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Is Life Beautiful

When people are ‘lucky’, they tend to reflect on their good luck and tend to thank providence profusely for it and reach conclusions such as “Life is Beautiful.”
I always wonder if life is indeed beautiful – and, even more pertinently, how valid an argument it is to reach that conclusion when one happens to get “lucky” by chance.
I recall numerous instances of people who survive natural disasters thanking the Lord for letting them live while others died. Without citing any particular incident, let us just think for a moment how fair that is – to thank God for letting you live. How about the others who died? Were they at fault somehow and deserved to die? The recent serial blasts in Jaipur killed many people. Did the good Lord decide that these people were unworthy of living and so deserved to die and so the terrorists were in fact agents of God. So, why spend so much resource in trying to find them and punish them?
The September 11, 2001 attacks in the US were carried out by people who were convinced that they were explicitly messengers of God and carrying out God’s work. So, perhaps those who died in the twin towers of WTC and in the Pentagon and the passengers in the planes were all somehow being punished by God for their wrongdoings.
The kids who died in the Bhuj earthquake a few years back on the Republic Day were also scheduled to die that day and the earthquake was merely the tool that God used to take their lives – is that it?

What about the Asian Tsunami? May be a case of when God wanted to end the lives of a couple of hundreds of thousands of individuals and the tsunami seemed to be a handy way to achieve that “target” quickly and efficiently.
Earthquakes relentlessly ravage different nations of the world.
Then, there are the kids who are suffering from chronic and acute leukemia – kids destined to die at the age of 5 or 6 or 10.
What can be more tragic than kids dying – whether it’s from malnutrition or cancer or earthquake or some other natural calamity.
It’s like the end of a life before it has even begun properly. It is like a flower bud getting plucked before it has had an opportunity to grow to become a complete flower.
So, dear folks, do you really think that there’s really the hand of providence at work when all these natural calamities strike us and people get killed randomly and others survive equally randomly.
How justifiable is it to shower glowing praise for letting us live – and equally unjustifiable to blame superior powers if our loved ones get killed. Of course, the best course is to imagine ourselves in the place of the parents of the kids who die in these disasters or to put ourselves in the shoes of parents whose kids have been diagnosed with cancer or may be, even less dangerous diseases, say, Down’s Syndrome.
Personally, I don’t believe in all this spiritual stuff. And I also find the “I am spiritual but not religious” thing to be pretty crazy as well. It’s like being half pregnant.
If we make even a superficial study of the recent history of humanity, we will realize that as the reach of science has expanded to embrace new phenomena of nature, the role of religion has receded from our lives.
Now that science is trying to extend the envelope of its understanding even further, we see  this occasional clash between the guardians of various faith systems and scientific leaders.
I have in mind the perennial debate with respect to the use of birth control techniques.
And the rising tide of clamor as scientists who are involved with embryonic stem cell research try to delve ever deeper into the mysteries of life to try and understand what makes us who we are while in the process hoping to understand why we develop various neurological and other disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and cancer. Out of research such as these, these scientists would try to discover the Fountain of Youth or may be learn how to make us immortal.
But, various religious leaders object to scientists trying to delve too deeply into matters which these so-called god men consider to be in the domain of the Gods.
Indians are particularly susceptible to these “miracle-mongers”. We have all these assorted folks who claim to be able to cure every disease from rheumatoid arthritis to cancer and AIDS.
I can’t understand how anybody can take these charlatans seriously – let these “super doctors” first try their hand at curing us of simple diseases – such as a blockage in the arteries, or a broken bone, or a cataract in the eye or a tumor in the brain. And once these new fangled healers have shown us that there is really no need for all these multi-crore super-specialty hospitals in this country and they can be trusted with the country’s healthcare system, then they should think of taking up bigger challenges like cancer and AIDS – fearsome dragons that modern medical science is yet to slay.
