which contained the jackpot hairs; however, the debate over different interpretations of the data continues in academic corridors.

 

Clearing up the mystery of the astronomer’s remains may eventually put him to rest, but he will remain immortal in our minds. Like Darwin, he ushered in the modern scientific era with the heliocentric theory, i.e. placing the sun at the center of our solar system and relegating the Earth to the position of another planet orbiting the sun. His findings did not endear him to contemporary critics, e.g. Scaliger, who noted the name of Copernicus next to the recommendation that “certain writings should be expunged or their authors whipped” [3]. Nowadays scholars and laymen applaud his discoveries.

Four myths to debunk about Syrian refugees

Syrian flagToday marks the one-year anniversary of an attack that killed 38 people, including many British tourists in Tunisia –  an attack that came five years after a street vendor, Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire to protest harassment by municipal officials and in the process sparked the pro-democracy movement known as the Arab Spring across the Middle East and North Africa. The 2015 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Tunisian Dialogue Quartet “for its decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011.” Despite the tragedy, Tunisia stands head and shoulders above the rest of the region in terms of having the foresight to engage in a productive dialogue which, according to The Economist, of a “new, enlightened constitution.”

The Assad regime did not respond with a dialogue quartet when teenagers painted revolutionary slogans on a Syrian school wall in 2011.  According to unverified sources, they used torture. Another theory for the catalyst that triggered the Syrian war was that demonstrations mirroring those in neighboring countries triggered a violent response from the government.  Such a response was in keeping with the actions of past governments eg, in 1982 the Syrian army quelled an uprising in Hama, Syria, by destroying “half of the city with tank shellfire and killing up to 20,000 people.” Regrettably, this time government violence contributed to the descent into chaos where a genuine desire for freedom became conflated with the separate agendas of local tribes, military deserters, disaffected locals, and jihadists (see this article for a guide to the Syrian opposition).  Add Afghans, Iranians and air strikes into the mix and there seems to be no end in sight for this conflict. However, it is worth remembering that Assad is still supported by many Syrians who see him as a preferable alternative to ISIS and other groups in the region.

If only one could get a Syrian do-over where the opposition formed a unified coalition bargaining with the government for a democratic country aka Tunisian style. Alas, now the world has to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis. Let’s examine some of the prevailing myths about them.

1.      All of Syria has fled to the EU

Up to 12.5 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes ie, less than 20% of the world’s 65.3 million refugees, but they have become indelibly etched in the public psyche because of seismic geopolitical shifts reverberating across the globe (2016 Pew report on refugees). Put another way, about 6 in 10 Syrians are now displaced from their homes. In addition, rising numbers of Somalis and Afghans are among the non-Syrian refugees who have applied for asylum in the European Union between July 2015 and May 2016. These numbers will likely increase as there appears to be no resolution to wars/perilous circumstances that forced people to flee in the first place. The European countries with the smallest percentage increments due to refugees were France and England, since they did not take in many asylum seekers. By contrast, Sweden saw the foreign-born share of its population rise from 16.8% in 2015 to 18.3% in 2016.  This rise of more than 2% in one year is astronomical when one uses the United States as a point of reference. Here, the immigrant share of the population rose by 1% over a full decade, from 13% in 2005 to 14% in 2015.

2.      The Syrians are taking our jobs

Refugees do not automatically become citizens stealing the locals’ jobs. Depending on the country and after satisfying entry criteria, they are granted residence permits and allowed to apply for legal residency after satisfying prerequisites relating to language, civic knowledge, financial independence and good conduct.

Given the heated arguments one hears about refugees, it may come as a surprise to many people to know that most displaced Syrians are not in the European Union. Over 3 million Syrians are in the countries bordering that once-proud nation: Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan. One could argue that the presence of these refugees spells doom for the economies of these respective countries. However, according to the World Bank, the gross domestic product for the countries are expected to rise in spite of the influxes. Is this situation ideal? No. Would these numbers have been higher in the absence of refugees? Possibly, yes. Nevertheless, the anti-refugee economic portion of the argument does not hold up. Let us not forget that more than 6 million people continue to be displaced from their homes within the porous borders of Syria.

3.      The Syrian refugees harbor terrorists

In his 2014 Journal of Conflict Resolution article,” Are Migrants More Extreme than Locals After War? Evidence from a Simultaneous Survey of Migrants in Sweden and Locals in Bosnia,”Dr. Jonathan Hall coats his conclusions with the usual academic precautions before stating: “Under certain conditions, migration may promote inclusive and reconciliatory attitudes by improving access to coping resources and providing an exit from detrimental wartime and post-war conditions in original countries.”

