A talk I gave on June 22 as part of Ignite 9.0 at the Science Gallery here in Dublin.
It was a naval vessel, though nobody knows where from, and people stood on its deck looking at the small inflatable floating in the sea a short distance away. There were people in the inflatable. They were shouting at the vessel. Some were lying down, not moving, others stood gesticulating. They held up an empty water bottle, and what seemed to be a couple of dolls. Some of the people on the vessel took out their cameras and phones and started taking pictures and video. There was a telescope too. Looking through the telescope, it was obvious that the two dolls were in fact two babies. As the vessel moved past the inflatable, a couple of people in the dinghy jumped off and started trying to push the smaller boat towards the larger one. But it was travelling too fast for them to catch up. The two groups of people watched each other as they went out of sight.
In The Amazing Spider-man, there is a scene where Spider-man chases a giant green lizard along a bridge. The lizard is tossing cars over the side as it passes, and Spidey is lassoing and tying them to the guard-rails with his amazing super-strong-webbing before they hit the water. As Spider-man runs and leaps along, a man stops him and says ‘My kid is down there’, pointing to one of the cars. Spider-man looks down and sees a small boy, crying, strapped into a seat in the car dangling below. He looks up, sees his enemy getting away, but turns back to save the child. And this decision, this moment, marks his graduation from vigilante to hero. His coming of age.
During the night of 26 March 2011, a boatload of 72 refugees including two infants left Tripoli, Libya heading for Lampedusa, Italy. The boat was an inflatable dingy with a motor. The captain had a compass, a satellite phone, and around 2 days of fuel. Passengers were told that they would reach Lampedusa in 18 hours.
2 weeks later, on April 10, the same boat washed back up 40 miles from where it set out. They never made it. Of the initial 72 refugees, only 9 survived. This was no Discovery channel documentary of misadventure, this was the conscious shunning of 63 people dying of thirst and starvation in the middle of one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, in direct contravention of maritime law.
When their fuel ran out, the captain used the satellite phone to contact a migrant rights organisation in Rome for help, and they in turn alerted the Italian coastguard. A military helicopter flew to the refugees and lowered biscuits and a couple of bottles of water, it signalled it would return but never did. In the two weeks they were adrift they also encountered a fishing boat, which told them they were heading in the wrong direction for Italy before speeding off, and a large naval vessel.
The large naval vessel was a NATO warship, country of origin unknown. To thirsty refugees adrift in a rubber inflatable, its appearance must have seemed superhuman. It would have dwarfed them with its engines, noise, size. They were close enough to see people on deck hold up their phones and cameras. The possibility of rescue must have seemed only moments away. But this time, Spider-man ignored the child. Actually no. In this case, Spider-man took photos and video of the child before turning and continuing on.
There has been an inquiry by the Council of Europe, and a report on the incident entitled “Lives lost in the Mediterranean sea: who is responsible?” which found various people, countries, and international agencies negligent. It detailed what it referred to as a “vacuum of responsibility”, where countries need to acknowledge the duty of care they have to refugees. “Before starting a war, you have to know: where do you put the prisoners? Where do you put the dead? What do you do with the refugees?”
This year Syria is a country in the grip of horrific violence and fighting. Landmines have allegedly been placed at border crossings preventing refugees from leaving. While the British government has officially condemned the violence and cut off diplomatic ties with Syria, entry policies to the UK were recently adjusted meaning travellers from Syria and Libya will now require visas. Unfortunately, it is impossible to get a visa in a country where all embassies are shut indefinitely. People are effectively trapped.
In 2011, approximately 1500 people died at sea trying to reach Europe. Whilst the nine survivors of this disaster all subsequently left Libya and are attempting to settle in various countries, Spain is still arguing with NATO about culpability. Yet it continues to happen. On Monday 9 July, a man was found clinging to a fuel-tank, claiming to be the sole survivor of a boatload of 55 refugees who had left Tripoli, bound for Lampedusa, while this weekend reports are coming in of the worst massacre to date in Syria, in the small town of Tremseh.
In Stan Lee’s Spider-man comics, the hero is driven by his Uncle Ben’s famous line “With great power there must also come great responsibility”. Those of us who find ourselves in positions of privilege must acknowledge our social responsibility, and remember that change can be accomplished through individual heroic action, no matter how small. And remember too that privilege can simply be the freedom to work, live, and love, free from fear and oppression.
