Category Archives: The Future is Here

Asian Gerbils Carry Black Plague to Europe

Smoking gun: Asian gerbils, not European rats, caused the plague.

Uffizzi plague victims

Roman-era Plague Victims Photo: Maurizio Degl’Innocenti/EPA, via Landov

No doubt if such news had appeared in the broadsheets of, say, 14th century Italy (and did the have anything even remotely resembling a newspaper for informing citizens in those largely illiterate days?), trade with Asia would have been banned, and the traders themselves shipped back to their home port.

Today, it’s forensic archeology informing history–and our understanding of the progress of civilization. Medical detectives sniffing into the corners of history and civilization to determine how diseases start, why they spread, and how tree rings offer the smoking gun tracking shifts in climate.

You may have guessed by now that the true purpose of this blog, under the guise of Leonardo’s fabulous and inventive mind (so emulated by the heroine of Out of Time, Charley) is to explore what’s on my own mind. What’s got me thinking right now? Would I might have known–way back in the ancient history of my formative years–that biology + archeology + anthropology + history = a way to figure out how disease spreads through history and affects the story of the world, how different my own history might be!

What triggers this revisionist thinking of career potential from my younger self? I recently ran across a story of archeologists digging up a mass grave containing human remains more than 1,500 years old under the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy–the beautiful museum where some of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpieces are on permanent display–these skeletons now thought to be victims  of an early plague.


Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

Amid growing national concern about the trickle of qualified candidates to fill a growing number of jobs in technical fields requiring strong skills in science, math and engineering, the question is increasingly important: how to entice young people into pursuing STEM careers that may not crop up in the normal course of Middle School Career Day? We live in times where how we define work, and what occupations are available, are in vast flux. The doctor-lawyer-teacher professional triad is still viable, but the world is changing. Doctors are not the only health workers. Law is narrowing for newly-minted JDs. Teachers are not revered, much less adequately compensated.

The careers of the future open up vastly different opportunities for young people today–and exposure to those possibilities can open vistas and ignite curiosity and the imagination.

As usual, Leonardo da Vinci’s example, a passion for learning and seeing in new ways–leads us to new insight. He let his nose–and eyes and chalk–lead in his passion to understand the world around him. His fascination with human anatomy led him to grave robbing and even using the underground morgues in the Vatican itself to gain access to skeletons that would allow him to study human skeletal structures and the undergirding of the face that allowed him to draw and paint such lifelike, living humans in those masterpieces that come down to us today. In fact, had Leo known of the destruction beneath a gallery that displayed his masterpieces, he might have even been tempted to exhume the bodies himself, in his constant search to portray the human form in all its guises.

There was also the fascination with life, death, age, youth and nature–so present in Leonardo’s age and, paradoxically, so remote and isolated in our own. The contrast between beauty and death is one that captured Leonardo’s attention throughout his prolific career and revealed itself in his painting, sketching and sculpture.


Of course, in 1492 and beyond, Europeans were not the only victims of disease-carrying ships. Historians have documented the link between Europeans arriving in the New World and the subsequent spreading of disease among Native American populations, peoples who had no immunity to diseases carried by their conquerors, and the germs they carried with them. But until fairly recently, understanding how conquest went viral–and often deadly–was not a meme of history.

Could modern medicine, with its vaccines, antibiotics and advanced treatments for infectious disease–if known back in the days when barbers were surgeons–have eradicated the Black Death and changed history? Do we even know what the picture might have looked like if millions of lives that were erased due to plague, cholera, and other epidemics, had been controlled by better sanitation, isolation against the spread of disease and contemporary public health practices had been available back in the day?

Not to say we don’t have uncontrollable scourges today taking lives, Ebola being only the latest example. But today a new form of virus, proving just as infectious, is carried through ether of the World Wide Web and delivered electronically into our homes. As yet, the consequences of computer viruses are still being tested–ranging from terrorists recruiting members with their chilling videos extolling killing in the name of God, to warnings about spying from supposedly preventive and benevolent sources such as the US National Security Agency. Will the spread of such viruses will impact our future story for good or ill? History–and future digital forensic anthropologists–may someday uncover evidence that these have alternatively helped or hurt our world.

Had such an example of sleuthing research and discovery been available to me in my own formative years, I might have honed my love of writing, my aptitude for explaining science through story to then dive into biology, anatomy, environmental science, medical history and tracking the global trail of infectious disease to pursue a much different, but highly satisfying career path.

Growing up, my daughter had a pet gerbil. Scribbles seemed innocent enough–and certainly no great threat to the health of our family, except when it came to cleaning his cage, a task which would have been neglected completely were it not for the smell, and a good bit of nagging on the part of the parents. [So much for children promising to take responsibility!] A gerbil in the wild, stealing on a sailing ship for a three week journey in less-than-optimal conditions is undoubtedly a different beast than his domestic ancestors in the neighborhood pet store.

