It’s a small world, but I wouldn’t want to paint it.

Last night Felix Baumgartner ascended in a balloon the size of the Statue of Liberty to thirty-nine thousand metres and then with the words ‘I’m coming home now’ leapt into space.

This event broke three major world records, the highest manned balloon flight, the highest parachute jump and of course the fastest man has ever been unassisted; Felix broke the speed of sound using nothing more than gravity and the will to do it.

Like many around the world I was very excited about this piece of history, I had watched the aborted attempts last week disappointed and I hoped that I would get a chance to witness this historic moment no matter what the outcome.

I have had a fascination with space for as long as I can remember and have always trumpeted man’s desire to push the envelope, to do extraordinary things and that was when I first heard about Joseph Kittinger. Kittinger was an American pilot who in 1959 and 1960 made three record breaking jumps from balloon. The image of him leaping into nothingness resonated with me, especially since his record had stood for so long. In much the same way as the Moon landings, part of what makes these feats so fantastical is that they never became routine and are relegated to history books. When my parents were growing up there were so many ‘firsts’. It seemed that man was just leaping forward, onto bigger and bigger things. My parents watched Sputnik beeping across the sky, heard of Yuri Gagarin on the front pages of their newspapers, saw Neil Armstrong make his historic step on their new-fangled televisions. And so naturally when I heard about Felix Baumgartner’s attempt I just had to watch, using the one earth changing development that I had been alive for, the Internet.

Youtube offered a live stream of the event along with accompanying data on wind speed, temperature, oxygen levels and altitude. As I saw that the mission was a go I contacted all of my friends and let them know it was happening. They all for the most part were asleep, but my parents were still up. It took a little convincing for them to get interested, they were tired and wanted to sleep. I showed them the video anyway and as best I could explained the science and majesty of this massive helium monster and the man who was trying to make history. I told them what I knew about Kittinger and about the age of heroes that I’d missed out on. They were not convinced by the story, but the obvious excitement in my voice kept them glued to the images. We talked about what we saw and watched with baited breath as Felix made his decent all hopeful that he would survive. And when he did we cheered. We had just witnessed a man leap from a balloon 39 kilometres above New Mexico and watched him descend tot earth in real time. What makes this story even more incredible is that I live in Vietnam, and my parents were sitting in a Chilean airport waiting for their next plane.

The internet has such a power to connect people, and like Felix, can inspire people to try new things and experience the world anew. It allows us unfettered access to all manner of details and information from strangers to loved ones. As Felix said before he leapt down to his family waiting so many kilometres below him, “Sometimes you have to go up really high to understand how small you are.”

Biology

I have for some time only operated on a basic understanding of our biological system. That is to say I understood the basics of Cellular action, of photosynthesis and respiration but had never had it explained to me how these reactions take place.

The first main realisation which helped me in visualising these processes was the image of the ocean. If you had asked me what was the main chemical component of either animal life or plant life I would have said water, I might have even been able to express a percentage of the whole which I thought was waters place, however that’s where the understanding stopped. If you had gone on to ask me where all of those water molecules where in the human body for example, my eyes would have glazed over and I would have given an avoidance answer whereby I harp on about something else, perhaps lamenting uselessness of arbitrary numeral based facts in this case. While in that scenario you may still consider myself knowledgeable on the subject the truth would be that I didn’t get that far in biology. I was a student of Chemistry and Physics at high school, biology had never interested me in those years which is probably why I was antisocial and a little bit lonely.

So it turns out that much like a lot of things the solution to my woes, and indeed the visual that my brain had failed to comprehend was that these cellular reactions, and in fact all of these cells themselves were in fact in solution with water.

That simple idea for me helped to connect huge gaps in my knowledge which had languished uncomfortably in the back of my mind when contemplating the development of life in a primordial soup scenario. Knowing now that cells developed with water, both within and without water in fact, has made it far clearer the strength of our current understanding of life. It was not that I did not believe these theories before; I am comfortable with things being true even I don’t fully understand them. For example I am more than happy to accept that there is a town call Maiac in Moldova, I don’t need to know who founded it and when, to believe that exists and is true. What is important though is that it has validity in my own brain.