Back in the movie, as Spider-man is rescuing the child, the car bursts into flames. He shouts to the terrified boy to climb out of the car, then takes off his mask and throws it to him, telling him to put it on, that it will give him strength. The boy does. Because we all have the potential to be superheros. We are all capable of acts of personal heroism. It’s a choice. We can choose to chase the giant green lizard, or we can save the child/climb out of the burning car. The people on the warship, in the helicopter, the fishing boat, they all chose not to be heroes. They chose to chase the lizard.
It is March 3 2012. And it is snowing in Syria tonight. Thousands of people are hiding in their houses while the army marches on the city of Homs. Many men and boys over the age of twelve have already been killed, and in some places the gutters are running with blood. The women, children, and those that are left have lived for days with no food. No heat. No water. No power.
The city of Homs has been under attack for 27 days now. Since early February. The shelling starts at 6am each day and continues until 6pm, with a break for lunch from 1-2. And all the while there are snipers. This information is filtered out online. Sporadically. With shaky video and rapid tweets. 140 characters of catastrophe. 140 characters of horror, and fear.
A small band of western journalists made it into Syria when the fighting started, and holed up in Homs to report from the frontline of the rebel resistance. Not all have made it home.
Anthony Shadid (New York Times) died of an asthma attack as he tried to leave. His colleague Tyler Hicks (New York Times) carried his body across the border into Lebanon. Marie Colvin (The Sunday Times) and award-winning photo-journalist Remi Ochlik were killed during heavy shelling. Edith Bouvier (Le Figaro) and Paul Conroy (The Sunday Times) were wounded in the same incident. Edith made a video plea for evacuation. Her leg was shattered, she was losing blood. Word went out that she was on Twitter, so hundreds of people tweeted her all through the night. “Be strong”. “I am praying for you.” ‘We are all with you”. And she would retweet to show she was reading. This went on for a few days, and then it stopped. Silence.
Today she was one of the ones who did make it home. Up to 13 activists are thought to have died in the evacuation of the journalists, such was their overwhelming need to have the story of Homs told. Paul Conroy also got out, as did Javier Espinosa and William Daniels. But twitter is still very silent. Even the civilian bloggers and activists are silent. The people of Homs are alone in the dark and the snow.
Now the journalists are back in our technicolour world. On Sky News, on CNN, frantically telling the West to “Do something”. The stations are ablaze, just as we are used to. So easy to ignore, to flick to something more palatable. So far away from a mattress on a concrete floor, with the windows blown in and nothing beyond tomorrow. But maybe a phone, with a signal, that can send a small beacon out into the dark. A whole world in 140 characters.
Inhabiting the same twitter-world as the city of Homs is a small craft which goes by the handle @NASAVoyager2, and is hurtling towards the edges of human perception. NASA’s Voyager 2 was launched on August 20 1977 and was intended as a probe to study the outer solar system and interstellar space. It has been travelling for 34 years now, and at some as-yet-unknown-point in the coming days and weeks, it will leave our solar system. When it does, it will be the only artefact from the human race to have done so. It will be so far away that it will never come home.
Back in 1990, on Valentine’s Day -Feb 14, Voyager 2′s sister probe, Voyager 1, was ordered to turn around and take a photo of Earth. This became the famous Pale Blue Dot. Just as the Earthrise photo of 1968 gave us the first glimpse of our planet from space, the Pale Blue Dot gives us our first feel of cosmic perspective.
Those few nights, as I read the tweets to Edith Bouvier, and tweeted her myself, it seemed to me that people were not just reaching out to her. We were reaching out beyond, signaling into the dark that we are here, paying attention. That we are bearing witness. That we want to keep the people of Homs safe. And if this is not possible, if this is another Dobrinja, then there is a fundamental disconnect between the peoples of this planet.
Then the random tweets of @NASAVoyager2 would pop up on my feed, and pull me away from a mattress in Homs, far, far out to the edges of the galaxy. So far out that the solar wind has slowed to a whisper. And there I turn and I look back…
“The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” Carl Sagan
Type ‘Cloning‘ into Google, scroll down through the first page of definitions, skim past the science links, persevere on through the educational links, YouTube documentaries, and by the 5th page -there! You’re in crazy-land. Some of the wildest, weirdest, and most imaginative thinking on the internet surrounds you. I thought I’d run through the ones that get my nerd going, just to give you a taste of what is possible on our planet…
Let’s start with a simple introduction to the technicals. Click and Clone is a beautiful ‘How-to’ for the rookie cloner. Take one Mimi, a cute brown mouse, and turn her into two. Easy as. And you get to do it over again if it goes pear-shaped. It’s free, repeatable, and best of all -digital. No mess.
