Saturday, March 24, 2012

22. Making Sense of It All

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Well, this is again wishful thinking, for I do wish I could help my readers find their way through ideas, and notions, and concepts, and lay everything neat and clean in a sentence. And the sentence would be as well-constructed and comprehensive as an aphorism. But aphorisms – principles expressed in just a few words – are sharply defined sentences relating to abstract truth. So far so good, but what is truth? And, if we really were able to define truth, would that be the truth, that is, only one? And then again, whose truth would that be – mine, yours, someone else’s? Who would lay claim of authorship upon that all-comprising sentence, and could it, for that matter, have an influence on the rest of the people? What kind of influence would that be, positive, or negative? Are positive and negative straightforward terms, or are they, too, liable of interpretation?

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No need to count the questions in the previous paragraph. There’s not even a shade of a doubt that others would emerge, following the same line of thought in pursuit of a pattern. The pattern. In the end, another affirmation finds its way in the argument: trying to keep such profound concepts from possible biased interpretations proves to be an insurmountable difficulty, for the more we try to unify our convictions, beliefs, and values, and make them produce harmony, the more elusive the outcome.

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Let’s take for granted that at least some of the readers of this post belong to that category whose natural tendency is to attain harmony in their lives. Whoever has undertaken the quest for harmony knows what it takes to find that state of steadiness and keep it despite the fluctuations of events occurring during their existence. Are we the only ones to doubt about our decisions, to seek the truth, to waver about the very values that have been transmitted to us through upbringing, institutionalized education, or about the theories we have adhered to along our lives? Surely not.  How many of us are in search of a role model, someone whose wisdom, inner balance, and strong will surpass our own and so are able to come to our rescue when we are in need of certainty – a voice that could show us the way?

René Magritte, La Recherche de l'Absolu
It seems that this happens to human beings precisely when they are called upon to face important events which demand a course of action. Indeed, only then do we realize that all that has already been experienced before; what’s needed then is either to try and find out on one’s own, or else listen to the voice of wisdom.

Kandinski, ParisArt
Harmony may take the form of the music of the spheres – an ancient philosophical concept that regards the movements of the Sun, the Moon, and the planets as mathematical relationships which express qualities or ‘tones' of energy manifesting through numbers, visual angles, shapes and sounds – all connected within a pattern of proportion. Pythagoras, the first man to call himself a philosopher, or lover of wisdom, identified that the pitch of a musical note is in proportion to the length of the string that produces it, and that intervals between harmonious sound frequencies form simple numerical ratios. Pythagorean ideas exercised a marked influence on Plato, and through him, on all of Western philosophy.

Plato's Theaetetus: the roots of knowledge
And so time has come to turn our gaze to philosophy for a while: it is highly probable that we will find answers to such problems as those connected with existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language.

Undoubtedly, the following video will bring more ideas to the fore, and will clarify them. They are all meant to introduce the domain of our special guest, to whose work I am looking forward to dedicating the next two posts.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

21. [Brave] New World, [Same] Old Patterns

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Two yellowish strands wrapped around each other. The image of the DNA molecule (see ‘Lost for Words, Spoilt for Choice’) brought back a precious memory: the double helix staircase in the Castle of Chambord (Val de Loire) – most likely designed by Leonardo da Vinci. Déjà vu. The puzzlement you feel while realizing that, unless you go down the stairs again, you will never meet the ones who went up the other stairs. The dizziness overwhelming you while looking down into the stairwell’s vanishing point.
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And it’s all here, around us, from the bottom of the oceans to the nebulae in outer space.
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Would mankind evolve more quickly if someone were able to find The Pattern – that which is reproduced in so many natural phenomena from the atom to the Cosmos?  

But even if we cannot, we may hope that others – our children, or, for that matter, their children – will finally find it.

a model of da Vinci's staircase
But the time hasn’t come yet to leave the solid ground of scientific discourse. Writing one yourselves is always the best practice one can think of, so here’s the basis for writing an expository essay:

Being familiar with the conventions of essay writing is far from being sufficient in order to readily write it; first, it is only after a number of trials that the writer begins to feel the independence of his or her own creation, namely, the way the ideas follow each other in a logical succession; second, only by acquiring mobility in using synonymous words, phrases, and structures can the author be satisfied with the final version. So let’s take for granted that handling a fair amount of linguistic resources may be seen a potential skill in view of writing an essay (the first good one is the toughest to produce) and, while coming closer to reality, let’s revise the basic features, or key points, of essays.
·        Layout
Introductory paragraph which introduces the topic (in this case, Genetic Engineering);
Main body (a number of paragraphs containing the main points).
Concluding paragraph summarising the points you have made.
·        Preparation
Work out your ideas and write out an outline or plan in note form before you begin the essay.
·        Style
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Use formal vocabulary - avoid colloquialisms and slang. Avoid contractions and exclamations.
Use ‘objective language’ whenever possible – use passive forms, avoid extreme adjectives.
Do not use the personal pronoun ‘I’ unless the title specifically asks for your personal opinion/experience.
Always back up your points with reasons and examples.
Here is a model answer; there’s something wrong with it, though: some of the words are missing, and you must provide them yourself!
[Adapted from Distinction: English for Advanced Learners – Teacher’s book, by Mark Foley & Diane Hall]
In (1)… last few decades a new branch of Science, genetic engineering, has opened up new possibilities for medicine and health. These new possibilities are the result of biotechnology, (2)… allows scientists to interfere with and alter the biological processes of life itself. In genetic engineering, scientists can take strands of human DNA and copy and improve (3)… before putting them back in the body. Doctors are hoping (4)… this will lead to the ability to correct flaws and defects in the unborn child, a process known (5)… genetic therapy.

Genetically engineered drugs are now becoming available and can be used to combat many serious diseases. One of the (6)… exciting of these is an antibody which can be used (7)… fight cancer. Known as ‘magic bullets’, these substances will be able to carry radioactive drugs to the cancerous cells. Biotechnology (8)… also made it possible to use human insulin to treat diabetes, replacing the use of pigs as donors and thus reducing the risk of infection. (9)… example is IGF: within twenty years, doctors hope that this will be available to fight bone disease. One genetically engineered drug which is already (10)… trial is Interferon, which is being tested for use against arthritis.
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Scientists have also developed (11)… technique of using chemical proteins called enzymes to cut out the unwanted parts of the DNA. These can then be repaired and put (12)… into the body.

This opens up the possibility of identifying faulty genes (13)… unborn children and treating them (14)… they are still in the womb. The children would then be born free of all genetic defects (15)… as hereditary diseases, leading to a much healthier and longer life.

Of course, (16)… of these treatments can change our susceptibility to environmental factors such as diet and nutrition, and these (17)… continue to have a major effect on human health. (18)… is more, although biotechnology has succeeded in producing new and effective drugs, the possibility of interfering (19)… human genes is still the subject of ethical debate, and it may be many years before the techniques which are now theoretically possible become (20)… everyday reality.

Take a piece of paper and write down the missing words. Not until you finish should you