Thirty years ago, on the evening of Thursday November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall started to fall.
Why do I mention this in a blog about science and entrepreneurship? For an entrepreneur tapping into any idea, the greatest of those ideas, with the greatest potential, are those that resonate with the hopes and imagination of humanity.
That moment became a symbol of the culmination of aspirations expressed over a generation of time that sought to heal some consequences of a World War that lasted from 1939 to 1945, a war that cost the terrible loss of millions of lives and in which even more atrocities in related events spanned well before and after those specific years.
In that brief space of time, when hands reached out to each other, when peoples divided for decades sipped together from the Champagne of unity, the human heart believed that even greater accomplishments were possible as we strove into the future undivided.
Even before this moment, when I was a young student of science, I learned about this yearning by people to reach beyond boundaries to connect, because great science was about collaborating to advance important discoveries.
As a young boy, reading an introductory book about physics, what I still remember of that book is a story about an international conference, held during the Cold War, where two famous scientists from America and the Soviet Union would speak rapturously about physics at every chance they could find.
In university, professors would teach us about seminal experiments, conducted by scientists in different countries, that created the foundations of the field.
In the chemistry lab of my graduate studies in Toronto, students from eighteen countries, across four continents, came through. Up to that point, I never traveled outside Canada except to a few cities in the United States for family summer vacations. That experience in the lab brought the world to me. It inspired me to think bigger and to aspire to reach out further.
The same experience of a prior generation
Historic events are forgotten with each generation. We all grow up never knowing about events before our lifetime. That is a mechanism of change, when we are not constrained by the conventions or beliefs of prior generations.
This can be for the better, but more often, it can also be for the worse. How we can make the net result for the better is to build on the wise foundations of the past.
Good science is like this, because it builds on knowledge and observations accumulated from the past. We would not have atomic theory without the painstaking experiments of centuries. We would not have molecular biology without atomic theory. We would not have treatments for deadly medical conditions without molecular biology. And these connections go far deeper and broader than this.
Good art is like this too. It teaches us about ourselves and about lessons that are universal, using the context of the artist’s time.
William Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1950.
Literary critic Richard Ellman noted that “some of his readers interpreted him too narrowly as a portrayer of a dying culture who recognized with reluctance and disappointment the encroachments of a new century.”
However, Faulkner responded on one occasion with impatience, “I try to tell the truth of man. The area is incidental.”
Indeed, the sociopolitical events propelling history today are still about cultures and encroachments of the future.
Faulkner’s speech on acceptance of the Nobel Prize was only 555 words. Here is most of it:
Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.
He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.
Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.
I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.
The context of this speech was just five years after the end of the Second World War. He addressed directly the fear that was emerging of global nuclear war.
I was not born when all of this happened. I have no context of how one might feel about being blown up in a nuclear holocaust at that time.
Yet Faulkner’s poetry is universal and timeless. It is about the struggle of the human heart in conflict with itself. The number of likes and followers on a social network are not as meaningful as a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.
Like the fall of the Berlin Wall, as Ellmann describes: the poetry of Faulkner’s words as a creative artist was undeceived and unvanquished. When I read the last paragraph of Faulkner’s speech, these words are thunderous. They call to the heart to have courage to strive for a better future.
The challenge for the scientist
The two World Wars and the events leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall derived from geopolitics.
In geopolitics, people are unified by nationalistic pride, to annihilate other peoples. It is universal to human nature to rally against an adversary.
If we do not learn from this universal past, these same patterns across history will repeat, and we are seeing this.
Now, we fail to see a greater adversary, created by all of us: the sustainability of our species and all other sentient species on this planet. There are multiple “enemies” encroaching on many fronts.
The scientist and entrepreneur is not one who relies on politicians or others to address these. There are challenges and opportunities to create sustainable infrastructure, sustainable materials, industrial processes with a cleaner footprint, all with economic advantages that can exceed any government-directed programs.
Ellmann wrote that Faulkner regards the writer as a kind of rebel against the inhibiting forces of the external world. The same can be of the scientist.
The scientist’s duty is to explore these things. It is the scientist’s privilege to help our species and our fellow species endure by creating the props, the pillars to help us endure and prevail.