This next site is more upscale. Think of it like the haute couture of cloning. Fabulously imaginative, ridiculously expensive, and very exclusive. You won’t know anyone with the RMX2010 -A new cell fusion device specialized in embryonic cell fusion, developed by the Clonaid™ scientific team. The RMX is the André Leon-Talley of scientific equipment, available from cloning experts Clonaid (their work is so important that their exact location is Top Secret). Who wouldn’t want one of these for a spot of DIY cloning in the privacy of their own home. A couple of key selling features are its use of a “highly precise square wave”, and “a foot switch allowing both of your hands to operate other equipment.” Fabulous yet efficient.
Last year, the RMX2010 retailed at approximately $10,000, however the price appears to have been removed from the site in recent months. I guess in times of economic hardship it never hurts to haggle. Before you navigate away from the pregnant bump of cloning, take a peek at Clonaid’s homepage, with its subtle Oh-we-would-never-ever-tell-who-wanted-us-to-clone-them-no-way-not-ever-because-privacy-is-really-really-important-especially-to-Michael-Jackson-who-was-mad-for-the-cloning message.
And, dear reader, permit me to lead you slightly off-piste for a moment, to something really very special… the Raelians. I’m not going to give much away about the pop singer/racing driver/messiah who had chats with aliens and set up a groovy website to disseminate their Book as a “Free Download“. (Well Moses had stone tablets, now we’ve got Free Downloads. The Gods are moving with the times.) Rael even has some pretty strong opinions on cloning. Worth noting that the Raelians started Clonaid, I’m not too clear on the logistics or time-frame -definitely same bunch of people. But no, I’m not saying anything else, you can enjoy this on your own.
Another personal favourite was Genetic Savings and Clone -a bank with a difference. Lodge Fluffy’s DNA, and when she poodled off the planet you could cash it in and have her cloned. For the cheap cheap price of $50,000. Fluffy 2 if you will. Let’s not forget that while a clone may be a genetic reproduction, it is, of course, an entirely different organism. Sadly Genetic Savings and Clone never really took off, and despite slashing their prices in a bid to lure clients, they quietly folded, and now customers must lodge their DNA with various biotech firms.
The science of cloning is so new, so underground, fast-paced, it is often either a marriage of the wealthy and wacky, or the tragic and innovative. There are certain religions which don’t have any ethical issues with cloning, and this can determine the jurisdiction chosen by a company or organisation to work in. Judaism is one example, making Israel a popular destination for research facilities. Islam doesn’t have any faith-based restrictions either, so the Middle East is another hotbed of genetic manipulation. Catholicism outlaws any scientific practice using egg cells, while different areas within the UK have different codes of practice, with some procedures legal in one place and not in another. In general it is a poorly regulated, poorly policed industry, with plenty of scope for the exploitation of vulnerable, grieving people.
Because you see, many of the people who want to clone, want to clone someone they have lost. People who have lost children, people who scrape the stem-cells of a loved one from the road after a car crash. People who miss beloved pets. People driven by loss who just want a second chance. To see and touch and be with someone one more time. Who wouldn’t understand that?
Cloning will not take the pain away. And while we humans may be crazy, and some of us may be gullible, most of us understand the finality of separation as a fair exchange for the luxury of being born.
Over the last few months, I have become aware of a new phenomenon in my little online world. And it seems particularly relevant during this season of remembrance. Two people I was friends with on Facebook died this year. A few weeks apart, both young, both suddenly, both tragically. In the odd way of friendship in the 21st century, I hadn’t seen one person in over 20 years, while the other I really only knew in passing. And as it happened, I found out about both on Facebook, through messages and news feeds.
Occasionally still, as I noodle about online, a photo pops up of me with one or the other. Complete with comments and usually a record of a brief exchange. Often it’s an old old photo of some moment decades ago, that would in any other time have been consigned to an attic, forgotten. But now brings a momentary resurrection. Facebook stores everything. And even when you’re gone, your profile remains.
In a beautiful way, these profiles have become remembrances. Way stations you can pause at, scroll through the messages people leave. A virtual grave that never weathers.
Though that is not their original function. A profile is a nexus between many things and many people. With our profile we decide who we are and how we wish to present ourselves. Some people pour their life out online. Others are selective, dropping in tidbits. Digital DNA, a virtual imprint that remains caught in the net. A series of codes and algorithms, loosely joined by patterns of people who view and visit, patterns that will gradually fade away. Isn’t it in memory we remain… remembered. Re-membered. Put back together for a moment. In that moment of viewing, remembering, that moment different for each, they return to us once more. Just a shadow, a brief flicker as the pathways re-ignite.
Boyd was your brother.
Yes. He’s been dead many a year.
You still miss him though.
Yes I do. All the time.
Was he the younger?
He was. By two years.
