Sunday, June 04, 2006

Edward Teller

April 17, 2006

"When you come to the end of all the light you know, and it's time to step into the darkness of the unknown, faith is knowing that one of two things shall happen: Either you will be given something solid to stand on or you will be taught to fly." ~Edward Teller

Edward Teller (1908-2003), a Hungarian-born American nuclear physicist, was recruited to work on the Manhattan Project, the code name given to the development of the first atomic bomb. Later he became popularly known as "the father of the hydrogen bomb." He was part of a group of U.S. Scientists Time magazine named People of the Year in 1960.

Although Teller was a leading physicist, he was also controversial within the competitive scientific community. He was accused of seeking credit for the work of others, and damaged the credibility of Dr. Robert Oppenheimer (called "father of the atomic bomb"), hinting in a security hearing that his colleague was a risk due to suspected Communist sympathies earlier in his life. Oppenheimer was stripped of his security clearance, and Teller was ostracized by the academic scientific community.

In the post-war period, Teller advocated non-military uses of atomic power, including the use of a hydrogen bomb to dig a deep harbor along the coastline of Alaska, and the use of nuclear explosions to extract oil in northern Alberta. During the Reagan administration, he was a leading proponent of the Strategic Defense Initiative.

Teller's critics viewed him as a "mad scientist," a stereotype aided by his bushy eyebrows and thick Hungarian accent. Some say Stanley Kubrick used Teller as the inspiration for the lead character in his 1964 film Dr. Strangelove.

Robert Louis Stevenson

April 3, 2006

"Don't judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant." ~Robert Louis Stevenson

Who was Robert Louis Stevenson? Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) was a Scottish novelist and poet famous for stories of adventure and romance. He was constantly ill with tuberculosis (never diagnosed during his life), and lived a short but full life. During a period of his most serious illness, he wrote his most enduring works, Treasure Island (1883), Kidnapped (1886) and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), all known for their psychological depth.

Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, he studied engineering and then law, but neglected academic work and devoted himself to learning how to write by imitating the styles of others (including Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe). He received a law degree in 1875 which went unused, then traveled to San Francisco where he met the author of South Sea Idylls who encouraged him to go to the south Pacific. He married his wife Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne in 1880 in San Francisco, who supported his adventurous travels despite his ill health.

He made several trips to the Kingdom of Hawaii and was close friends with King David Kalakaua and the king's niece Princess Victoria Kaiulani, also of Scottish heritage. He died at age 44 of a cerebral hemorrhage as a tribal leader in Samoa. He had been given the Samoan name Tusitala, meaning "storyteller".

Mahatma Gandhi

March 27, 2006

"As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world … as in being able to remake ourselves." ~Mahatma Gandhi

Who was Mahatma Gandhi? Mahatma Ghandi (1869-1948) was the most pivotal leader in India's struggle for independence from the British Empire. He pioneered the strategy of resisting injustice through mass civil disobedience, and inspired civil rights movements across the world.

A student of Hindu philosophy, Gandhi lived simply. He made his own clothes and lived on a simple vegetarian diet. He fasted for self-purification and as a means for protest. Gandhi's life and teachings inspired American Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and South African Steve Biko, both of whom died -- like Ghandi -- for their non-violent convictions.

Gandhi has drawn serious criticism from historians for his view that non-violent resistance could transform Hitler's hatred. In particular, Gandhi made statements suggesting that the Jews would win God's love by willingly going to their deaths as martyrs.

Although Gandhi was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize five times, he never received it. However, the Nobel Committee was deeply divided along nationalistic lines, and publicly declared its regret. In 1948, the year Gandhi was assassinated, the Prize was not awarded to anyone; the committee declared, "there was no suitable living candidate." In 1989 when the Dalai Lama was awarded the Prize, the chairman of the committee said that this was "in part a tribute to the memory of Mahatma Gandhi."

Albert Einstein

March 20, 2006

"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted." ~Albert Einstein

Who was Albert Einstein? Albert Einstein (1879-1955) is so widely regarded as the greatest scientist of the 20th century that his name is a synonym for “genius”. He was a theoretical physicist whose general theory of relativity brought him worldwide fame, unusual for a scientist in his day. At age five, his father showed him a pocket compass, and young Albert understood intuitively that the space around the compass was not empty, but strangely filled with an unseen force. That experience became foundational to his later thinking. He was considered a slow learner, possibly due to dyslexia, shyness, or the atypical structure of his brain (studied after his death), but he believed that his slowness was an intellectual asset.

