When traveling to foreign countries I always attempt to find a few attractions off the beaten track. Botanical gardens are such a spot; as a biologist by I have visited gardens in places such as Paris, London, New Mexico, Hawaii … and now in Kyoto.
In a corner of the Kyoto Garden is an absolutely impressive collection of bonsais. In fact, it has inspired me to start growing a bonsai myself. I’m still in the information stage, so very little progress to report except that growing a bonsai doesn’t seem to be trivial. I will keep you posted!
As long back as 2015, Bill Gates gave a famous TED talk in which he predicted a pandemic to occur “in the nearby future”. Mr. Gates is getting quite some flack for that prediction; tin-foil-hat-wearers think that Bill Gates has some dark motivation, whereas the truth is far more benign: Bill Gates simply reads a lot of books and articles; all available to all of us. And if you start reading those, you will quickly realize that it isn’t such a surprise that Bill Gates arrived at his pandemic prediction. Over the years, many scientists and authors (fiction and non-fiction) have predicted that a pandemic might occur at any time. Over-population, the massacre of the environment, climate change… all of these are favorable for more pandemics to happen.
Still not convinced? As a biologist and author, I published a novel on this topic back in2010: TWO JOURNEYS was available e.g. on iTunes or amazon.comten years before the outbreak of Covid-19. It describes the devastating impact of a CORONA VIRUS pandemic – see TWO JOURNEYS, pages 122/123 – photo below.
There was no magic or clairvoyance involved; the SARS and MERS epidemics convinced me (as a scientist) that such a scenario was bound to happen. Sure, my prediction that the pandemic was the result of a CORONA VIRUS was surprisingly spot-on. The main reason for my selection of CORONA was that I needed a culprit that could spread at top speed across the globe – CORONA viruses have a prominent ability to do so through both droplet and surface infection.
What makes TWO JOURNEYS truly special is the analysis of the psychological effects of a pandemic on the hero; and how populists will misuse such an outbreak for their own purposes. Several storylines in the book have now (alas) become reality.
So, 2010 novel TWO JOURNEYS (and its sequel FIELDS OF FIRE) indeed describes the aftermath of a CORONA pandemic. The rest is high speed, adventure fiction – but you will recognize several characters and occurrences again, e.g. the misuse of the pandemic by the villainous dictator Somerset may well remind you of some real-life political leaders – those that put fiction before the fact, and self-interest before empathy. I recently addressed this in a (yet again!) predictive blogpost, first published back in March 2020: The Corona Pandemic and How it Affects All of Us.
There it is, on page 122/123. Corona is the culprit of the pandemic that left Alan (hero of TWO JOURNEYS) stranded in Tokyo. Note the line “Corona viruses spread by droplets or surfaces” – better keep your distance, wear a mask and wash your hands.
Die deutsche Übersetzung dieses Textes findest du unten!
If you have read a few of my blog posts, you will have noticed that I like to write about the future. This is mostly due to the huge amounts of newspapers and books that I read every day. Here’s another look into my magic crystal ball.
The gender discussion is now finding its way into our language. This is a positive development, as the language that all of us use for communication should be respectful of people who are different. Language should be inclusive; if it isn’t inclusive, it shows that our society and we as citizens aren’t.
It is a challenging topic though, as in many languages certain words have a clear ‘sex’. In English, and in my native language (Dutch), this isn’t so dramatic, since in these two languages only a few forms exist. For example: “Look, a horse! It is beautiful” is the sexless form. “Did you ask the doctor?” is sex-neutral, and only by going into more detail, the sex becomes apparent: “Did you ask the doctor and what was her answer?” So, in English or Dutch, it is quite easy to navigate the cliffs of possible sexism.
How different is the German language! Here, many words have a pre-assigned sex. Sexless examples are: das Pferd, das Kind, das Mädchen (the horse, the child, the girl. Confusingly a girl is sexless as the word contains a diminutive; let’s skip that for the moment). But all other words are either male or female: der Arzt and die Ärztin (the doctor), der Lokomotivführer and die Lokomotivführerin (the trainengineer), die Krankenschwester and der Krankenbruder (the nurse), even der Mond (the moon),and dieBlume (the flower) have a sex.
The current gendering in German results in sentences such as “Sehr geehrte Bürger*Innen” (“Dear citizens”. Notice the use of the *). In this way, people now write (and speak) about Arzt*Innen, and Lokomotivführer*Innen. The difficulty is that German grammar knows many more articles than der/die/das. For instance: “Der Stein war zu groß. Ich habe den Stein verkauft.” (The stone was too big. I sold the stone). In regards to correct gendering, this can become quite complex, and the result isn’t very pretty.
The biggest challenge: all current proposals for gendering are half-assed solutions. and as we all know, only radical solutions drive true innovation.
