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In summarizing the year which is passing, the bleak, dreadful, and meretricious aspects of human affairs leap to prominence (this is not the full thesis of this essay—please keep reading despite this dire opening).  Two thousand ten AD was so filled with earthquakes, insurgencies, layoff announcements, fat stupid North Korean heirs, Snookis, LeBron Jameses, oil spills, and every other sort of malediction–both major and trivial–that it seems like some latter-day lack-wit Pandora must have found another ornate casket.

"Is that a shiny box? I wonder if it has jewels in it? Or even more publicity? I better just peep inside."

Please take heart!  There is not yet a pressing need to reread Revelations or start building an ark.  Distortions of perspective are responsible for making the problems and failures (and minutiae) of 2010 loom up larger in our vision than the real successes and breakthroughs.  First and most importantly, we are still too close to 2010 to understand what was truly important.  Second, the people who produce newspapers, websites, and TV shows realize there is more money in showing Kim Kardashian making a face than in explaining magnetic anisotropy in individual molecules.

The single-molecule magnet Mn4O3Cl4(O2CCH2CH3)3(pyridine)3 crystallizes in pairs held together by hydrogen bonds between chlorine and hydrogen atoms (Mn = green, O = yellow, N = blue, Cl = red, C and H = gray). Seriously! It could cause data storage technology to leap forward!

Looking backwards for examples from the past helps clarify how distorted our view of a year is as it ends.  At the end of 1969 every commenter was writing about Hamburger Hill, My Lai, Altamont, underground nuclear testing, Ted Kennedy’s driving, the Manson murders, and how we were losing the cold war.  Most people didn’t notice WalMart incorporating as “WalMart stores”, or the Stonewall Riots (events which were subsequently realized to be important). Only a very few computer scientists knew that the first Arpanet link had gone live in California and the first messages had started bouncing back and forth across what would evolve into the internet. Nobody of that time really understood the ramifications of such a development.  Imagine trying to explain the internet or Walmart to someone in 1969! Then imagine going even further back to the disastrous year of 1837 when messages were first sent between remote locations electronically and explaining the modern network of communications.

Maybe 1969 was a funny choice to illustrate my point....

Similarly, the scientific and technology breakthroughs of this year will be important long after the frothy jetsam of pop-culture has drifted away and the rubble of contemporary disasters has been cleaned up. This was the year that humankind first created artificial life (albeit of a rudimentary sort).  The National Ignition Facility’s project to build a star in a jar came several steps closer to completion.  The Japanese successfully launched a solar sail in interplanetary space.  Nanotechnology, stem-cell biology, robotics, and innumerable other fields took steps forward. And those are the things we know about–probably other groundbreaking discoveries are not widely known or even comprehensible.  The time traveler attempting to describe 2051 or 2183 is most likely going to be dealing in ideas outlandish to us.

I hope you don’t think this defense of 2010 is teleological (or that looking back at the present from an imaginary future is specious).  With all of the tin-pot dictators, outsourcing, environmental devastation, and reality TV, it is easy to lose track of our real progress and our actual achievements.  Science and technology (along with social and political breakthroughs that we so far missed) can provide a way for humanists not to be disappointed by 2010.  It is now up to people of intellect, imagination, and conscience to bear out the potential of the year’s embryonic innovations.

Whether this was worthy year for humanity (or the drab disappointment it currently seems like) has yet to be decided by the future and what we do with it.   In the mean time, kindly accept my heartfelt wishes for a very happy new year.

At the end of the year it is common to list the important people who died during that year along with a list of their honors and accomplishments.  Looking at some of these lists for 2010 frustrated me because most of the obituaries were for actors, musicians, hyper-rich maniacs, and politicians rather than for people whom I actually admire. I have therefore compiled the obituaries of various eminent people whose deaths did not necessarily make a big splash on CNN or similar mass media news outlets. You may never have heard of some of these people until now, but their lives and works were moving to me (and in some cases, such as those of Mandelbrot, Nirenberg, and Black—truly important to a great many people).  I only wrote a very brief biography for each but I included Wikipedia links if you want more information.

Farewell to the following souls. May they rest in peace and may their ideas live on:

January 11 – Éric Rohmer was the last French new wave director.  His flirtatious movies combined knowledge of our secret longings with everyday cheerfulness (always expressed in a very Gallic fashion).  His last work Romance of Astree and Celadon was a screen adaptation of 17th century pastoral play by Honoré d’Urfé.

A still shot from "Pauline at the Beach" (Éric Rohmer, 1983)

January 15 – Marshall Warren Nirenberg was a biologist who won the Nobel Prize (and many other scientific prizes) for ascertaining how genetic instructions are translated from nucleic acids into protein synthesis.

March 22 –  Sir James Whyte Black was a Scottish doctor and pharmacologist who developed a beta blocker used for the treatment of heart disease.  The Texas Journal of Cardiology described this innovation as “one of the most important contributions to clinical medicine and pharmacology of the 20th century.”