Albert Einstein was friendly, modest about his abilities, and had certain distinctive attitudes. For example, he maintained a limited wardrobe to avoid wasting time deciding what to wear. He had a teasing sense of humor, and enjoyed playing the violin. Einstein was deeply concerned with the social impact of scientific discovery. He said, "I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones."

Rudolph Flesch

March 13, 2006

"Creative thinking may mean simply the realization that there's no particular virtue in doing things the way they always have been done." ~Rudolph Flesch

Who was Rudolph Flesch? Rudolf Flesch (1911-1986) was born in Vienna, Austria, and immigrated to the United States in 1938. As a linguist and literacy expert he produced a series of books that established himself as an expert in written communication.

Flesch had an enormous influence on American writing styles and reading habits through books entitled The Art of Plain Talk (1946), The Art of Readable Writing (1949), and The Art of Clear Thinking (1951). Time Magazine called him "Mr. Fix-It of writing." He advocated simplicity and directness in prose. In 1951, he produced the Associated Press Writing Manual, and AP style to this day closely follows Fleschian precepts. In 1955, his book Why Johnny Can't Read became a bestseller, partly due to the anxiety of Americans about competition from Russia during the Sputnik era.

His influence on Theodore Geisel (better known as Dr. Seuss) was enormous. He was also influential among journalists and advertising copywriters. While common language became simpler, however, Flesch was less successful in influencing business and academia. In those fields language became thick and laden with jargon.

Several readability indices, including those that are a part of Microsoft Word, are based on the work of Rudolph Flesch.

Buckminster Fuller

March 6, 2006

"Dare to be naive." ~Buckminster Fuller

Who was Buckminster Fuller? Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) had one of the most fertile and optimistic minds of the 20th century, believing that every observation carried a promise, every problem had a solution, and every person held limitless possibilities. He was a designer, an inventor, an architect, an engineer, a mathematician, a poet and a determined independent thinker who impacted the entire world. He even impressed Albert Einstein, who said to him, “Young man, you amaze me!”

But he didn't begin to grasp his purpose in life until age 32, while contemplating suicide in the freezing waters of Lake Michigan. His first child had died and he was unemployed, destitute and disrespected. He chose at that moment to consider his life “an experiment to discover what the little, penniless, unknown individual might be able to do effectively on behalf of all humanity.”

During his extraordinary 56-year experiment he was awarded 25 U.S. patents, authored 28 books, and received 47 honorary doctorates in the arts, science, engineering and the humanities. He invented the geodesic dome, the lightest and strongest structure ever devised. He was an early advocate of renewable energy sources, claiming “there is no energy crisis, only a crisis of ignorance.”

Benjamin Franklin

February 27, 2006

"Hide not your talents, they for use were made. What's a sun-dial in the shade?" ~Benjamin Franklin

Who was Benjamin Franklin? Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) was one of the most prominent founders of the United States of America. Although he never held national elective office, his influence shaped the formation of the nation. His success in winning French military and financial aid was critical to the victory of the colonies. He was a diplomatic genius and fluent in five languages.

Noted for his curiosity, ingenuity and diversity of interests, his wit and wisdom have stood the test of time. In 1733 he began to publish Poor Richard's Almanack and sold about ten thousand copies a year, which made many of his popular proverbs widely available including "A penny saved is twopence clear" (often misquoted as "A penny saved is a penny earned") and "Fish and visitors stink in three days."

He established both the first public lending library and fire department in America and was immersed in science and technology of his day. The Franklin stove, medical catheter, lightening rod, and bifocals are just a few of his inventions. He played a major role in establishing the University of Pennsylvania and Franklin and Marshall College. Near the end of his life, he became one of the most prominent early American abolitionists. Today his picture is on the U.S. $100 bill.

