An 86-year-old author has a few rules to live by even when the trials of getting older make it easy to complain.
A new book came across my desk recently, with an irresistible title: “The Swedish Art of Aging Exuberantly: Life Wisdom from Someone Who Will (Probably) Die Before You.” I was already familiar with the astringent humor of the author, Margareta Magnusson, having read her previous book, “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning” — a surprise international best seller and a call to, as she put it, “not leave a mountain of crap behind for our loved ones to clean up after we die.”
I phoned Magnusson, who was an artist before becoming a published author and is now 86 years old, in Stockholm, to get some of her best advice on how to make life worth living, no matter your age.
Magnusson acknowledged that aging is hard. “You cannot stop the passing of time and how it affects your body, but you can work to keep a clear and positive mind,” she said. “You can be young upstairs in your head even if your joints creak.” Here are her top three tips.
Embrace kärt besvär
This Swedish phrase blends kärt, meaning “dear or cherished,” and besvär, which means “pain.” So, one kärt besvär might be paying your bills — an annoying obligation, but you’re still grateful that you have the money to pay. Or, it could be taking care of someone who is sick, which I’ve been doing this week with my flu-addled daughter. When I’m frazzled by her endless requests for streaming service passwords and mugs of tea, delivered via text message, I remind myself that I’m glad I’m strong enough to take care of her.
As you get older, it’s easy to be frustrated and complain, Magnusson said. But kärt besvär helps her to live with joy. “There seems to be no other choice than to see every nuisance as something that I must find a way to cherish,” she said.
What I think Magnusson’s getting at is the idea that it’s OK to lean into your emotions — whatever they might be. Laura Carstensen, a psychologist at the Stanford Center on Longevity, who has studied the emotional changes that occur with age, said, “We find that older people are more likely to report a kind of mosaic of emotions than younger people do.” While younger people tend to be “all positive or all negative,” she said, older people are more able to experience joy “with a tear in the eye,” she added.
Surround yourself with the young
This is Magnussen’s simple definition of happiness: being around young people. Not only do they supply fresh ideas and perspectives, she said, but hearing about their plans and prospects “is a way to stay in tune with the young person you yourself were at some point.”
Spending time with younger people can also benefit your brain, saidVonetta Dotson, a professor of psychology and gerontology at Georgia State University and author of “Keep Your Wits About You: The Science of Brain Maintenance as You Age.”
There is research to suggest that as you age, especially if you’re starting to experience some cognitive decline, socializing with younger people who are mentally sharp can provide the type of stimulation that helps boost cognitive functioning, she explained.
Yet this blending of generations often doesn’t happen, Becca Levy, professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health and author of “Breaking The Age Code,” said. “Because, unfortunately, there’s quite a bit of age segregation in our culture.”
Break that barrier by keeping your door (and fridge) open for grandchildren, if you have them nearby. Make an 8-minute phone call to a younger relative. Volunteer to read to children at your library, or sign up for an organization like Big Brothers Big Sisters.
And, to keep young people around you, Magnusson writes, “Just ask them questions. Listen to them. Give them food. Don’t tell them about your bad knee again.”
Say “yes” whenever possible
One of the misconceptions about older people, according to Regina Koepp, clinical psychologist and founder of the Center for Mental Health and Aging in Burlington, Vt., is that “they’re rigid and they’ll never change,” she said. “That’s not true. Older people are not more rigid than younger people. Those are personality traits, not age traits.” Yet even older adults have internalized this narrative, Dr. Koepp said, “because they’ve heard it their whole life.”
To age exuberantly, you must actively recognize your “internalized ageism” and fight against it, Dr. Koepp said. Saying “yes” as often as you can, she added, “is in effect saying ‘yes’ to life — being curious and exploratory, being part of community.”
Magnusson told me that the older she gets, the more she can vividly recall the things she has said “yes” to, just when she was on the verge of saying no, and how those experiences have made her life richer. “I’ve found that having a closed mind ages me more quickly than anything else,” she said. Before she refuses something — a dinner, an art show, buying a leather jacket — she asks herself: “Is it that I can’t do it, or I won’t?”
“Give it a try, whatever it is,” she said. “Maybe you’ll go to a party and be the last to leave because you’re having such a good time.” I asked Magnusson when she last shut down a party. “A week ago,” she said.
Ukrainian forces stepped up their artillery strikes and ground assaults in a flurry of offensive military activity that by Monday was raging along multiple sectors of the front line, American and Russian officials said.