He was the best. We run off to Mexico together. When we was kids. When our folks died. We went down there to see about gettin back some horses they’d stole. We were just kids. He was awful good with horses. I always liked to watch him ride. Liked to watch him around horses. I’d give about anything to see him one more time.
I hope you’re right
You sure you don’t want a glass of water?
No mam. I’m all right.
She patted his hand. Gnarled, ropescarred, speckled from the sun and the years of it. The ropy veins that bound them to his heart. There was map enough for men to read. There God’s plenty of signs and wonders to make a landscape. To make a world.
An extract from Cities of the Plain, by Cormac McCarthy
I grew up in Africa. Nigeria, to be precise. We lived in a few different towns, but stayed the longest in a place called Garkawa in Plateau. It was very rural, no electricity, no running water. Two seasons; dry, and rainy. One of my favourite stories growing up was about the region’s chief…
It was the custom of the local tribe that no man over the age of forty could be chief. To this end, if the chief did not die before his fortieth birthday -he was killed.
Rumour was that the fat from his body was rendered down and used to cook the meals of the next chief, ensuring the power and knowledge could be passed on down the line.
The chief in the ’70s was very wealthy. He travelled in a limousine, with bodyguards and guns. Of course this could not save him. One day, one of his bodyguards assassinated him. And everybody understood why.
Juju, or witchcraft pretty much determined everything in Garkawa. It is a harsh place, people are very superstitious and there were strict codes to live by. Very much like Catholicism in Ireland. It wasn’t that hard to return here and start going to Catholic school. Once you have the habit of observing strange rituals and customs in one place, you sort of assume that everywhere has its quirks.
My son’s grandmother told me how she met the parish priest on the road after having had her first child just a few days before, and he made her kneel down then and there in the street to be ‘churched’. Churching was the purification of a woman after childbirth. It was very bad luck to go out without having been churched. Because, you know, the fairies might get you. That’s right. Fairies. Better to be made kneel in front of the priest, in front of everyone, on the dirty road in Ballyfermot than be got by a fairy.
That was 1970′s Ireland.
In 2005, the Mater Hospital in Dublin -a major teaching hospital in the city, refused to permit trials of a new drug for lung cancer patients. Apparently, the requirement that recipients use contraception during treatment contravened the Catholic ethos of the hospital, and so the ethics committee refused to permit the trials. After some media coverage, wording was revised, ‘abstinence’ was deemed a suitable compromise and trials were given the green light.
This was not the first instance of such a dispute, nor the only hospital. Just an instance the media picked up on.
Contraception is permitted by Judaism, Islam, Protestantism, Hinduism, Buddhism -to varying degrees by internal sects within each religion, but permitted nonetheless. It is banned in Roman Catholicism. The Roman Catholic church maintains that sex must only occur between a married, heterosexual couple, and there must be no barrier to procreation, either physical or hormonal. The ‘family’ is the divine unit, and can only be comprised of a heterosexual married couple and their children.
When I went to school, nobody ever mentioned my father because my parents were separated. Nobody asked me about him, nobody spoke about him. Nuns regularly lectured us on the evils of broken homes and immorality of divorce. At the weekends I campaigned for the Divorce Action Group, occasionally saw my father if he was back in the country (he lived abroad). Kept silent during the week.
One day when I was twelve I had enough and stood up to a nun. Her name was Dolores. I told her that I wanted my parents to be divorced, so we could move on, that I didn’t have a broken home, I had a nice happy home, and I didn’t understand how God would disapprove. Two other girls backed me up. It was scary but felt good.
Last week each child in my son’s class had to write a letter to another child in the class (they’re all six and seven years old). He got a lovely letter from a friend who drew pictures of the two of them, and wrote about spending the weekend in her dad’s house watching X-factor. When my ex-husband and I separated a few years ago, we could go on a website (American of course) and download 4 different templates for timetabling how to divide time between two homes, plus pages and pages of troubleshooting tips for separated parents. There are books for adults, for kids, advice on mediation, finances, and recovery. Everyone knows. No more code, no more loaded words. The silence is broken.
The Roman Catholic ban on contraception has been in existence since the first centuries of Christianity. The church has blurred the edges somewhat, turned a blind eye here and there, but refused to waver publicly. Even in the face of AIDS, overpopulation, changing social structures, and life-saving cancer treatment. This fundamental standpoint on human sexuality determines and defines the course of the church’s theology, its perception of the roles and potentialities of the men, women and children in its congregation. In wars, sex is commonly used as a weapon of destruction. To destroy an opponent’s genetic future while managing to terrorize, wound, and humiliate along the way.
Who are these men fighting?
