The Dinner Party
Mona Gardner I first heard this tale in India, where it is told as if true — though any naturalist would know it couldn’t be. Later someone told me that the story appeared in a magazine shortly before the First World War. That magazine story, and the person who wrote it, I have never been able to track down. The country is India. A colonial official and his wife are giving a large dinner party. They are seated with their guests — officers and their wives, and a visiting American naturalist — in their spacious dining room, which has a bare marble floor, open rafters and wide glass doors opening onto a veranda.
A spirited discussion springs up between a young girl who says that women have outgrown the jumping-on-a-chair-at-the-sight-of-a-mouse era and a major who says that they haven’t.
“A woman’s reaction in any crisis,” the major says, “is to scream. And while a man may feel like it, he has that ounce more of control than a woman has. And that last ounce is what really counts.”
The American does not join in the argument but watches the other guests. As he looks, he sees a strange expression come over the face of the hostess. She is staring straight ahead, her muscles contracting slightly. She
motions to the native boy standing behind her chair and whispers something to him. The boy’s eyes widen: he quickly leaves the room.
Of the guests, none except the American notices this or sees the boy place a bowl of milk on the veranda just outside the open doors.
The American comes to with a start. In India, milk in a bowl means only one thing — bait for a snake. He realizes there must be a cobra in the room. He looks up at the rafters — the likeliest place — but they are bare. Three corners of the room are empty, and in the fourth the servants are waiting to serve the next course. There is only one place left — under the table.
His first impulse is to jump back and warn the others, but he knows the commotion would frighten the cobra into striking. He speaks quickly, the tone of his voice so commanding that it silences everyone.
“I want to know just what control everyone at this table has. I will count three hundred — that’s five minutes — and not one of you is to move a muscle. Those who move will forfeit 50 rupees. Ready!”
The 20 people sit like stone images while he counts. He is saying “... two hundred and eighty…” when, out of the corner of his eye, he sees the cobra emerge and make for the bowl of milk. Screams ring out as he jumps to slam the veranda doors safely shut.
“You were right, Major!” the host exclaims. “A man has just shown us an example of perfect self-control.”
“Just a minute,” the American says, turning to his hostess. “Mrs. Wynnes,
how did you know that cobra was in the room?”
A faint smile lights up the woman’s face as she replies: “Because it was crawling across my foot.”
Lessons from Jefferson
Bruce Bliven 1 Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, may be less famous than George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, but most people remember at least one fact about him: he wrote the Declaration of Independence.
2 Although Jefferson lived more than 200 years ago, there is much that we can learn from him today. Many of his ideas are especially interesting to modern youth. Here are some of the things he said and wrote:
3 Go and see. Jefferson believed that a free man obtains knowledge from many sources besides books and that personal investigation is important. When still a young man, he was appointed to a committee to find out whether the South Branch of the James River was deep enough to be used by large boats. While the other members of the committee sat in the state capitol and studied papers on the subject, Jefferson got into a canoe and made on-the-spot observations.
4 You can learn from everyone. By birth and by education Jefferson
belonged to the highest social class. Yet, in a day when few noble persons ever spoke to those of humble origins except to give an order, Jefferson went out of his way to talk with gardeners, servants, and waiters. Jefferson once said to the French nobleman, Lafayette, “You must go into the people’s homes as I have done, look into their cooking pots and eat their bread. If you will only do this, you may find out why people are dissatisfied and understand the revolution that is threatening France.”
5 Judge for yourself. Jefferson refused to accept other people’s opinions without careful thought. “Neither believe nor reject anything,” he wrote to his nephew, “because any other person has rejected or believed it. Heaven has given you a mind for judging truth and error. Use it.”
6 Jefferson felt that the people “may safely be trusted to hear everything true and false, and to form a correct judgment. Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
7 Do what you believe is right. In a free country there will always be conflicting ideas, and this is a source of strength. It is conflict and not unquestioning agreement that keeps freedom alive. Though Jefferson was for many years the object of strong criticism, he never answered his critics. He expressed his philosophy in letters to a friend, “There are two sides to every question. If you take one side with decision and act on it with effect, those who take the other side will of course resent your actions.”
8 Trust the future; trust the young. Jefferson felt that the present should never be chained to customs which have lost their usefulness. “No society,” he said, “can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs to the living generation.” He did not fear new ideas, nor did he fear the future.” How much pain,” he remarked, “has been caused by evils which have never happened! I expect the best, not the worst.
