Judging a City by its Cover

Before coming to Moscow, a friend of mine told me that it was quite an experience to visit the home of a Moscow resident. I’ve not had the chance to do that – to my chagrin – but the story had a theme that echos through Moscow. He said that when he arrived at the friend’s apartment building, it was horribly dilapidated on the outside. Inside, he was taken up a dark and discomforting stairwell to the apartment. When the door to the apartment opened, his mind filled with concern about the squalor he was worried surrounded his friend, the world inside resembled nothing of the world outside.

The apartment was at the very least, well kept, a beautifully furnished and quite painstakingly arranged and lovingly assembled apartment. Books, beautiful ornate decorations, and antique furniture adorned the place. It was a beauty inside with a deceptive decay on the outside.

My own experience, and that of my friends, is that you cannot judge the Moscow book by its cover. Some places look exquisite, but are mundane or even squalid on the inside. On the other hand, a friend of mine is moving to a hotel and his experience resembled exactly that of the friend mentioned earlier. What I take from all of this is the following: for whatever reason, be it due to the cultural transition or history, Moscow is a place you cannot judge by its cover. For all reasons, you have to go below the surface and experience it firsthand.

The Four Seasons

It’s the last day before I leave for Russia. In addition, we’re well into the summer heat, getting to temperatures up to 104 degrees. Even our normally cool house has been a sweatbox, and the frequent power outages make running the AC a dicey proposition. We spent much of today running a few last errands, doing some birthday shopping for Jodi, and getting out of the house.

We drove down to Mountain View, to pick up a paper journal so I can keep a record of my trip to Russia. While walking down Castro St., away from the public parking garage, we observed people coming out of shops and looking up into the air behind us. Since there was a street festival, we didn’t think much of it. But when it persisted, we turned around and saw a huge plume of black smoke rising from the block behind us. We started back along the sidewalk, as a chef from a restaurant up the walk ran past yelling “Where is the fire department!? My friend works in a restaurant up there!”

We got back far enough that we could see the fire: a Thai restaurant on the corner of the block where we’d parked the car was engulfed in flame, its outdoor eating patio all ablaze. Fire trucks were pulling up, police we driving people back from the smoke, and so we found ourselves worried about the people in the restaurant, standing in the hot sun.

We eventually got our car and headed home. But on the way home, we were diverted once more in Los Altos because of police and fire trucks! And then, after stopping for dinner, we almost got diverted again in Redwood City as an ambulance and fire truck pulled up to a private residence.

It’s not summer, it’s fire season.

A life is more than this…

The back-and-forth in the Senate and the White House these past few days had me thinking, thinking about life and what it means to be alive, to take a life. I kept thinking about what the President said, that he would execute his only veto in six years should the Senate approve a bill to resume federal stem cell funding for embryonic stem cells. It was the *reason* he said this that really bothered me: he equates the destruction of an embryo to conduct research (even if it saves a million humans in fifty years) with murder.

Murder – the deliberate act of taking the life of another – is a crime. Even though the Bible, and most other major holy texts – are full of justified murder, killing another human being is broadly condemned by God. In civil society, the law looks upon the murder of a person quite unfavorably, and rightly so. It’s the ultimate act of infringing on the rights of another, the intentional and irreversible robbing of life.

The trouble in all of this is the word “life”. Everybody defines it, based on a private morality, and that’s the problem. Some people define the fertilized egg as life, some define it as the moment the central nervous system makes the fetus responsive to its environment, and some define it as the moment the baby is born into the world. When life begins, and what gives value to life, seem to be where the President and the Senate (and me) split. The President considers a human embryo as a life, entitled to the same rights as a child or a full-grown adult. The Senate takes the more measured and thoughtful view that human embryos are not the same as humans (let’s see an embryo defend itself, or find food, without the protection of the mother’s womb), and that their destruction is inevitable (especially in bulk in fertility clinics) but should not be without reason. This thoughtful view is about to be wiped off the table by the President’s reactionary and myopic definition of “life”. I only hope that the Congress can muster the votes to overturn the veto.

My own view is complicated, but can be summarized as follows: I am more than a collection of a few tens of cells, rattling around in the soft comfort of a petri dish or a womb. I am more than a blastocyst, which is the fertilized structure that is sacrificed to obtain embryonic stem cells (picture to the left). I am a feeling, sensing, articulate being, capable of forming memories and language, capable of expression and deep understanding. I am more than my cells, whose mechanistic function day-in and day-out maintains my immunity to disease, digests my food, and processes oxygen for energy. To define a human being as nothing more than a pile of cells is insulting, in just the opposite way that valuing animal life below human life is insulting. In the former, we degrade our being and equate a few tens of cells with the kicking of the baby, the first cries after birth, the first day of school, the first kiss. In the latter, we set ourselves apart from nature and make ourselves masters, better than the universe that created us.

I, and you as well, have a sense of what a friend once called “I”. “I” is a perception that lives above the normal routine functioning of my kidneys, my spleen, my stomach, my brain. “I” means I somehow perceive myself as a collection of experiences, and “I” am somehow capable of distilling experience to guide future decisions. “I” am capable of understanding that four forces govern the structure of the universe, that there are 12 building blocks and countless questions to which I do not have an answers. I believe this is the result of a complex chemistry in my brain, a rich blend of reactions that make possible my ability to put thoughts into this blog. I challenge any blastocyst to do the same.

I value the whole life, not just the stuff that life is built from. I value the ability of a fetus to feel pain after several months of development, I value the loving and learning mind of a child hungry to know the world, and I value the health of an adult who has put so much of their life already behind them. If sacrificing castaway blastocysts can save lives, then I say let us invest our lives to realizing the potential of stem cells. But please do not tell me that I am no more human, no more alive, than an unfeeling, inarticulate blastocyst.

Surviving the week


Summertime is the worst time of the year for physics. I’ve said this many times before, but no season is busier. I suppose it’s timed to coincide with professorial “free time”, when classes end and researchers can get back to their life of labs and meetings. For a post-doc or a grad student, this is no time to slack off at the beach . . . though we all desperately want to do just that! To illustrate: in order to get the project I am working on to the ICHEP, my two colleagues and I had to work on both days of July 3rd and 4th. Two of us are Americans, and the other knows a good holiday when he sees one. Regardless, we all sweated out those two days just to make the deadline, watched a few fireworks and drank a few beers, and then went back to our normal research lives again on July 5th.

Jodi is faring no better. It’s crunch time for her experiment, and everybody is working overtime – as if such a thing existed in science – to make a good show of it. We’d both planned to skive off this week, taking a day to make up for the holiday physics ripped from our grasps. Alas it was not to be: Jodi had more of the same work on Wednesday, Thursday, and today. I had papers to read and edit, other analyses to think about, and just generally a lot of collaboration business to attend. Jodi and I were both simply very glad when we could leave the office, walking into a VERY hot California afternoon, and go home for a few hours, at least, away from the summer physics cram.