Empires have risen and fallen, plagues have burnt across continents, the revolution has been industrial, political, technological, digital, and televised, countless conflicts have changed the maps, we contemplate evolution, men have walked and danced on the moon, we have seen the spark of life through microscopes, and the cosmos through telescopes, we can bend time by flying faster than the speed of sound, communicate across thousands of miles in an instant, harness the knowledge of millions of people to help answer any question, at any time… the ages of discoveries and inventions which then led to new perspectives, which in turn have led to new discoveries and inventions; how far and irrevocably changed is the human race from what we were two millennia ago? And yet? The Roman Catholic Church remains steadfast. Holding on firmly to the words of dead men thousands of years ago who believed that the sun travelled around us, that the world was made in less than a week, and that the earth was flat.
Oh, and that every week we should gather together and re-enact a guy’s last meal before he got executed, where we watch a priest magic bread and wine into flesh and blood for us all to line up and eat…
I’m not sure if the chief in Garkawa still gets killed off when he’s forty. These days, there is so much sectarian unrest, and such a high level of violence between the Muslim and Christian communities, that he mightn’t last long anyway. But, regardless of whether someone is Muslim or Christian, juju will always come first.
Because you never know when the fairies might get you.
I just listened to Steve Reich’s WTC 9/11 courtesy of NPR. My mother and step-dad lived and worked in New York for many years. I loved the Twin Towers. My mother told me how she went up once in the early ’70′s when it was raining, and the rain blew upwards. When I visited I especially liked standing right on the edge of the windows on the 107th floor, where the reinforced glass poked out away from the building so only a couple of inches separated you from oblivion.
I was rehearsing a production of Macbeth when someone said on a break that the towers had fallen. When I turned on my phone there was a voicemail from my mother Everyone is safe. We’re all fine. No matter what you hear, we’re all fine. The phone-lines will probably go down but I’ll get through later. My mother is very practical. I did get to talk to her for 3 minutes some hours later. Fighter jets kept flying overhead so it was difficult to hear. Before we got cut off, she said that she was ready to go into the city to help at the hospital, that thousands of people were on standby to give blood, volunteer, but that there were no wounded, the hospitals were empty. The line went dead.
The next time she got through she spoke of trains passing overhead (they lived beside the Hell’s Gate Bridge) with carriages full of soldiers. She said that the levels of carcinogens in the air would be horrific, and she pitied the firefighters working without protection.
Six weeks later I flew American Airlines across the Atlantic on my honeymoon. All 150+ people on the plane were terrified. No-one spoke. The pilots walked up and down the seats at the boarding gate looking each person in the eye. My mum brought me down to Ground Zero. It stank of death and concrete.
A few months later my parents moved down to Wall St. Rents had dropped dramatically and they always wanted to live in Manhattan. They lived across the road from the Stock Exchange and when I visited I saw Ground Zero almost daily. My favourite building was the Widow. I had spent a few weeks in Berlin in 1995 while Christo was wrapping the Reichstag, but this derelict skyscraper with her shroud of black netting was so much more beautiful, so much more evocative. The art emerged from the artifacts in such a literal way. Outside the windows of my parents’ apartment were mounds of grey dust that lay there untouched.
Aside from the horror, the ensuing wars, I was fascinated by smaller details of that event; the Irish man who walked out of a tower as the plane his sister and niece were on flew into it, the phone calls, the fact that the temperature across North America rose by a couple of degrees because of the lack of contrails in the sky, the decisions to jump, the decision to kill.
I played Lady Macbeth in that production for the Dublin Fringe Festival, and I was nominated for Best Actress and the show won Best Production. We performed on the old wooden stage of the SFX here in Dublin. The audience sat around us on rickety chairs. It was an unsettling, weird show because it is an unsettling, weird play. Macbeth was the first play I ever read. I bought it for myself in a bookshop in Galway when I was ten, fascinated by the witches, the evil, and the rhythm of the language. Like spells I thought.
… Come ye spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! Make thick my blood;
Stop up th’ access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief! Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry “Hold, hold”
I love that line “Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark, To cry “Hold, hold”.