I steer my ship with hope, leaving fear behind.”
9 Jefferson’s courage and idealism were based on knowledge. He probably knew more than any other man of his age. He was an expert in agriculture, archeology, and medicine. He practiced crop rotation and soil conservation a century before these became standard practice, and he invented a plow superior to any other in existence. He influenced architecture throughout America, and he was constantly producing devices for making the tasks of ordinary life easier to perform.
10 Of all Jefferson’s many talents, one is central. He was above all a good and tireless writer. His complete works, now being published for the first time, will fill more than fifty volumes. His talent as an author was soon discovered, and when the time came to write the Declaration of Independence at Philadelphia in 1776, the task of writing it was his. Millions have thrilled to his words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal ...”
11 When Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of
American independence, he left his countrymen a rich legacy of ideas and examples. American education owes a great debt to Thomas Jefferson, who believed that only a nation of educated people could remain free.
My First Job
While I was waiting to enter university, I saw advertised in a local newspaper a teaching post at a school in a suburb of London about ten miles from where I lived. Being very short of money and wanting to do something useful, I applied, fearing as I did so, that without a degree and with no experience in teaching my chances of getting the job were slim. However, three days later a letter arrived, asking me to go to Croydon for an interview. It proved an awkward journey: a train to Croydon station;
a ten-minute bus ride and then a walk of at least a quarter of a mile. As a result I arrived on a hot June morning too depressed to feel nervous.
The school was a red brick house with big windows. The front garden was a gravel square; four evergreen shrubs stood at each corner, where they struggled to survive the dust and fumes from a busy main road.
It was clearly the headmaster himself that opened the door. He was short and fat. He had a sandy-coloured moustache, a wrinkled forehead and hardly any hair.
He looked at me with an air of surprised disapproval, as a colonel might look at a private whose bootlaces were undone. ‘Ah yes,’ he grunted. ‘You’d better come inside.’ The narrow, sunless hall smelled unpleasantly of stale cabbage; the walls were dirty with ink marks; it was all silent. His study, judging by the crumbs on the carpet, was also his dining-room. ‘You’d better sit down,’ he said, and proceeded to ask me a number of questions: what subjects I had taken in my General School Certificate; how old I was; what games I played; then fixing me suddenly with his bloodshot eyes, he asked me whether I thought games were a vital part of a boy’s education. I mumbled something about not attaching too much importance to them. He grunted. I had said the wrong thing. The headmaster and I obviously had very little in common.
The school, he said, consisted of one class of twenty-four boys, ranging in age from seven to thirteen. I should have to teach all subjects except art, which he taught himself. Football and cricket were played in the Park, a mile away on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons.
The teaching set-up filled me with fear. I should have to divide the class into three groups and teach them in turn at three different levels; and I was dismayed at the thought of teaching algebra and geometry — two subjects at which I had been completely incompetent at school. Worse perhaps was the idea of Saturday afternoon cricket; most of my friends would be enjoying leisure at that time.
I said shyly, ‘What would my salary be?’ ‘Twelve pounds a week plus lunch.’ Before I could protest, he got to his feet. ‘Now’, he said, ‘you’d better meet my wife. She’s the one who really runs this school.’
This was the last straw. I was very young: the prospect of working under a woman constituted the ultimate indignity.
The Professor and the Yo-Yo
Thomas Lee Bucky with Joseph P.Blank My father was a close friend of Albert Einstein. As a shy young visitor to Einstein’s home, I was made to feel at ease when Einstein said, “I have something to show you.” He went to his desk and returned with a Yo-Yo. He tried to show me how it worked but he couldn’t make it roll back up the string. When my turn came, I displayed my few tricks and pointed out to him that the incorrectly looped string had thrown the toy off balance. Einstein nodded, properly impressed by my skill and knowledge. Later, I bought a new Yo-Yo and mailed it to the Professor as a Christmas present, and received a poem of thanks.
As a boy and then as an adult, I never lost my wonder at the personality that was Einstein. He was the only person I knew who had come to terms with himself and the world around him. He knew what he wanted and he wanted only this: to understand within his limits as a human being the
nature of the universe and the logic and simplicity in its functioning. He knew there were answers beyond his intellectual reach. But this did not frustrate him. He was content to go as far as he could.
In the 23 years of our friendship, I never saw him show jealousy, vanity, bitterness, anger, resentment, or personal ambition. He seemed immune to these emotions. He was beyond any pretension. Although he corresponded with many of the world’s most important people, his stationery carried only a watermark — W — for Woolworth’s.