Albert von Szent-Gyorgyi

February 20, 2006

"A discovery is said to be an accident meeting a prepared mind." ~Albert von Szent-Gyorgyi

Who was Albert von Szent-Gyorgyi? Albert von Szent-Gyorgyi (1893-1986) was a Hungarian-born American biochemist. His uncle was a professor of anatomy at the University of Budapest, where Albert matriculated in 1911, entering his uncle's laboratory where he studied until interrupted by the outbreak of World War I. He served on the Italian and Russian fronts, serving as an army medic. In 1916, disgusted with the war, he shot himself in the arm, claimed that he was wounded from enemy fire, and was sent home on medical leave. He was awarded the Silver Medal for Valor, and was discharged in 1917.

He went on to study pharmacology, electrophysiology, and physical chemistry. Szent-Györgyi's unique contribution to medicine involved the chemistry of cell respiration and the interdependence of oxygen and hydrogen. He was the first to isolate vitamin C and won the 1937 Nobel Prize for discoveries relating to biological combustion.

He emigrated to the United States in 1937. In 1950, grants from the Armor Meat Company and the American Heart Association allowed him to establish the Institute for Muscle Research at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. In 1955, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States.

Jesus, speaking of John the Baptist

February 13, 2006

"From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it."
~Jesus, speaking of John the Baptist (in Matthew 11:12)

Who was John the Baptist? John the Baptist (died, ca. AD 36) was a Jewish prophet described in Matthew's Gospel as a precursor to the Messiah. He was a cousin to Jesus of Nazareth, and launched the ministry of Jesus by calling him "the Lamb of God" and baptizing him in the Jordan River.

John lived in the mountainous desert between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, but drew many to his message and his baptism. He led a simple life -- barbaric even by first century standards -- wearing coarse clothing and subsisting on locusts and wild honey. He preached a message of repentance, which offended Jewish leaders.

Despite the great contrast between Jesus and John, both were criticized for opposite ways. "For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'He has a demon.' The Son of Man [Jesus] came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Here is a glutton and a drunkard'" (Matthew 11:18-19). John offended by his refusal to engage in social niceties, and Jesus offended by doing so.

Matthew's Gospel is a tract addressing Jews with the message that Jesus embodied the fulfillment of Old Testament prophesies, and that Jesus was the only worthy sacrifice for sin, but that deep change would come only as people made the effort to grasp this message.

Arthur Koestler

February 6, 2006

"Creativity is a type of learning process where the teacher and pupil are located in the same individual." ~Arthur Koestler

Who was Arthur Koestler? Arthur Koestler (1905-1983) was a Hungarian born British novelist, journalist and social critic. He was multilingual and a prolific author. Early in his life he was a Communist, but his best known novel Darkness At Noon (1940) is about the Soviet purges of the 1930s, and ranks with Orwell's 1984 as a fictional exposition of Stalinism. It reflects his break with the Communist Party, and sold over 400,000 copies, which annoyed the Communists. From 1937 Koestler was one of the main politically active European authors, whose attacks on the Soviet totalitarianism during the early period of the Cold War separated him from such internationally famous intellectuals as Jean Paul Sartre.

In Koestler's succeeding works he analyzed his quest for Utopia and his disillusionment with Soviet communism. In the 1960's he experimented with hallucinogenic drugs, concluding that "Chemically induced hallucinations, delusions and raptures may be frightening or wonderfully gratifying; in either case they are in the nature of confidence tricks played on one's own nervous system."

In the 1970's he faced Parkinson's disease and terminal leukemia, and as a lifelong advocate of euthanasia, Koestler took his own life as did his wife, who, was perfectly healthy.

Mark Twain

January 30, 2006

"It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech." ~Mark Twain

Who was Mark Twain? Mark Twain (1835-1910) was born Samuel Clemens, but wrote mostly under the pseudonym Mark Twain. His novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of the greatest in American literature, but his prolific work met with both praise and criticism during his life.

Samuel Clemens worked at a variety of jobs: typesetter, riverboat pilot, miner and newspaper reporter, and served briefly in the Confederate army during the American War Between the States. As one critic noted, Twain "didn't like human beings much, except as targets for his scorn," and provided a long list of victims of Twain's misanthropic wit. It included nearly anyone inclined toward vanities of self-promotion: arrogant public officials, inept musicians, vain women, advocates of temperance, lecturers who pretended to have known Dickens, smart-talking two-year-olds, editors, officious train conductors, lynchers, book-pirating publishers, scientists who deduced too much from too little evidence, swindlers, and seducers of women. He was an earnest defender of blacks, Native Americans, and the poor.