I like to imagine sometimes that in another universe those planes flew on, those people landed, finished work, continued with their lives. That my parents remained in Astoria, remained in New York, I didn’t hand back my green card, took those elevators again, perhaps made different decisions. Today I stood on the end of a pier here in Ireland, and rethought myself back to that slice of reinforced glass jutting out over the canyons of my favourite city. I imagined the rain flying up and remembered what they write on sundials:
Time flies, suns rise and shadows fall
Let it pass by
Love reigns forever over all
A couple of years ago, I asked my clever friend Wayne to explain colons and semi-colons to me. He did, and talked to me about how they were just ways to ‘unpack’ a sentence. This got me thinking for a long time after about what and how we ‘pack’ things away; in language, in our bodies, in images. Often not even consciously. Physical tensions we’ve carefully stored in a muscle, only to have an accidental twinge years later that leaves us exhausted and emotional after being massaged out. Or perhaps we tidy memories away in a photo, the rediscovering of which catapults us back through time. Smells can leave me reeling, having awoken old loves and losses.
I like to think of us humans as walking storage facilities for memories. Mobile organic hard drives. When the drive is damaged, the memories become corrupted. They can take over, infiltrate and infect other systems. Render someone temporarily, or sometimes permanently, disabled. Incapable of moving on. Memories are so powerful they can reactivate hormonal reactions, stimulate physical responses.
One day I was walking down Grafton Street with my step-father, a man who had once been a soldier, and when a street seller set off a small plastic rotor blade attached to a shrieking balloon, my step-father threw himself on me and dragged us both to the ground. Luckily no-one seemed to notice as we picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves down. “Christ. Brought me right back” was all he said.
Imagine if we didn’t have to carry all this around with us, imagine if we could store it outside of ourselves. How would we change? Would we be different? Would we look different? If every year we could sift through memories like we sift through clothes for the charity shop, choosing what we like to think back on, and what we don’t… March 2011? Oh.. right. Keep all the morning drives, all the walks, sea spray, that dinner with the lamb tagine, and the weekend of the 19th… Forget the sleepless nights, the dentist, the time I forgot to put the hand brake on in the petrol station etc… You could lose all those painful, embarrassing memories that stop you in your tracks. The ones we don’t need. Keep the useful ones, the beautiful ones close to the surface.
While thinking about cloning, I spoke to two young women who are identical twins. Natural clones. We talked about epigenetics, about difference, they said that unlike many other identical siblings, they felt they didn’t have a psychic connection. Could only remember one incident they shared (though far apart) that was too great to be coincidence. Yet even though they were dressed completely differently, I noticed they both wore the same shade of yellow nail varnish. When I asked them what music they were listening to on their headphones, it was exactly the same. Same song even I think. They proceeded to argue mildly about who started listening to it first. Then, they told me something fascinating. That they share memories. Things that happen to only one of them, well, after a time they can’t remember which one it happened to. Then, when they tried to give me an example of a time when one of them got sick in kindergarten, they argued. Again. And apparently their family can’t ever remember either. It all gets packed together. Surely it happens less as you get older, live separately, have separate lives I asked. No, they said. It gets worse.
For many years growing up, I travelled a lot. Packing was frequent. There were places I left that were so far away I knew I’d most likely never return. I had to leave many things behind, knowing I’d never see them again. But I learnt that they were only objects, not people. You can’t pack people. Just the thoughts of them. Though never a neat packer, I pride myself on always being able to close a suitcase. No matter how chock-a-block.
And I have always had a fascination with the items displaced people and refugees pack. Essentials only. Maybe a piece of jewellery, or a photo. I imagine their significance. What they store. An interesting exercise developed for schools in 1995 by a woman called Nancy Flowers illustrates very succinctly the impact on your future of what you choose to pack in an emergency.
Read this story:
You are a teacher in the country of L. Your partner ‘disappears,’ probably because of his attempts to form a trade union. During the next months you receive several threatening phone calls, and your name appears in a newspaper article listing suspected subversives. When you arrive home from school tonight, you find an anonymous letter threatening your life. You decide you must flee at once and seek political asylum elsewhere.
Instruct the class:
You have five minutes to pack your bags. You may only take what is in your house at the moment and what you can carry with you. You may choose eight categories of things. On a piece of paper list your eight categories.
Ask each individual to read their list aloud.
At the end of each reading, declare either “Asylum denied” or “Asylum granted,” based on what they’ve chosen to pack. [95% of lists will warrant "Asylum denied"]
Ask participants how they think those judgments were made.
Read the definition of a refugee from the 1951 Refugee Convention or write it on a piece of paper to post in the room. Explain that according to this definition, only those who included either the newspaper clipping or the letter would be likely to prove the “well-founded fear of persecution” required to obtain refugee status.
Packing is always a projection into the future. Be it for a week or a lifetime. Mitochondrial DNA pack enough information for the whole human race, the billions that have passed, and the billions to come. What do we think we will need to bring into the future with us? What will we need for what is to come?