It doesn’t take a crystal ball to see how the German language will change over the next twenty years. Most likely (like in real life) the absolute male and female forms will disappear. This will probably happen because the articles die/der will disappear, like in the sentence: “Das Doctor arbeitet in das Krankenhaus” (The doctor works in the hospital), “Das Stadt, das Blume und das Mond sind schön” (the town, the flower and the moon are beautiful – notice how perfectly this works in English?) or even “Das Frau kauft das Blume” (The woman buys the flower), and “Das Stein war zu groß. Ich habe das Stein verkauft.” (The stone was too big. I sold the stone.)
Conservatives will probably fight this tooth and nail, which is not unusual for changes in language. In the end, reality dictates what a language looks like, not artificial regulation or feeble attempts at conservation. Language constantly changes, and usually at the speed with which society changes. And our surrounding world is changing rapidly.
Revolutionäre neue Ideen für konsistentes Gendern in der deutschen Sprache
Wenn du einige meiner Blogposts gelesen hast, wrist du bemerkt haben, daß ich gerne in die Zukunft schaue. Hier ist ein weiterer Blick in meine Kristallkugel.
Die Geschlechterdiskussion findet nun ihren Weg in unsere Sprache. Dies ist eine positive Entwicklung, da die Sprache, die wir jeden Tag für die Kommunikation verwenden, Menschen, die anders sind, respektieren sollte. Sprache sollte inklusiv sein; wenn sie nicht inklusiv ist, zeigt es, daß unsere Gesellschaft und wir als Bürger es nicht sind.
Es ist jedoch ein herausforderndes Thema, da in vielen Sprachen bestimmte Wörter ein klares „Geschlecht“ haben. Auf Englisch und in meiner Muttersprache (Niederländisch) ist dies nicht so dramatisch, da in diesen Sprachen nur wenige Formen existieren. Zum Beispiel: “Look, a horse!” ist die geschlechtslose Form. “Did you ask the doctor?” ist Geschlechstneutral. Nur wenn man mehr Detail nachliefert, wird das Geschlecht offensichtlich: “Did you ask the doctor, and what did she say?” Auf Englisch und Niederländisch ist es also ziemlich einfach, die Klippen des Sexismus zu navigieren.
Wie anders ist die deutsche Sprache! Hier haben viele Wörter ein vorab zugewiesenes Geschlecht. Sexlose Beispiele sind: das Pferd, das Kind, das Mädchen (Verwirrenderweise ist ein Mädchen geschlechtslos, da das Wort eine Verkleinerung enthält). Aber alle anderen Wörter sind entweder männlich oder weiblich: der Arzt und die Ärztin, der Lokomotivführer und der Lokomotivführerin, die Krankenschwester und der Krankenbruder, der Mond, die Blume.
Die aktuelle Geschlechterdiskussion führt zu Konstrukten wie “Sehr geehrte Bürger*Innen“. Auf ähnliche Weise schreiben (und sprechen) die Leute jetzt über Arzt*Innen, oder Lokomotivführer*Innen. Die Schwierigkeit besteht darin, daß die deutsche Grammatik viel mehr Artikel wie “der, die und das” kennt: zum Beispiel: “Der Stein war zu groß. Ich habe den Stein verkauft“. In Bezug auf korrektem Gendern kann dies komplex werden und ist nicht sehr hübsch.
Die größte Herausforderung: Alle aktuellen Vorschläge zum Gendern sind halbherzige Lösungen. Aber: nur radikale Lösungen treiben echte Innovation voran.
Es braucht keine Kristallkugel, um zu sehen, wie sich die deutsche Sprache in den nächsten zwanzig Jahren ändern wird. Höchstwahrscheinlich (wie im wirklichen Leben) werden die absoluten männlichen und weiblichen Formen verschwinden. Die Artikel werden verschwinden, wie im Satz: “Das Arzt arbeitet in das Krankenhaus”, “Das Stadt, das Blume und das Mond sind schön“, oder sogar “Das Frau kauft das Blume“, “Das Stein war zu groß. Ich habe das Stein verkauft”. Wenn du versuchst, diese Sätze ins Englische zu übersetzen, wirst du feststellen, daß die englische Sprache diese Änderung bereits durchlaufen hat (“The stone was too big. I have sold the stone.”)
Konservative werden sich mit Hand und Fuß gegen diese Änderungen wehren, was für Sprachreformen nicht ungewöhnlich ist. Am Ende bestimmt die Realität, wie eine Sprache aussieht, nicht künstliche Regulierung oder schwache Erhaltungsversuche. Die Sprache ändert sich ständig und normalerweise mit der Geschwindigkeit, mit der sich die Gesellschaft ändert. Und unsere Welt verändert sich rasant.
