Homo Sapiens?

These days I often find out more about news commentary or updates through my Facebook feed than the traditional news sources. These can be mundane commentaries on American Idol or the Eurovision Song Contest through to the highest profile of news events, natural disasters and tragedies. I learned of the MH17 crash on a kind of slow reveal on my Facebook feed on Friday morning, the day taking on a suddenly very different tone to the one expected. First was a reference to MH17 and expressions of disbelief which drove me to scroll through a night’s worth of newsfeed to learn of the tragic loss of an airliner making its way routinely across the globe from Amsterdam towards Kuala Lumpur. A route which I will be travelling in a week’s time, though my departure point will be Bangkok.

I know that the investigations and time will tell us what was behind this, but for the moment I am working on what is known.  That some incredibly sophisticated surface to air missile or some such weapon appears to have been launched at a commercial airliner and resulted in its destruction along with the loss of the almost 300 lives on board.  I had no idea that there was such weaponry in existence which had the capacity to reach, never mind destroy an airliner at cruising altitude. How naive am I?

The day was heavy, thoughts of this unimaginable event uppermost in our minds and conversations. News that many on board were travelling to Melbourne for AIDS 2014, the 20th international AIDS Conference in Melbourne came at some point in the day.  This was getting a bit more personal now, as many of my friends and colleagues work in this field.  And more than the personal connection, the loss of people dedicated and specialist where these are so needed.  Any life lost is unacceptable but to lose brilliant minds unnecessarily is even more difficult to absorb.

I arrived home last evening, and stepped back online to catch up with any news or progress.  And my heart stopped when I read a post from a very dear friend, who I will meet in the UK next month. He had arrived in Melbourne for the conference and was utterly distraught to find out about the crash when he had arrived. His distress was all the more as he had been given two options for his travel to Melbourne.  He had opted not to fly on Malaysian, but on the other flight.  I have no idea what the reason would be, and often our choices (after cost) are based on flight timings, connections and routes.  It is a choice which he will never forget, I am sure.  And I simply cannot get my head round this. That by some possibly arbitrary quirk, some have lived and others not.  This is just so close to home and I am having trouble processing it.

And the part which is really troubling me is this.  We are homo sapiens. We are the race which has been gifted with intellect.  We deliberate and think.  We study and write. We are able to design and invent.  We are capable of abstract thought.  Quite how engineers and scientists are able to create what they do is always beyond me.  I cannot comprehend how planners and architects can create plans for bridges and houses and that they actually work.  How do physicists know that their theories will work when they are all on paper? It is a mystery to me.  They have brilliant minds which work in a way very different to my own.  And homo sapiens has created some pretty amazing stuff.  The car, telephone, computers, incredible communication technology and of course changed our world and lives through mass transportation.  Such as aeroplanes. Amazing indeed.

genius 2

But what is it in our race that uses brilliant minds to create things which cause destruction, death, pain and fear?  How is possible that minds of genius can be diverted to such destruction? How can this be possible when we live in a world that is unable to ensure that all have access to clean water, or basic health and education services?

How is this possible in a world where we have been spectacularly unable to find a cure for so many illnesses and diseases?  Lethal illnesses including AIDS and cancer? Are we such a wise race after all?


A Cosmic Coincidence

The cosmic events of the past day have reminded me of visiting the Natural History Museum in Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia when I travelled through in 1999.  I remember being astounded by one of the exhibits. There in the midst of one of the rooms was a chunky great shiny black stone, around the size of a beer barrel just sitting on the floor.  It was a meteorite.  A real meteorite from outer space.  We could touch it, and prod it and it certainly looked “other worldly” with its smoothish, dimpled surface.  The fact that this piece of extra-terrestrial treasure was not secured behind bars or a glass cabinet has been noted in a number of guide books and blogs, and it is actually not so surprising that it is not locked away.  Have you any idea how heavy a meteorite is?  There was no way this lump of rock could be moved let alone lifted or spirited away.  It is surprising that the floor did not sag underneath it.


I tried to find a picture of this meteorite to share here and came across an even more fascinating discovery.  Most of the photographs of meteorites which came up in my image search, came up on E-bay!  Seriously?! You can browse for meteorites, dump a few in your shopping cart (as if it could bear the weight) and then arrange to have it shipped to you.  Or perhaps just launched across the stratosphere!  The meteorite in this advert was much smaller than the one I had seen in Mongolia, at around 16″ but it weighs nearly 50kg!  No wonder the one I saw just sat undisturbed!

The other cosmic event, which has taken the world’s attention is of course the fact that an asteroid, cited as being the size of an Olympic swimming pool, narrowly missed colliding with Earth.  Apparently it passed closer to the Earth’s surface than the satellites cruising around up there, seeming to dodge around them


With climate change discussions and natural disasters we already feel vulnerable and insignificant as humans.  But somehow we feel that little bit more equipped to deal with many types of disasters.  However, I think that stuff falling out of the sky from outer space is far more scary.  A collision with the asteroid which has just trundled past us waving at the astronomers watching and holding their breath, would probably (according to the news report I heard) obliterate around 750 square miles.  How tiny and insignificant do we feel in that type of event?

The meteorite fall in Russia was a major cosmic event, instantly shooting to the top of the news reports globally.  For there to be another significant astronomic happening within a few hours is astonishing and really makes us stop and think of our insignificance in the global and intergalactic scheme of things.  Albeit somewhat incompatible with our elevated opinion of ourselves as a species.   So how convincing is it to hear that two such momentous occurrences are a “cosmic coincidence?”  A coincidence?  Really?

Earlier in the week, before these cosmic surprises, I was working with a number of specialist colleagues who came here to contribute to our programme planning.  I have met most of the visitors before, including one woman who I had been introduced to briefly in our regional office.  So in the course of our work together this week, I realised that she had a gentle Scottish accent.  A little like mine, in that it seemed to have been rubbed smooth at the edges as a result of living overseas for a number of years.  This tends to happen a lot to Scottish accents  overseas.  We have to soften them somewhat so that we can be understood.  Otherwise life can become lonely as people get a bit tired of asking us to repeat what we have said more than three times and drift away.  This week, as fellow Scots, it did not take long for one of us to ask where in Scotland the other came from. My colleague told me the name of the village she came from,  her face conveying the expectation that I would not have heard of it.   To my surprise, and to hers, it was a village very close to the village I grew up in, less than 20 kilometres away.  And being a rural area, all children from a wide catchment area around would go to the same secondary school.  Which of course was the next question.  With the confirmation that we did go to the same school, the next question was “when?”  Incredibly we were at that same small rural school at the same time (two years between us).  After the day’s work we were able to reminisce and catch up on the far too many intervening years. Who on earth would have thought that forty odd years after travelling on the same school bus and sitting in the same classrooms, we would meet up on the other side of the planet, here in Myanmar?


And in my view, that  truly was an astonishingly cosmic coincidence!