To do his work he needed only a pencil and a pad of paper. Material things meant nothing to him. I never knew him to carry money because he never had any use for it. He believed in simplicity, so much so that he used only a safety razor and water to shave. When I suggested that he try shaving cream, he said, “The razor and water do the job.”
“But Professor, why don’t you try the cream just once?” I argued. “It makes shaving smoother and less painful.”
He shrugged. Finally, I presented him with a tube of shaving cream. The next morning when he came down to breakfast, he was beaming with the pleasure of a new, great discovery. “You know, that cream really works,” he announced. “It doesn’t pull the beard. It feels wonderful.” Thereafter, he used the shaving cream every morning until the tube was empty. Then he reverted to using plain water.
Einstein was purely and exclusively a theorist. He didn’t have the
slightest interest in the practical application of his ideas and theories. His E=mc2 is probably the most famous equation in history — yet Einstein wouldn’t walk down the street to see a reactor create atomic energy. He won the Nobel Prize for his Photoelectric Theory, a series of equations that he considered relatively minor in importance, but he didn’t have any curiosity in observing how his theory made TV possible.
My brother once gave the Professor a toy, a bird that balanced on the edge of a bowl of water and repeatedly dunked its head in the water. Einstein watched it in delight, trying to deduce the operating principle. But he couldn’t.
The next morning he announced, “I had thought about that bird for a long time before I went to bed and it must work this way ...” He began a long explanation. Then he stopped, realizing a flaw in his reasoning. “No, I guess that’s not it,” he said. He pursued various theories for several days until I suggested we take the toy apart to see how it did work. His quick expression of disapproval told me he did not agree with this practical approach. He never did work out the solution.
Another puzzle that Einstein could never understand was his own fame. He had developed theories that were profound and capable of exciting relatively few scientists. Yet his name was a household word across the civilized world. “I’ve had good ideas, and so have other men,” he once said. “But it’s been my good fortune that my ideas have been accepted.” He was
bewildered by his fame: people wanted to meet him; strangers stared at him on the street; scientists, statesmen, students, and housewives wrote him letters. He never could understand why he received this attention, why he was singled out as something special.
The Villain in the Atmosphere
1 The villain in the atmosphere is carbon dioxide.
2 It does not seem to be a villain. It is not very poisonous and it is present in the atmosphere in so small a quantity — only 0.034 percent — that it does us no harm.
3 What’s more, that small quantity of carbon dioxide in the air is essential to life. Plants absorb carbon dioxide and convert it into their own tissue, which serve as the basic food supply for all of animal life (including human beings, of course). In the process they liberate oxygen, which is also necessary for all animal life.
4 But here is what this apparently harmless and certainly essential gas is doing to us:
5 The sea level is rising very slowly from year to year. In all likelihood, it will continue to rise and do so at a greater rate in the course of the next hundred years. Where there are low-lying coastal areas (where a large
fraction of the world’s population lives) the water will advance steadily, forcing people to retreat inland.
6 Eventually the sea will reach two hundred feet above its present level, and will be splashing against the windows along the twentieth floors of Manhattan’s skyscrapers. Florida will disappear beneath the waves, as will much of the British Isles, the crowded Nile valley, and the low-lying areas of China, India, and Russia.
7 Not only will many cities be drowned, but much of the most productive farming areas of the world will be lost. As the food supply drops, starvation will be widespread and the structure of society may collapse under the pressure.
8 And all because of carbon dioxide. But how does that come about? What is the connection?
9 It begins with sunlight, to which the various gases of the atmosphere (including carbon dioxide) are transparent. Sunlight, striking the top of the atmosphere, travels right through miles of it to warm the Earth’s surface. At night, the Earth cools by radiating heat into space in the form of infrared radiation.
10 However, the atmosphere is not quite as transparent to infrared radiation as it is to visible light. Carbon dioxide in particular tends to block such radiation. Less heat is lost at night, for that reason, than would be lost if carbon dioxide were not present in the atmosphere. Without the small
quantity of that gas present, the Earth would be distinctly cooler, perhaps uncomfortably cool.
11 We can be thankful that carbon dioxide is keeping us comfortably warm, but the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is going up steadily and that is where the villainy comes in.
In 1958, carbon dioxide made up only 0.0316 percent of the atmosphere. Each year since, the concentration has crept upward and it now stands at 0.0340 percent. It is estimated that by 2020 the concentration will be nearly twice what it is now.