It took an unfounded rumor that one of the Paris bombers was a Syrian refugee to set the Internet on fire, upset Dr. Hall’s careful conclusions and spook jittery governments coping with the influx of people. Adding to these fears is a recent report that ISIS has gained a foothold in Sirte, Libya, on the Mediterranean coast, an uncomfortable boat ride away from Europe. Unfortunately the unthinkable is always possible, but recent history has taught us that most of the terrorists were actually born in the countries where they perpetrated their acts.

 4.     The USA wants large numbers of refugees

According to the June 2016 Pew article, our views towards refugees have generally been opposition to “admitting large numbers of foreigners fleeing war and oppression, regardless of official government policy.” This antipathy towards refugees was on display as far back as 1958, when respondents were against Hungarian refugees fleeing a communist regime settling here and as recently as 1999, when two-thirds of the respondents were against settling Albanians escaping atrocities in Kosovo in this country. Although polling trends are useful in reflecting prevailing opinions, it will be heartening to humanitarians to know that programs such as “I was a stranger” exist in this country to help refugees.

 

Why names matter in the wake of Orlando

Omar Mir Seddique Mateen was a 29 year-old US citizen of Afghan descent living in Orlando, Florida. Because of his actions, 49 people are dead and 53 were wounded.

Centuries ago, his namesake and companion to the prophet shepherding the world’s youngest Abrahamic religion, Islam, lived an ascetic life in Saudi Arabia. Omar, also spelled Umar Ibn Al-khaṭtāb, was a fierce leader widely respected for his justice and authority (read more about him here).  Some of his thinking, steeped in religious belief is worth revisiting. Here are some examples culled from different sources on the Internet:

“May Allah show mercy on the man who shows me my faults.”

“Fear your sins more than you fear the enemy as your sins are more dangerous to you than your enemy.”

“Let not your love become attachment, nor your hate become destruction.”

As we try to make sense of the unthinkable, it is worth wondering what may have happened had the Omar of Orlando truly understood the meaning behind the words of the Omar of yesteryear.

Bonding over coffee

It feels good to be a Norwalk resident, especially if one runs into neighbors and other familiar faces at one of the recently revamped Dunkin’ Donuts shops. Old friends and friendly strangers can spin tall tales over coffee and engage in debates over issues of the day (eg, the presidential election). The pleasant suburban scene could not have been envisioned centuries ago, when Ludlow and Partrick first independently purchased land from the Indians, and the name, Norwalk, was derived from the name of an Indian chieftain, Naramake (also spelled ‘Naramauke’ or ‘Norwauke’).

However, the past was not on the minds of most customers. For instance, the Haitian cab driver, pausing briefly for his cup of java before heading out for a night shift, had little interest in the question one could pose to Indians today to find out if they were better off than their ancestors. He was only interested in the present and the future. As the night shift loomed ahead, he was contemplating how many Norwalk bar flies would be calling upon his services to take them to their homes. How many fares would equal his economic survival for the next month? When talk inevitably drifted to the recent political conventions, he shrugged his shoulders. He was a first-generation American who did not mind that politicians did not court him in a similar manner as Latin immigrants. Instead, he was grateful that he could pay for food and shelter for his kids.

Tonight he celebrated another milestone in his life that, to him, felt every bit as momentous as the heroic accomplishments of ordinary Americans mentioned at the political conventions. He had chronicled his life story on yellow legal pads, while waiting at the interminable red lights dotted along Norwalk roads. These notes had finally been compiled into one book. Others, who left the coffee shop to stare at the book in his car, were quick to rain on his parade. No one would be interested in his story. No one would care. The cab driver would have none of this negativity. He had already lined up likeminded folks and would be barnstorming the local churches and community groups, preaching the gospel of self-reliance along the way. One felt humbled. Here was someone made stronger and not cowed by political rhetoric or adversity.
Back in the Dunkin’ Donuts shop, Mr. X, an adult approaching his golden years, was happy to sip coffee and chat to other customers about his problems. Mr. X is disabled. More precisely, he is a mentally disabled, non-institutionalized adult. Given the level of his disability, work was never an option. In the absence of a strong family or religious support system, he is also a poster child for entitlement usage or victim of any Medicaid cuts, depending on one’s point of view. It is worth noting that one analysis of 2010 census and budget data estimates that more than 90 percent of the benefit dollars that entitlement and other mandatory programs spend go to assist people who are elderly, seriously disabled, or members of working households — not to able-bodied, working-age Americans who choose not to work.