I love the idea that the egg cell and the sperm have everything needed for an entire human life (sometimes even two) packed away neatly inside. Such efficiency. No sitting on that cell to close it. And everything gradually gets unpacked and assembled as needed. All of this -all these sunsets, and tears, all these hopes, these dreams, this hard hard work- all of this spills out of a teeny tiny chance encounter between two miniscule gametes.
The last play I made was about lots of things, but mainly about two young Guinean boys; Yaguine Koita, and Fodé Tounkara who stowed away in the wheel well of a Sabena Airbus en route from Conakry to Brussels. They flew across the continents 3 or 4 times before their bodies were discovered. They had packed two plastic bags containing birth certificates, school report cards, photos and the following letter. For me, there is something mythic about two children as messengers, hiding in the landing gear of an aircraft to deliver a letter to Europe. The world is not so small after all.
Excellencies, Messrs. members and officials of Europe,
…. we call out for your solidarity and your kindness for the relief of Africa. Do help us, we suffer enormously in Africa, we have problems and some shortcomings regarding the rights of the child.
In terms of problems, we have war, disease, malnutrition, etc. As for the rights of the child in Africa, and especially in Guinea, we have too many schools but a great lack of education and training. Only in the private schools can one have a good education and good training, but it takes a great sum of money. Now, our parents are poor and it is necessary for them to feed us. Furthermore, we have no sports schools where we could practice soccer, basketball or tennis.
This is the reason, we, African children and youth, ask you to create a big efficient organization for Africa to allow us to progress.
Therefore, if you see that we have sacrificed ourselves and risked our lives, this is because we suffer too much in Africa and that we need you to fight against poverty and to put an end to the war in Africa. Nevertheless, we want to learn, and we ask you to help us in Africa learn to be like you.
Finally, we appeal to you to excuse us very, very much for daring to write this letter to you, the great personages to whom we owe much respect. And do not forget it is to you whom we must lament about the weakness of our abilities in Africa.
Written by two Guinean children, Yaguine Koita and Fodé Tounkara.
This is a translated extract from the full letter, which can be read in its French original online.
To be continued…
When I was in college, I shared a big, old draughty flat with two art students. One day they heard about these skips round the back of Trinity College. The science buildings were being renovated and new ones built, so boxes upon boxes of beautiful giant glass test-tubes, strange wooden devices, metal clamps, piping -all were being thrown out. Brendan and Melissa salvaged as much as they could of the abandoned equipment, and I was always envious I never found any for myself.
Scientific equipment is fascinating. There is something slightly totemic about it. Designed for a specific use, and often beautiful, I find it magnetic and think of it as having a dialogue with molecules that I can never hear, and only barely comprehend.
The other day I went to the Science Gallery to check out their Elements show, and was tickled to see that there was a piece in the exhibition by one of my favourite artists, Cornelia Parker. She transforms objects in a myriad of ways; by stretching them, exploding them, catching them before they’re finished, changing the way we see them, but always somehow referencing their history.
One series of hers that I love is called Einstein’s Abstracts. A sequence of photographs of Einstein’s blackboard, taken so close up that it looks like a view of the universe. The tiny specks of chalk, like distant stars and planets.
The magic of the image is in all that we cannot see. The view is of the tiniest of fragments of an equation chalked on a blackboard. Capturing a split-second, a moment of thought. And somehow by magnifying the image to dissect it further, she reveals the universe. Which works as a pretty good metaphor for scientific exploration.
Hans Spemann (1869 – 1941) was a Nobel prize-winning embryologist. In 1902, he successfully split a two-celled salamander embryo, thus creating 2 embryos. Given that he worked with such minute structures, Spemann was also an expert in micro-surgery, and often crafted his own thread-like glass needles to use in his work. However, for dividing the salamander embryo, he made something different. Using a small strand of baby hair, he created a miniature noose, which he gently slipped over the cells and then slowly tightened. A deliciously practical invention, yet so evocative and resonant. Later, in 1928, Hans Spemann went on to perform the first somatic cell nuclear transfer, a significant first step on the path to modern cloning techniques…
His noose reminded me of Dieter Rams and his ten principles.
- Is innovative.
- Makes a product useful.
- Is aesthetic.
- Makes a product understandable.
- Is unobtrusive.
- Is honest.
- Is long-lasting.
- Is thorough, down to the last detail.
- Is environmentally friendly.
- Is as little design as possible.
It is during these moments of intersection, when something we hold to be true is switched, transformed, turned upside-down, inside out, granting us a brief revelation, a glimpse of the universe -during these moments there is a defining clarity. There is the same heart to every epiphany in both scientific and artistic discovery. The same willingness to risk, the same cracking open of the unknown.
It is so rare that we get to see the workings of our bodies’ interiors.