What’s particularly good about this visual is that it also bridged the gap in my head between what I understood as biology, the study of cells, and chemistry, the study of atoms and molecules. Because the cells are suspended in water it is of course insanely obvious that the atoms and molecules are to. So all you need for life is a solution of various chemical compounds reacting together in increasingly complex ways to satisfy electron issues. This can explain the physical reactions of chemicals but struggles with the metaphysical questions of life itself, what is that property and perhaps the answer is simple. Perhaps life is just what happens when these chemical react. A byproduct of atoms interaction. And on a small level electrons and protons and neutrinos quarks bosons and everything else.

Some might view that as a depressing way to view the world thinking that it questions the idea of free will. Really though there is a real difference between the mind and the body. Just like the physical the metaphysical is evolving, some evolutions lead to great reward such as language or tool making but some do not, what separates the metaphysical from the physical is that we have been in charge of our mental evolution a lot longer than we have managed to meddle with our physical states.  There is still much randomness to our reactions and interactions there is still much room for free will. Free will is a byproduct of a metaphysical development, it might not be evolutionary for it does not lead us to great prosperity in the chemical sense, but it does give us command over our environment and understanding of the processes involved which leads to a better maintenance of the reactions themselves.

And this is the important part. That joy of discovery, that connection of dots in my mind over the origins of life and indeed the reactions which make up my own existence are what we as a species should aspire to. It’s only when we understand the world, truly can create a picture for ourselves and internalise that reality that we can pass on that understanding and knowledge to the next generation. And with this we have the human-lead evolution of minds with cultural metamorphosis and innovation. This perception of the world, once understood can lead us to pursue the real mysteries, what is truly around us to investigate and understand

Crash Course 

All by Rachmaninoff

I will freely admit that I never was widely exposed to classical music. While I attended a private old boys school, was taken to the ballet and plays as a lad and at one point did in fact count myself a student of the violin, classical music has never been something that I have paid attention to in any great way aside from brief forays with Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, and Mozart’s Requiem.

Now, I have always appreciated classical music and like most people who have been exposed to popular culture in the last hundred years I can hum movements from Vivaldi, Beethoven and Grieg as well as anyone even without knowing exactly what I’m doing. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is associated with sunshine and green grass which of course is due to the fact only Spring is very well known. Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, which interestingly is the current European Union’s anthem, is the only non-chopsticks song that I can play on the piano. And Grieg’s Morning mood will forever be linked to birds flying over a green meadow and subsequently chocking in plumes of toxic smoke thanks to hours spent playing Day of the Tentacle in my youth.

In any case my points are that classical music is part of the very fabric of our modern time and secondly that I have not listened to a lot of it.

That is until a few days ago when I started throwing on a random selection of classical pieces on when I have been cooking dinner. This was for twofold purpose, one to expand my experiences of western culture but also, ever the romantic that I am, I feel the music instils the food with a sense of quality even if it is little more than stored chemical energy in hastily prepared carbohydrate, protein and lipid mixtures.

So as all this was playing in the background I heard from amongst the piano and strings a voice.

‘Thought that life was just for fun, those days are gone’

I couldn’t shake it, these words kept on cropping up in my head. Now, despite my attraction to Symphony of Sorrowful songs I was not unhappy today, these words simply appeared and then, as I finished my meal my refuelled brain kicked in: ‘ALL BY MYYYYY SEEEEEEEEELF’

My god! Could it be!

I rushed to the stereo and discovered Rachmaninoff’s No 2 playing, and it was unmistakable. The melody was definitely the same melody of that well known anthem to loneliness. Had I discovered a long lost plagiarism? Was Rachmaninoff the original singer of this well-known Celine Dion cover? The answer to both, as any true fan would know, is no.

Turns out, that Eric Carmen who originally penned ‘All By Myself’ directly lifted this piece from Rachmaninoff thinking that it was in the public domain. It turned out it wasn’t and the singer went on to pay his due royalties to Rachmaninoff’s estate, however the true point in this tale is the excitement that coursed through my body when I thought I had discovered this link. This impossible tiny link between a well-known modern song and the inspirational song from 70 years earlier from one of the great composers, not quite impossible it would seem.

I had thought I was finding something new, and though it was not news to any of Eric Carmen’s many fans, nor probably of devotees of Rachmaninoff that excitement was mine, and it was new for me.

And so while these classical songs are old, there is still much to discover, for while the world may have moved on, it is for you to decide when something has lost its ability to surprise and excite and to bring you sense of wonder.