None of this mattered to Mr. X. He had just spent $15 on a broken Walkman. Someone had obviously taken advantage of him; however, his only complaint was that he could no longer listen to Michael Jackson. His late mother had left him cassettes of his favorite pop singer and somehow Thriller and Bad just did not sound the same unless he was using those cassettes. The political and economic travails of our country remained unsolved, but in an instant, another solution was born. Someone remembered a working portable cassette player at his house. Mr. X would soon have a tangible link to his late mother and Michael Jackson again.

Determination, perseverance, and kindness ruled in a franchise founded by the entrepreneur, William Rosenberg. Some people may crush these moments by pointing out the financial state of the franchise; however, there is only so much information that one can imbibe on a Sunday night. Sometimes one can only focus on what is in front of you and take care of the person next to you. Tomorrow is another day.

Through the looking glass with Da Vinci and Carroll

(First appeared in the Rockefeller University Newsletter and the Norwalk Patch):

Have you ever started a project with great gusto only to be distracted, or to switch to something else midstream? Fear not. You are in good company when it comes to an inability to complete projects. Leonardo Da Vinci, arguably the world’s most famous polymath, needs no introduction in terms of his achievements, but was also known for having great difficulty completing tasks. Then again, few people would quibble with having a painting like The Adoration of the Magi on their list of unfinished works.

Today, Da Vinci has been immortalized in the world of fiction by the author, Dan Brown, as a code-writer rather than immersed in scientific, engineering, and artistic endeavors. Who knows? Maybe Brown subconsciously drew some of his inspiration from Da Vinci’s well-known mirror-writing skills. Mirror-writers, mostly left-handers or ambidextrous people, are able to write in the opposite direction and backwards to that of normal writing, so that the text can only be easily read when held up to a mirror. Some people, mostly children in the early developmental stages, or patients with neurological or psychological disorders, may engage in partial mirror writing, i.e. letters or numerals written in reverse appear occasionally in otherwise normal writing.1 There are also anecdotal reports of possible genetic links and a surprisingly high prevalence of mirror writing among normal people. 2

Habitual mirror-writers like Da Vinci have been the subject of numerous scholarly works on neurological phenomena. They are often compared with transient mirror writers like Reverend Charles Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll, author of the children’s classics,Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There. Carroll occasionally penned “looking glass letters,” as in the poem, Jabberwocky, presumably as an artistic device to entertain children. Carroll’s contrived writing appears far removed from the faithful mirror images emblematic of Da Vinci’s writings in his notebooks, and probably involved different neural mechanisms or other causes.3

It may be fashionable to group unusual behaviors of famous figures in categories marked “disease” or “disorder,” however, there is no doubt that the origins and content of Da Vinci and Carroll’s writings will continue to fascinate scholars and laymen alike.

References
1. Nakano, M., T. Endo, and S. Tanaka, A second Leonardo da Vinci? Brain Cogn. 2003, 53(1) 9-14.
2. Schlott, G.D., Some neurological observations on Leonardo da Vinci’s handwriting. J Neurol Sci. 1979, 42 (3) 321-9.
3. Larner, A., The Neurology of ‘Alice.’ ACNR 2006, 4(6) 35-36.

Tea and ingenuity (First appeared in The Norwalk Patch

Visionaries with great products and effective marketing skills deserve our praise. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are two examples that readily jump to mind. The business acumen and drive of these two men have led to the near-ubiquitous use of their products in homes from Norwalk to Nanjing. While each man can point to logistical and personal struggles in making their respective dreams come true, they were fortunate in the sense that the launch of Apple Computers and Microsoft software happened in relatively prosperous times.

What would it take to launch and/or expand a business in the midst of an economic recession? Innovation is undoubtedly an important ingredient of the recipe for success, as demonstrated by revolutionary discoveries made during the years following the Great Depression at Bell Laboratories. Jon Gertner, author of “ The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation,” quoted Bill Gates: “My first stop on any time-travel expedition would be Bell Labs in December 1947.” Indeed, the Boston Globepraised Gertner’s book, which describes the New Jersey-based think tank that churned out inventions such as “the transistor, the radio telescope, the laser,” and of course “our entire modern communications infrastructure.” Post-depression America also benefited on a smaller scale from entrepreneurs who had to figure out ways to survive in harsh economic times without the backing of AT&T or “angel investments.”