Over the last few months I have blogged extensively about Corona. Today, it looks as if this disease will be continue to be with us for some time. It may become a virus hat remains “in parallel” to all the flue and common cold viruses out there. There is even some speculation that the appearance of novel viruses may become more common.
Although some countries are opening up again from complete lock-down, other countries haven’t yet reach the peak in the pandemic. The hunt for a vaccine is in full swing, but with my background in biology I agree with some experts that that this may not succeed soon, or even at all. On the other hand, Dr. Fauci is optimistic.
In any case, for the foreseeable future, it is key for all of us to protect ourselves, but especially vulnerable people around us. One of the ways to do this is the use of a face-mask. We would be wise to continue their use also in the future; even when the pandemic should quiet down. People in Asia wear such masks, on a regular basis,and that is good health practice.
Even though such masks are non-medical, they have several advantages. For one they provide (and this has been proven) some basic protection from distributing the virus should you have been infected. They also provide some minor protection against catching the virus (although this protective quality should not be exaggerated). In addition, such masks keep you from touching your face, and they also alert people to keep their distance from you.
Today’s world is complex. We are bombarded with a never ending flood of information; through news, social media and personal conversations. News hits us from all corners of the globe: a hundred years ago nobody would have known (or cared) about forest fires on the other side of the world; today we feel directly affected by them. In addition, we are more than ever confronted with developments that impact all of us, such as the Corona/Covid19 pandemic (see previous blogpost) or climate change.
How to handle this confusion? Only a level-headed “cool analysis“ of the facts helps us deal with this complicated world. Without reliance on facts, the world becomes even more complex and reality even more difficult to handle. And we start making mistakes, after all, who wants to base decisions on wrong facts?
But how to distinguish fact from fiction? People spread half truths or lies in a number of ways. Here’s an example of how that works.
Creationists are convinced that, based on the texts in the Bible, the world is only a few thousand years old. You can think about this any way you want (many will conclude that his perception is wrong. As a biologist, I am slightly biased in this matter), but that is not the point that I would like to make. I would like to talk about the dilemma this causes for the creationist. Thecreationist has two options. First, the creationist could decide that the biblical text is correct and that no further discussion is needed. The creationist could then simply stick to this belief and not enter into any further discussion with anybody. This would be 100% consistent. After all, we all believe in certain things, and sticking to those beliefs is fully acceptable. Sure, it may have some disadvantages for the creationist: this person might feel isolated as many people will smirk at this idea, and/or the creationist wouldn’t be able to gain more followers. The creationist would definitely get less air time on national television! Many religious groups follow such an approach (e.g. the Amish people in the USA, who self-isolate pretty efficiently). Perfectly fine: they can go on with their lives, and I with mine. We mutually respect one other and might even enjoy our differences.
The alternative for the creationist is to collect information to prove that the world is indeed only a few thousand years old. The apparent advantage for the creationist is that the creationist can continue to interact and discuss with fellow humans, thus there is less risk of having to live the life of a recluse. It also provides a feeling that the theory is scientifically validated. And you can actually get invited for a quirky interview on TV.
This is what I call the Creationist Dilemma: the creationist needs to choose between these two options.
Remember, I’m not discussing the pros and cons of creationism. This blogpost addresses the dilemma that confronts many believers in many topics.
There are tremendous flaws in choosing the second option: what I call the Creationist Trap. In choosing the second option, the creationist starts to collect (scientific) evidence that “proves” that either the evolution theory has weaknesses, or that creationism is correct. In other words, the creationist starts out with a theory and then picks and chooses the evidence that supports that theory.
However, this is not how science works. To put it bluntly, it completely contradicts common sense.
It’s like driving a rattling car through the desert and firmly believing that it won’t break down (~theory) because you had it checked, the tank is full, the wipers and horn are working, and your highly concerned passengers were wrong in the past (~facts). Based on which you conclude: we will continue driving! (~action).
In contrast, real science starts out by collecting facts, from which a theory is created. To stay with the car example: oh my, the motor doesn’t sound good at all (~fact); is it breaking down? (~theory), let’s stop and check the motor before it gets worse (~action, leading to the collection of more facts).
The “beauty” of the creationist approach is that it allows anyone to “prove” anything.
Example: climate change. Many climate change deniers have a reason (their starting “theory”) for their denial of human-caused climate change. Perhaps they fear for the economy, or their job. Or they love big cars that use a lot of gasoline, or the theory doesn’t fit their understanding of freedom. Perhaps deep down inside they are afraid of change. In any case, they fall victim to the creationist’s dilemma: instead of simply saying: “Hell, I am not going to change my ways. I’m going to produce carbon dioxide and I don’t care what’s going to happen to the climate” (which would at least be consistent), they are tempted to start collecting data that “substantiates” climate change isn’t happening: they choose option two and fall into the creationist trap. They may refer to irrelevant climate change events that happened thousands of even millions of years ago, or to other „mistakes“ that so-called „experts“ made.