12 This means that in the coming decades, Earth’s average temperature will go up slightly. As a result, the polar ice caps will begin to melt.
13 Something like 90 percent of the ice in the world is to be found in the huge Antarctica ice cap, and another 8 percent is in the Greenland ice cap. If these ice caps begin to melt, the sea level will rise, with the result that I have already described.
14 But why is the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere steadily rising?
15 To blame are two factors. First of all, in the last few centuries, first coal, then oil and natural gas, have been burned for energy at a rapidly increasing rate. The carbon contained in these fuels, which has been safely buried underground for many millions of years, is now being burned to carbon dioxide and poured into the atmosphere at a rate of many tons per
16 To make matters worse, Earth’s forests have been disappearing, slowly at first, but in the last couple of centuries quite rapidly. Right now it is disappearing at the rate of sixty-four acres per minute.
17 Whatever replaces the forest — grassland or farms or scrub — produces plants that do not consume carbon dioxide at an equal rate. Thus, not only is more carbon dioxide being added to the atmosphere through burning of fuel, but as the forests disappear, less carbon dioxide is being removed from the atmosphere by plants.
18 But this gives us a new perspective on the matter. The carbon dioxide is not rising by itself. It is people who are burning the coal, oil, and gas. It is people who are cutting down the forests. It is people, then, who are the villains.
19 What is to be done?
20 First, we must save our forests, and even replant them.
21 Second, we must have new sources of fuel that do not involve the production of carbon dioxide. Nuclear power is one of them, but if that is thought too dangerous, there are other alternatives. There is the energy of waves, tides, wind, and the Earth’s interior heat. Most of all, there is the direct use of solar energy.
22 All of this will take time, work, and money, to be true, but nations spend more time, work, and money in order to support competing military
machines that can only destroy us all. Should we object to spending less time, work, and money in order to save us all?
The Making of a Surgeon
Dr. Nolen 1 How does a doctor recognize the point in time when he is finally a “surgeon”? As my year as chief resident drew to a close I asked myself this question on more than one occasion.
2 The answer, I concluded, was self-confidence. When you can say to yourself, “There is no surgical patient I cannot treat competently, treat just as well as or better than any other surgeon” — then, and not until then, you are indeed a surgeon. I was nearing that point.
3 Take, for example, the emergency situations that we encountered almost every night. The first few months of the year I had dreaded the ringing of the telephone. I knew it meant another critical decision to be made. Often, after I had told Walt or Larry what to do in a particular situation, I’d have trouble getting back to sleep. I’d review all the facts of the case and, not infrequently, wonder if I hadn’t made a poor decision. More than once at two or three in the morning, after lying awake for an hour, I’d get out of bed, dress and drive to the hospital to see the patient
myself. It was the only way I could find the peace of mind I needed to relax.
4 Now, in the last month of my residency, sleeping was no longer a problem. There were still situations in which I couldn’t be certain my decision had been the right one, but I had learned to accept this as a constant problem for a surgeon, one that could never be completely resolved — and I could live with it. So, once I had made a considered decision, I no longer dwelt on it. Reviewing it wasn’t going to help and I knew that with my knowledge and experience, any decision I’d made was bound to be a sound one. It was a nice feeling.
5 In the operating room I was equally confident. I knew I had the knowledge, the skill, the experience to handle any surgical situation I’d ever encounter in practice. There were no more butterflies in my stomach when I opened up an abdomen or a chest. I knew that even if the case was one in which it was impossible to anticipate the problem in advance, I could handle whatever I found. I’d sweated
6 Nor was I afraid of making mistakes. I knew that when I was out in practice I would inevitably err at one time or another and operate on someone who didn’t need surgery or sit on someone who did. Five years earlier — even one year earlier — I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if I had had to take sole responsibility for a mistake in judgment. Now I could. I still dreaded errors — would do my best to avoid them — but I knew they were part of a surgeon’s life. I could accept this fact with
calmness because I knew that if I wasn’t able to avoid a mistake, chances were that no other surgeon could have, either.
7 This all sounds conceited and I guess it is — but a surgeon needs conceit. He needs it to encourage him in trying moments when he’s bothered by the doubts and uncertainties that are part of the practice of medicine. He has to feel that he’s as good as and probably better than any other surgeon in the world. Call it conceit — call it self-confidence; whatever it was, I had it.