And let there be a price to pay – if you make a claim, you better be able to substantiate that claim. If you’re really able to cure one AIDS case or one cancer case, you should be able to repeat it without fail to cure millions of similar cases. There is no point in going to town about having cured one AIDS patient or one cancer patient.
But that’s sort of beside the point. We all need to question the fundamentals ourselves in a deep and thoughtful manner and reach conclusions that have a substantive basis.
It’s not enough if our parents are alive and well – we need to look at others and think about whether their parents are alive or not.
It’s not enough to be thankful to God if OUR kids are all right – we need to bother about other kids who are NOT ALL RIGHT and put ourselves in the shoes of their parents.
It’s a difficult route to take admittedly – to study world history and literature and astronomy and biological and other sciences. Because, indeed we need to study all these and make ourselves aware about all these diverse human endeavors. It’s only then that we will become qualified to talk about the “big” issues.
How can you not study astronomy and astrophysics if you want to learn about the true size and extent of the visible universe? Does it matter to you that the Sun is a star that is basically a fusion reactor that has been working since the last 5 billion years and will work for another 5 billion years.
The fact is that our Sun is but one of some 400 billion stars that make up the Milky Way galaxy.
The Milky Way galaxy spans some 100,000 light years across. And there are some 100 billion galaxies in the visible universe that spans 15 billion light years. There are literally more stars in the visible universe than there are grains of sand on all the beaches of planet Earth.
What a majestic vista that is?
Carl Sagan had mentioned in one of his books that “we are star stuff.” That is literally true. The molecules that comprise our body were originally made inside stars. As a first generation star nears the end of its life, it grows to become a red giant and the carbon molecules combine to form heavier elements all the way up to uranium and that’s the way all the elements comprising the Periodic Table that we are all familiar with from our school days were formed.
So, that’s another wonderful thing to realize, I think.
If we study about Darwinian evolution, we’ll realize how it is possible to have the diversity of life on the planet that we have. The geologic fossil record is full of clear evidence that points to the sustained effectiveness of this Darwinian mechanism. We were not created by a Creator on an As Is basis – we have EVOLVED to be what we are. We are products of an evolutionary process that has been ongoing for many millions of years. It’s a slow process and so not observable over the period of one human lifetime. Dinosaurs did indeed roam the planet for some 150 million years.
How long have we been here? When do you start counting? That depends on who is it that you define as human. Were our Neanderthal ancestors human? Would we be able to live in a village with a bunch of them? Oh, they didn’t live in a village – they were hunter gatherers who roamed the jungles and hunted.
Forget a hundred thousand years, we have traveled such a long distance in a thousand years – indeed, we have traveled light years technically in the last 100 years.
And what is the future that we can foresee if we extrapolate this rate of advancement into the future? Where will we be in a hundred years from now? A thousand years? Ten thousand years? Hundred thousand years? Million years. . . Even a billion years if we want . . .
Is there life elsewhere in the universe? I think that is the single most important question that is facing science and scientists today. We are only today acquiring the tools and learning the skills and technologies to be able to look for planets around other stars in our neighborhood. We will need to keep expanding this capability drastically to enhance our reach far beyond this tiny region of the universe.
I have tried to touch upon the many wonderful options that science opens up for us. But, it’s a difficult route to follow – there are no certainties on this route. We are building this road as we go.
Then, there is this other route – of religion and spirituality. This route provides readymade answers – formed in antiquity – to all the difficult or deep questions of life. There is comforting certainty to be found down this route. We are told that there’s someone looking after us and our near and dear ones. We are told that the dead aren’t really gone. Who doesn’t want to out-live their death and meet up with the parents in heaven? So, it’s understandably easy to be persuaded to go down this route.
And through our history, religion and spirituality have provided comfortable shelters. It’s a tough task to let go of those certainties and well trodden paths and choose to chart new routes in an unexplored jungle.
The choice is up to all of us.
The certainties of religion or the uncertainties of science – what do you want to embrace?

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