May 10 – Frank Frazetta was a groundbreaking commercial illustrator whose work has influenced the genres of fantasy and science fiction.

The cover of "Conan the Usurper" (Frank Frazetta, 1967)

June 18 – José Saramago was a Portuguese novelist.  A communist, atheist, and pessimist Saramago wrote metaphorical novels about the human condition in an increasingly crowded & mechanized world.  His most successful work is Blindness a novel about a plague of blindness sweeping through modern society.  The novel is simultaneously a soaring literary allegory and a harrowing horror story.

August 23 – Satoshi Kon was a director of visionary animated movies.  Although his films didn’t always soar to the emotional heights reached by his countryman Miazaki, they were awesomely innovative and greatly forwarded the medium (which in Japan has been moving from children’s entertainment towards literature and art).

A still shot from "Paprika" (Satoshi Kon, 2006)

October 14 – Benoît Mandelbrot was a Franco-American mathematician (born in Poland) who is best known as the father of fractal geometry. His intuition and imagination allowed him to perceive self-similar mathematical underpinnings behind all manner of natural structures.  From galaxies, to coastlines, to blood vessals , to biorhythms–the entire universe is increasingly recognizable as interlocking fractals thanks to his insights.

A Mandelbrot Fractal

October 28 – Akiko Hoshino was a gifted pastel artist who I knew from the Art Students’ League.  She was just beginning to make progress in the art world with her luminous realistic pastel drawings when she was struck and killed by a careless driver who was driving backwards.

Wait for the Right Moment II (Akiko Hoshino, 2010)

November 28 – Leslie Nielsen was a hilarious comic straight man whose deadpan acting carried the great parody films Airplane and The Naked Gun (as well as innumerable derivative spoofs).  As an enduring testament to his greatness, my friends are still stealing his jokes.  Surely he was one of a kind.

"...and don't call me 'Shirley.'"

7th Avenue Park Slope, Brooklyn (on December 26th, 2010)

Welcome back from the Saturnalia…er…Christmas break.  This year is winding down fast. Later on this week we’ll do some 2010 wrap-up, but for right now let’s concentrate on what everyone else is concentrating on—the crazy weather.

Yesterday and last night New York City was socked by the worst blizzard I have ever seen here.  Around 9:00 PM last night I walked out along 7th avenue in Park Slope to be confronted with a snowscape straight out of a Jack London story (I braved this fearsome weather to return Despicable Me to the video store on time).  Evil winds whipped great sheets of snow into my face and reduced visibility down to 10 meters or less.  Huge snow drifts blocked the roads and made travel impossible.  The BMWs and Audis of Park Slope’s worthy burghers were rendered useless.  A great dim shape looming in the white waste was revealed to be an abandoned city bus trapped in a drift with its emergency blinkers turned on–a restlessly dozing behemoth.  This morning there was a snow drift in my room formed by snow blowing through the crack under the garden door.

The same bus was still there this morning on 7th Avenue.

I made my way to work this morning walking down the middle of the road—no vehicles were operating.  I had to hike through the drifts and ice to a distant train since the F was not operating (and probably still isn’t).   Even Rockefeller Center seemed empty.  Sitting in a plaza amidst impassible streets the great Christmas tree is half covered in snow and hoarfrost.

The Rockefeller Tree seen from the break-room at my office this morning. Note the absence of traffic!

All told, New York received 20 inches of snow (more in some places) with winds gusting up to 40 miles per hour.  According to the US National Weather Service the blizzard was the result of a low pressure system which originated off North Carolina which means Georgia and South Carolina have had their first white Christmas in over a century.  Holiday travelers are stuck where they are–since airports all along the coast are closed.  I shudder to think of people returning to New York from Europe–which was hit by its own blizzards last week.

My Garden this morning....

So what is up with this weather?  Park Slope Brooklyn has been hit with a tornado, a hailstorm (which I didn’t blog about but which flattened the autumn remnants of my garden with gumball sized hail), and this blizzard.  We had some fearsomely hot days this summer as well—which I didn’t think to mention since I kind of like them.  Since global climate scientists have no definitive answers, neither do I–however it bears remembering that 2010 was a year of greater than average volcanic activity.  Not only did Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland disrupt Europe’s air traffic for weeks by erupting directly in the Jet stream.  It was joined by Mount Merapi erupting in Indonesia and various Siberian and Chilean volcanic events (you can review dramatic photos of the year in eruptions on NASA’s website). These eruptions come in a time of extremely strange solar weather and, in the bigger picture, a great ice age is still ending (not to mention whatever climate change we have caused with our love of fossil fuels and our stubborn refusal to move forward researching and funding nuclear power options).

Ash from Eyjafjallajökull drifts over an Icelandic village in Spring of 2010

Of course this is anecdotal speculation on my part. I am certainly not an atmospheric scientist, but merely a hapless office drone with extremely cold wet feet.  Even so, I hope you will buzz back to Ferrebeekeeper this week so we can look back over the year and think about what is coming.  In the mean time stay warm out there!

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