In his later years Twain grew depressed, but his malicious wit remained sharp. Despite playing a positive role in the lives of such luminaries as Helen Keller and Booker T. Washington, he grew more mean spirited and pessimistic after the deaths of his wife and 3 of his 4 children, and his health began to fail. He wrote in 1909, "I came in with Halley's Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it."

Ray Bradbury

January 23, 2006

"We are all cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out." ~Ray Bradbury

Who is Ray Bradbury? Ray Bradbury (born 1920) is one of America's great creative geniuses. As writer, he produced more than five hundred published works -- novels, short stories, plays, screenplays, television scripts, and poetry.

Talented and creative people befriended him as a teenager, including radio star George Burns. It was Burns who first paid Bradbury as a writer -- for contributing a joke to the George Burns & Gracie Allen Show.

Bradbury wanted to become an actor until his teachers encouraged him to write. His formal education ended with his high school graduation in 1938, but he continued to educate himself. He sold newspapers on Los Angeles street corners all day, but spent his nights in the library and at his typewriter.

His reputation as a leading science fiction writer came with the publication of The Martian Chronicles in 1950. As a description of man's attempt to colonize Mars, it was a work of both science fiction and social criticism, reflecting America's anxieties at the time: the threat of nuclear war, the longing for a simpler life, reactions against racism, and the fear of foreign powers.

Bradbury's stories have been adapted for television, including episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone. He still writes daily and occasionally lectures.

Peter Ustinov

January 16, 2006

"The point of living and of being an optimist, is to be foolish enough to believe the best is yet to come." ~Peter Ustinov

Who was Peter Ustinov? Peter Ustinov (1921 - 2004) was born in London in 1921, and studied at the Westminster School. He left school at 16 because he hated it, but had almost instant success on the London stage. His first play was staged when he was only 19.

His acting career spanned more than 60 years, and included Academy Awards for two roles -- in 1961 for Spartacus, and in 1965 for Topkapi. He also received nominations for best supporting actor and best screenplay. In January 1963, he was sued for canceling out of The Pink Panther, and was replaced by Peter Sellers. One of Peter Ustinov's most famous depictions was Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot, whom he portrayed in a series of films.

Famous for his rich, musical speaking voice, he was fluent in French, German, Italian, Russian and Spanish, and could also speak Greek and Turkish.

Ustinov is remembered as the portly British character actor, the master playwright, and acclaimed storyteller who excelled at comedic roles and dramatic performances alike. He died of heart failure on the 28th March, 2004, at Genolier, Switzerland. He chose the epitaph for his gravestone to be: "Keep off the grass."

Margaret Thatcher

January 3, 2006

"Look at a day when you are supremely satisfied at the end. It's not a day when you lounge around doing nothing; it's when you had everything to do, and you've done it." ~ Margaret Thatcher

Who is Margaret Thatcher? Margaret Thatcher (born 1925) was the daughter of a grocer who served as an Alderman and also a lay preacher. She was brought up a devout Methodist and became one of England's greatest leaders.

Having been elected a Member of Parliament in 1950, she gradually rose through the ranks until she became the first woman Prime Minister of Great Britain in 1979. Like her political and philosophical soulmate Ronald Reagan, who was elected President of the United States in 1980, she emphasized free markets and entrepreneurialism.

Also like Reagan, she survived an assassination attempt, and went on to play a key role in the collapse of the Soviet Union. She was so outspoken a critic of communism that she was nicknamed "The Iron Lady" by the Soviet Defense Ministry newspaper Red Star. She took the nickname with pride.

She was the longest serving Prime Minister in more than 150 years, leaving a lasting, transformational legacy. After her resignation as Prime Minister, she maintained a vigorous traveling and speaking schedule, and served for several years as the Chancellor of the College of William and Mary in the United States. Today she lives in a very frail condition, having suffered several small strokes.