Time travelers in search of such entrepreneurs can navigate back to October 1929, when the Wall Street stock market crash heralded the start of the Great Depression. One couple, the Bigelows, suddenly had to deal with the financial shock of the husband’s (David, Sr.) job loss and reduced revenues from the wife’s (Ruth Campbell or RC) decorating business. After more than three decades of mastering the decorating business and faced with the knowledge that the market no longer required her services, Ruth Bigelow came to the realization that she had to reinvent herself.

She decided to go into the food business. Her son, David Bigelow, would later recall that his seventy-year-old father and fifty-year-old mother had to dip into their savings to launch the business (in 1945). The production and/or distribution of Chinese seasoning and tapioca kept the fledgling business afloat for its first three years; however, Ruth also had other ideas percolating in the back of her mind.

She had always loved tea and toiled away to perfect a brew blended with orange peel and sweet spice.  One of her friends delivered this favorable feedback: “Ruth, your tea caused nothing but constant comments.” Ruth, who had been searching for a label to describe her delicious brew, thought that “Constant Comment® was an apt description of her tea’s popularity and promptly adopted the phrase.

The Bigelow couple then embarked on an uphill battle to market the tea. Grocers were skeptical about their product and sales were slow in the few stores willing to stock the tea. Ruth and her husband did not give up. They designed a colorful label and Ruth started placing small ads in newspapers directing prospective customers to stores selling her tea. Nevertheless, lack of consumer knowledge and demand had the potential to spell the death knell for their product.

A pivotal moment came when they followed the advice of a food broker, who suggested selling their teas to department stores, gourmet, and gift shops. Another epiphany came when Ruth remembered that a customer had immediately purchased her tea after smelling its unique fragrance. As a next step, the Bigelows filled a jar with tea and a label inviting the customer to “open and take a whiff.”

Sales representatives reported back to the Bigelows that “Constant Comment” ® tea sold at a brisk pace in stores carrying the whiffing jars. The ensuing years brought prosperity and the Bigelows moved their growing business to Norwalk (also highlighted in a 1954 article by The Bridgeport Sunday Post; see exhibit at the Norwalk Museum).

The hurricane of 1955 halted that prosperity. Bridges gave way to the raging waters and the back wall of the Bigelow building also collapsed. David Bigelow recalled in his book, My Mother Loved Tea (a copy is available at the Norwalk Museum), that his aging father was faced with the reality of having to start over once again. Luckily good relationships trumped self-interest. The Bigelow couples’ vendors told them, “pay us when you can.” This open credit policy enabled them to bounce back quickly and Ruth later launched a nationwide ad campaign that played an important role in the early success of “Constant Comment”® tea.  Subsequently, the business was moved to Fairfield in the 1980s.

While the next two generations added over 120 varieties of tea, colorful labels and other innovations to the brand, Ruth continued to experiment by adding tea as an ingredient to many of her recipes as a way of increasing demand for her product. Her“Constant Comment”® holiday punch (orange and pineapple juices, lemonade, ginger ale and freshly brewed “Constant Comment”® tea topped off with orange sherbet and garnished with mint leaves) remains a crowd-pleaser to this very day. Other tea-infused delights that built upon her ideas include Earl Grey Royal cream puffs, green tea ginger teacakes and pomegranate muffins incorporating the flavor of the Bigelow®Pomegranate Pizzazz® tea (Recipes can be found in My Mother Loved Tea and athttp://www.bigelowtea.com/).

Now in its third generation, this family-owned business continues to thrive in Fairfield, CT, Lexington, KY, and Boise, ID, producing over 1.6 billion tea bags annually.

Ruth passed away in 1966 after a protracted battle with cancer and her husband died a few years later at the age of 92. Let us all toast the ingenuity and persistence of an entrepreneurial couple with a cup of Ruth’s favorite brew.

Acknowledgment: Thanks to the Bigelows for reviewing this post. The family also provided images for one-time use. Please direct queries regarding permissions for image reproductions directly to the company.

American immigrants – The New Wave

A warm welcome to all my new subscribers. I would be grateful for your feedback about ordinary people you might know  who inspire you and who are new immigrants. I hope to expand those ideas with appropriate acknowledgments.

Thanks ! Enjoy.