Who knew? And what young person today, cleaning her gerbil’s cage and wondering about her pet’s family history, might awaken a new interest in how such things work that takes her out of the classroom, into the lab, and onto the road of discovery in other yet-to-be-imagined ways?

Smoking guns may define the history of our past. But, for now, my bet is on the gerbil to sniff out the future history of health.

Et tu, Scribbles?

Tyranny or Freedom: the Choice is Ours

It is fitting on this holiday of American Independence, to look at what legacy the Founding Fathers (and Mothers) might want to bestow today.

Jefferson MemorialWe are stuck in a paradigm of me versus you. Factionalism is on the increase because we haven’t yet recognized on a practical level how interdependent we are in this world.

America, that great shining experiment in Freedom and Democracy for all, has not proven to be a replicable model for the rest of the world still suffering under the “tyranny over the mind of man,” against which Thomas Jefferson swore eternal hostility to Dr. Benjamin Rush in 1800.

In 2014, America seems to have been diverted in its hostilities on that front and, instead, is equipping a tyrannical world to persevere in petty battles—not against tyranny, but against each other.

Instead of arming Iraqis with F15 fighter jets they don’t know how to fly, why aren’t we offering the leaders of the Sunni and Shiite factions weapons of diplomacy, economic support and reconciliation to unite these factions into prosperous and peaceful powers-for-good?

Much like the Allies accomplished with the Marshall Plan for Germany after WWII.

Where is America’s drive to end tyranny in the conflicts in the greater Middle East? Instead of feeding the cycles of terrorism and retribution that fuel the Israeli-Palestinian conflict year-after-year, why not teach their children lessons of acceptance, tolerance, empathy and compassion that could have a chance to end the endless hatred between these peoples?

Something approximating the resolution of “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland.

Worse, we stand by while Putin encroaches on the sovereignty of surrounding nations; while Assad massacres his own people; while Nigerian girls are kidnapped and enslaved by those proclaiming to be on the side of ignorance. We even encroach on our own citizens by giving corporations the power to bestow or deny workers benefits such as health care based on the conscience of the owners.

Shame and humiliation have only fueled the fires of conflict. It is grooved deep within the archives of many cultures: think Japanese, Afghan and, yes, even those disaffected young Americans whose solution to personal humiliation and disaffection from society is to blow up those who they think are responsible. As Dr. Brené Brown has found in her research into what keeps people from experiencing wholehearted living on the personal level, shame and blame lead us to armor up—and harden our hatreds. It is no different with nations.

Can we shift from a shame and blame mindset to one of personal responsibility? I contend it is not only possible, but imperative, if we are to bridge divisions in today’s world. A growing body of research is showing how techniques like yoga, meditation, mindfulness, play and creativity—even expressive arts like music, dance, theater and books—can be the antidotes, the cures to open our hardened minds. These are not theoretical constructs. But they are not yet widespread enough to reach the tipping point of wide acceptance.

Why aren’t we exporting these simple-yet profound tools to wage the peace, instead of bombers and drones to continue to wage war?

Beyond individuals, beyond nations, there is a unity to our cause as peoples of the world: mending the wounds of the past, forging common cause for the betterment of ourselves and others in a drive to consciously create a place where our children can grow and prosper without violence, conflict or suffering.

After all, we are all people struggling for a better existence on the same small, fragile planet. We are inherently vulnerable to things beyond our control. And, at heart, what most people want is love and acceptance. It is within each of us to create that condition. Cooperation, not conflict, can only serve to strengthen our continued existence—as individuals and as nations—united in our outlook to conserve humanity and preserve this blue-green marble we call home.

But it takes a shift in perspective. I would like to call on my fellow humans—leaders, gatekeepers in the news media, men and women—to look at these as new weapons in the arsenal of humanity. It will require a new way of looking at the world.

As Albert Einstein famously said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” What if we were to spread the word: we can expand our consciousness to solve the problems of our world?

There is nothing metaphysical about this. It simply involves stepping out of the habit of shame and blame to see our lives, our problems with a little more objectivity. If it wasn’t “my” problem, how would I counsel a friend in overcoming a difficulty? Can I apply that level of care and counsel to our own situations?

Similarly, if we were to look at the concerns of our neighbors not as “their” problem, but our own, could we apply a little more care and concern to overcoming it? After all, “their” problem ultimately has ripple effects that touch my own life.

What if we were to begin that process today? We are all connected. The actions of each of us impact all of us. What if the power for freedom, prosperity, health and well-being really rests in our own hands—if we were only to take into consideration the bigger picture?

How would you look at the world—and your part in it—differently?