You think the Earth is flat? You think that the whole corona reaction was unnecessary? Do you believe humanity never landed on the moon? Are vaccines bad? Is homeopathy a proper medical treatment? You think brushing your teeth has no benefits? I can help. I’ve been working in science long enough to know where to find information, justgive me sufficient time, and I will collect all the evidence you need to support ANY of your theories.
Is that a valid approach? No.
How to spot people that have fallen victim to the Creationist Trap? Have you perhaps fallen into it yourself? Here some indicators to look out for.
First, always question: why is this person making a certain statement? What is this person’s underlying motivation? In the case of the creationist it is simple: religion. Anti-vaccers may be driven by fear or uncertainty, or mistrust in institutions (like Big Pharma). In many cases the motivation may not be directly obvious, e.g. climate deniers may have many different reasons at the same time. And many won’t even tell or disclose what motivates them. Sometimes they do not even know themselves.
Second, are the person’s statements overtly negative, in a sense that the person is trying to DISPROVE a theory? An expert (this can be a scientist, but also a football coach, an iron monger or an accountant) makes mostly positive statements about theories, since they know the facts that support them. They feel comfortable with the evidence on which the theory is based. A flat-earther is on constant defence against scientists, the media, the world, and is thus attacking the idea that Earth is a globe.
Another telltale sign: is the person heaping up more and more evidence (true or false) from as many sources as possible to make their point? And if one argument doesn’t work, quickly switches to the next one?
Is the person relying on (sometimes amazingly good) oratory skills, is this person a smooth talker? Does the speaker transport knowledge or emotion? Knowledge and facts can be very boring; emotion can be very gratifying and exciting.
An expert knows that no one can know everything about a discipline. As a result, an expert will regularly use phrases such as: “there is no data to support that theory,” or even simply admit “I’m not sure.” A person stuck in the creationist trap will not allow any doubt to shine through. They do not discuss; they debate.
Is the evidence provided actually related to the topic? Are observations pulled in from cases that may seem similar, but that are in fact unrelated: whataboutisms? Typical statements to watch out for are “they were wrong about XYZ too” or “something similar happened then-and-then, and it turned out be completely innocent.”
The indicators above may apply to any individual. But if many start to bubble up at the same time, your alarm bellS should start to go off.
In the end, the scientific method relies completely on common sense, the two are inseparable. Facts know no religion, no politics, no emotions. But they are key to get your rattling car out of the desert.
[Originally posted in March 2020]. In 2010/2011 I published a visionary novel TWO JOURNEYS, which deals with a corona pandemic. I’m a biologist with considerable virology experience which, with the SARS epidemic, inspired my literary work. Although I do not see myself as a expert virologist, I do track this pandemic with high interest. A lot of data has been collected, which can become very confusing (even to me; although I‘m used to work with scientific data) – but I would like to offer a single data point. Today, May 9, globally 275,000 individuals have died. As certain countries (China, Brazil, Russia, Iran, even the UK, and others) are poor at reporting corona deaths, my guesstimate is that the actual number of deaths is probably closer to 600,000. This happened in about 4 months. Imagine no lockdowns would have happened!
It is hard to extrapolate (as crucial data is still missing), but my guess would be that the total number of deaths from this pandemic could easily be within a range of 10,000,000 to 100,000,000 (see the Spanish flu, which had probably 17,000,000 victims – in a less densely populated world). This is a guesstimate if no lockdowns would have been executed.
Now let’s take a different angle. The challenges that we are confronted with are three fold: (1) circumvent human suffering (2) limit economic repercussions (3) as primates, we are eager to have full social, face-to-face contacts. We want all three, and as soon as possible.
These goals seem to contradict one another. However, the beauty is that the solution for all three is identical. And very straightforward: we must all follow the WHO guidance rigorously, and do this now: wash your hands multiple times a day, do not touch your face, sneeze and cough in your elbow, keep a distance to others of 2 meters/6 feet, stay at home & only leave your house for essential business.
The main concern is the weakening of discipline, this is the true problem. People are beginning to move the goalposts, there is a trend to soften the handling of social distancing.
You can help to reduce the number of deaths AND also make sure that the lock-downs are lifted quickly. This means you will have to inform yourself. How often and how to wash your hands? What should my children do (especially teenagers)? How are aerosols created and how far do they travel when talking, coughing or laughing? See this great article by Erin Bromage.
If all of us are very consistent and self-disciplined throughout this pandemic, then we save lives… and the economy.