Immigrant stories

Irish-Americans. Italian-Americans. Mexican-Americans. Chinese-Americans. Each generation or catastrophe seems to bring a flock of immigrants to these shores, either fleeing persecution or hoping for a better life. That hope is personified by success stories of great immigrants building a better life for themselves and society such as Andrew Carnegie and others. One might well say that these days a hyphenated designation of nationality is meaningless, because everyone is automatically anointed with a “can-do-and-will-succeed” spirit once they reach a land vested in the principles of freedom and justice. For the silent majority of people, this is indeed the case. They follow tried-and-true traditions of forming small communities, often toiling away in positions sidestepped by those who have lived here for more than a generation. Each immigrant also brings with him or her a unique heritage to integrate and expand the great melting pot known as the United States of America. Sometimes those stories are larger than life and become part of global discourse e.g., some Quakers dissatisfied with the teachings of the Church of England settled in North America and brought with them a view of non-violence that resonated across real-world boundaries with the likes of Tolstoy and Gandhi. Others reached these shores as slaves and imbued future generations with a legacy of standing tall in the face of suffering and contributing to the heart and soul of a society.

However, in a digital age where sound-bites can obscure the changing dynamics of immigration, it is worthwhile to share a cup-of-java with a new immigrant on a cyber-porch and find out how they are adjusting to life in the USA.

Female scientists

International Women's Day

Happy International Women’s Day, everyone. I wrote a series of posts about female scientists that appeared – you guessed it – in the Norwalk Patch. I am reposting the links here for your reading enjoyment.

1. http://patch.com/connecticut/norwalk/female-pioneers-sciences-part-1-0

2. http://patch.com/connecticut/norwalk/female-pioneers-sciences-part-2-0

3. http://patch.com/connecticut/norwalk/female-pioneers-sciences-part-3-0

4. http://patch.com/connecticut/norwalk/female-pioneers-sciences-part-4-0

The caregiver (First appeared in The Norwalk Patch)

Physical strength is measured by what we can carry; spiritual by what we can bear.

— Unknown

The caregiver pulled his car into the nursing home parking lot. Rhinestone Cowboy, the country song made famous by Glen Campbell, faded with the sound of the car engine. His reprieve from the day-to-day worries over an ailing father, an Alzheimer’s disease-sufferer, was at an end. His brother had suggested the road trip. The weekend admiring fall foliage and reminiscing over the family had been a bittersweet event. The highlight of the trip had been a joint viewing of embroidered narratives by Holocaust survivor,Esther Krinitz, at a local museum. Her stitch-by-stitch tale of horrors encountered during World War II provided evidence of a sharp memory, unlike the jumbled thoughts of his father.

He had seen the warning physical signs marking the onset of his father’s disease and watching the progressive deterioration had taken a toll on his own well-being. He had needed coping tips and the support of a sibling. He felt rejuvenated, knowing that hiscry for help after succumbing to caregiver burnout, had not fallen on deaf ears. He signed his name in the nursing home guest book, punched the door code for the Alzheimer’s wing and knocked on his father’s door.

The massage therapist let him into the room. His sister-in-law had suggested the therapist’s services as a birthday treat for his mute father. When he saw the light in the old man’s eyes, he knew that she had been right. His father had responded to the warmth of the therapist’s caring touch. His own gruff expression softened as he held his father’s hand. The meeting was brief, because there was nothing left to say anymore. However, he felt strangely at peace as he returned to his car and switched on the radio. Someone was interviewing former Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O’ Connor, on one of the stations. The interviewer gingerly enquired about her late husband, who had died of the disease in 2009, before shifting back to the more comfortable terrain of her illustrious career.

He reached his home and sorted through the pile of papers and magazines on the kitchen table. A Time magazine article about new biomarkers for detecting the memory-robbing illness in its earliest stages, caught his eye. Another piece of paper about Glen Campbell’s brave fight with Alzheimer’s disease fell to the floor. He would have to read that article another time. He first needed to figure out where to come up with the next month’s payment for his father’s nursing home stay. He balanced his checkbook and marked the calendar. Next week he would attend a caregivers’ support group meeting. The topic would be art and music therapy for Alzheimer’s disease. The purpose that an early-Alzheimer’s-disease sufferer found in Poetry, would also strengthen each member of the group. His courage returned because he could now rely on the support and understanding of other people.

 

Iran (first appeared in The Norwalk Patch)

I attended this exhibit last year and wrote about it in The Patch:

Enjoy!

Mention Iran in the West and it may conjure images of war-mongering mullahs, nuclear weapons, and villains from a Homeland episode. However, this is also a country that gave us incomparable poetry and art. Interested readers are referred to the writings of Rumi and Hafez (see Wikipedia) for examples. Modern writers that have stepped into the international spotlight include human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Shirin Ebadi. Iranian modern art is also currently on display (until Jan 5, 2014) at the Asia Society in New York .