Pitch Week Coda: Finding Inspiration for Rebirth

LiveFuller_webRI am in rustic Rochester, Vermont, a contestant in Pitch Week II. I am deep in the throes of this midsummer nights competition–in the running for the publishing trifecta of a book deal, agent and publicist.

As part of the contest, I am presenting my vision for a rebirth of learning based on the resonance of my story Out of Time–a plan for every child to achieve his fullest potential. A renewal in modern society of transdicisplinary learning has the potential to spawn the same impulse towards innovation, illumination and flowering of genius that characterized the Renaissance: Live Fuller.

The gist: a revival of Renaissance/Humanist learning and discovery based on modern science of how children learn, grow and thrive offers a chance for every child to discover, nurture and be supported in finding her own source of genius.

I contend that stories have the power to evoke such potential for self-discovery and inspire children to find and explore their unique talents and potential to contribute to the world. And Out of Time, in all its forms–novel, screenplay, interactive storytelling, and digital learning tool–can be the portal.

During the course of the week-long publishing competition, I have the great good fortune of staying in the Ralph Ellison room at the When Words Count Retreat. Of course, Ellison work was influential during the Harlem Renaissance—a 20th century flowering of thoughts and ideas for a particular community long oppressed. Not a coincidence, as far as I’m concerned.

As I scan the works of the author of The Invisible Man, I read the back book jacket of his collected stories, Flying Home.

I find his words evocative:

“Back in the thirties, when I was a music student in the South, I was moved to great agonies of empathy by three novels. One of these was Wuthering Heights, another was Jude the Obscure and the other was Crime and Punishment. While I was reading these works I felt such a compelling identification with their respective heroes that I literally suffered through their every trial and exalted in their every triumph. . . . I missed none of the bolder actions and there are still memory traces of them in my throat which were put there by the poignant and tragic developments of these fictions. . . . And the fact that they could so take me out of myself and transport me to a more intense world of feeling and acting, yes, and thinking, intrigued me more than I realized at the time.”

At its best, reading—and fiction in particular—has this magical power to move us to “great agonies of empathy.” And what better to teach our children—in our world of widening divisions and fissions on a global scale—than the pleasurable agony of knowing we all share the same dreams and fears, the same flesh and blood, and the same capacity to draw together through our shared experiences?

Can story create resonance that allows children to jump into learning and find that same source of inspiration? Once that seed is planted, can we, as a society, water it, nurture it into full flower, and then let it grow?

It is to this idea that I dedicate Out of Time: that we all embrace the goal to “live fuller”, to wake up to a world in dire need of revival. More than any time in recent memory, today’s complex and interconnected world requires a Renaissance of ideas, inspiration, creativity and problem solving.

And it is the coming generations that will be charged with undertaking that renewal–or witness our demise.

Now is the moment to plant the seeds of empathy, watch them take root, and strengthen our capacity to draw together in mutual understanding and compassion for ourselves and others with all our strengths and foibles.

Can a story Out of Time spark a movement?

When Time Is Unevenly Distributed

“The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.” ~William Gibson

Smithsonian Future Is Here

Last weekend, I had the gorgeous, splendiferous, mind-bending opportunity to attend Smithsonian magazine’s “The Future is Here” Festival. Listening to the newest news on scientific discovery, exploration and art by some of today’s Superheroes of History (that is, if time were “evenly” distributed – since I’m safely writing this a week past the event, we can safely say that future is now history by today’s standards of time-keeping), we 300+ participants were regaled with the imperative to record human stories to be sent into deep-space messages; exoplanet exploration and the development of a “star shield” to better “see” via the Kepler telescope the presence and distinctive energetic signatures of potential Earth-like orbs in galaxies far-far away; Antarctic cosmologists’ detection of the earliest signature of the Big Bang; and even some of the ethics of re-birthing extinct species that once graced our own home planet. There were writers who have regaled the earth with science fiction that has been the inspiration for many a scientist who used the fiction as a jumping-off point for her own explorations of the universe. Mind blowing, or as my very creative, Argentine-artist friend Rosana Azar would say, “Blow-minding!”

Tweeting the event, Screen Shot 2014-05-25 at 8.40.11 AMalong with a cadre of avid live conference bloggers, both Charley and I (Robin) were honored to have our tweets quoted in Smithsonian’s live reporting of the event:

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Loved this “capture” by fellow microblogger Summer Ash, quoting science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson, on the one stunning photograph from space that could conceivably justify any investment our little exurban planet might put into exploring the multiverse:

Perhaps the most “blow-minding” exhibition of the day was the jet-powered Rocket Man flight: 58 seconds of a young man flying under jet-pack propulsion wearing a suitably superhero-like red-and-white suit and protected by nothing more than a helmet.

Wonder what Leonardo da Vinci would make of this–or wait, did he anticipate it 500 years ago?

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