In my 30+ years I’ve bled now and again from various cuts and scrapes. Never been stitched. I’ve seen myself swell up on occasion, and developed a new knot on my skull after an encounter with a car. Another encounter with a car (and the tow rope pulling it) allowed me the opportunity, via a tiny camera, to watch a dentist perform a root canal on one of my front teeth. Millimetre by millimetre, for hours and hours.
Only once that I recall have I ever fully focussed on the inner workings of my organism. And though it was not breathing deeply on a yoga mat, in fact it was pretty much as far from it as is possible, it did lead to an epiphany of sorts. I lay on a bed in a crowded ward around midnight, having given birth a couple of hours before. The lights were out, my new pal watchful and quiet beside me. Earlier I had been given a cup of tea, a biscuit, and a task. I had to pee. Apparently I had to pee or I wouldn’t be let go home early.
I couldn’t pee. Again and again I went to the loo and… nothing. Drank copious amounts of water… nothing. No matter how much I concentrated, sending signals deep down into my system. Nope. The phone rang unanswered.
Cut to 6 and a half hours later. My pal has been whisked away. Curtains have been pulled around my bed, needles in each arm, torches, beepers going, four people working on me, and the blood is dripping on the floor.
And through all this mayhem, I kept thinking and concentrating on every sensation inside of me. I imagined the blood cells swirling down to the point of trauma, I pictured them gathering and sticking together like little armies. I had never felt so whole, my organism so united in purpose.
Hurried trip to theatre, plenty of someone else’s blood (thank you very much), and everything sorted out in a couple of days. In case you’re curious, I found exsanguination to be a very floaty, sleepy experience -aside from, of course, the strange sensation of having sprung a leak. And it is very common after childbirth. Unfortunately. But I am luckier than most in that it was, and remains, the only medical intervention or emergency I’ve ever really had to have.
And so I potter around from day-to-day quite removed from the work being done, the decisions being made, the actual construction of material that occurs in my body on a cellular level. Every second, of every minute, this machine of organic matter is shaping, and organising, and rebuilding, and instructing cells and tissues. Amazing. Each cell comes with a set of instructions, a timer, a battery pack and a messaging capability. I kid you not. Each individual cell of me is more efficient, organised, and prepared than I am.
I love instructions. When I drive somewhere far away I’ve never been, I love downloading comprehensive directions and forcing my passenger to read them to me. If we have to divert from the route as instructed, I become agitated and there is always Tension, if not A Row.
Manuals too are a firm favourite. One summer I worked at a fairground in Wildwood, NJ. Absolute heaven. Do you know how big the operator manual for the funhouse is? (Hot tip: VERY dangerous. Never do it. Especially if you’ve not got the correct footwear.)
And naturally I’m curious about DNA, which is, of course, our very own inbuilt instruction manual. If there’s a way outside of a lab to see and touch your DNA… well, wow.
We spent plenty of time in rehearsals extracting our DNA. It got quite competitive. Some people insisted they had more DNA than others, some people felt their DNA was prettier, longer, faster, you get the picture. The thing is, as you swirl the liquid to gather it -like a little mini-tornado, it does seem alive. Well, I guess it is, but something more… I don’t know… you’ll have to try yourself.
Want to see? Here are the instructions as given to me by our science collaborator Shaun O’Boyle.
Starman Fisher Extraction Protocol
Ingredients: Water, Salt, Washing-up Liquid, Surgical Spirits (as cold as possible), Saliva
Also: Plastic cups, cocktail sticks
- Make saline solution by dissolving about 1 teaspoon of salt in a cup of water.
- Make detergent solution by mixing 1 part washing-up liquid with 3 parts water.
- RInse a mouthful of the saline solution around in your mouth for as long as you can. This collects cells from inside your cheek, and saline is used instead of water to prevent the cells from breaking prematurely. Spit it into a plastic cup -followed by as much spit as you can get from your mouth.
- Add about 3 tablespoons of the detergent solution to the cup and swirl it around until it’s completely mixed with the saliva. This is what bursts the cells and lets the DNA escape.
- Let this stand for about 2 minutes. Now, from this point, everything needs to be done really gently…
- Carefully and slowly, pour some of the cold surgical spirits down along the inside of the cup (known as a ‘Guinness pour’ to some). Pour enough to create a decent layer on top of the spit/detergent mix (think ‘Guinness head’)
- Watch the DNA precipitate out in strands. If you like, you can spool it around a cocktail stick by swirling it very gently around the top alcohol layer. This bit is kind of like spooling candy-floss. You can even lift it out.
- Do weird and wonderful things with your DNA.