Ukraine has remained silent about military operations after months of preparing for a major counteroffensive in the war. But the American officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the surge in attacks was a possible indication that Kyiv’s long-planned counteroffensive against Russian forces had begun.
The officials based their assessment in part on information from U.S. military satellites, which detected an uptick in action from Ukrainian military positions. The satellites have infrared capabilities to track artillery fire and missile launches.
One difficulty in determining the exact start of a counteroffensive, beyond Ukraine’s operational security measures, is that the fighting could well begin with feints or diversions that are hard to decipher.
The Russian Ministry of Defense announced on Monday that a major Ukrainian operation had begun at five locations along the front in one eastern region, Donetsk, and said it had repelled the assaults and inflicted casualties on the Ukrainian forces. Moscow’s reports could not be corroborated.
Russian bloggers affiliated with the Russian military went further, saying Ukraine had advanced in some areas and that an even stronger attack had begun early Monday morning near the town of Velyka Novosilka.
There was no immediate response from the Ukrainian authorities to the Russian claims.
Buttressing the reports that the counteroffensive may have started, American military analysts said they believed Ukrainian units had begun an initial thrust to determine the position and strength of Russia’s forces. Such moves would be a traditional tactic of the kind Americans have been training Ukrainian forces to undertake.
Much is riding on Ukraine’s counteroffensive to reclaim territory lost to Russia and free Ukrainians from living under occupation. Success could help support Kyiv’s push for longer term commitments for additional military aid and security guarantees from the West. It also could strengthen the hand of President Volodymyr Zelensky in any peace talks with Russia.
Failure, or a lack of dramatic quick progress, could complicate Ukraine’s ability to get further assistance from the West and make Kyiv’s push for additional security guarantees at the NATO summit this summer more difficult.
Whatever precisely was happening, the relative calm that most of the long battle lines stretching across Ukraine had been experiencing was broken.
The front in southern and eastern Ukraine has been largely static for months, with the exception of intense fighting in Bakhmut and some testing operations by small Ukrainian units. In northeastern Ukraine, pro-Ukrainian forces also began cross-border raids into Russia last month.
The initial reports of the fighting Sunday night and Monday morning were of movements of larger units, a potential signal that Ukraine had pushed its NATO-trained forces into the fight.
Two unverified Russian reports said Ukrainian forces had pushed through Russian defenses in two areas, in the Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia regions.
By early Monday, a Russian Telegram channel that reports on the war said Ukrainian forces had breached a first line of Russian defenses near Velyka Novosilka in Donetsk and reclaimed two villages as Russian forces fell back to reserve positions. The fighting at another location was confirmed by the head of the regional occupation authority in the Zaporizhzhia region, Vladimir Rogov, in a post on Telegram.
Ukrainian officials have not told their American counterparts exactly when the counteroffensive will start, but have provided them with a time frame during which they intended to begin their push against Russian forces. Sunday was within that time frame, said U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence.
The renewed fighting, and possible start to the counteroffensive, came just days before the D-Day anniversary. It was largely determined by the speed of training and equipping new units, rather than any anniversary. But the symbolism of timing a counteroffensive in Ukraine to the operation that began the Western allies’ drive to retake Europe would hardly be lost on Mr. Zelensky, a master communicator who has won over many countries to his cause.
Since March, smaller Ukrainian units of tanks and armored personnel carriers had conducted operations along the battle lines in Zaporizhzhia province. The true beginning of any offensive push, if that is what began Sunday, would involve larger units not just conducting probing attacks but actively trying to break through Russian defenses.
In the first two installments of this three-part series on the role of technology in our lives, I addressed practical questions: How do we help kids navigate a technological world?How do we discern what technology to adopt? There are also fundamental philosophical questions that new technology raises that often go unaddressed: How does technology change our understanding of what it is to be human? What assumptions does digital technology carry about what makes a good life? Our answers to these deeper questions silently guide the choices and habits we embrace in our daily lives.
My friend Andy Crouch has thought deeply about these and other questions raised by our increasingly technological world. He is the partner for theology and culture at Praxis, a Manhattan-based organization that helps start and grow nonprofits and for-profit businesses that are committed to social change and repair. He is the author of five books, including “Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling” and “The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place.” I spoke with him about his most recent book, “The Life We’re Looking For: Reclaiming Relationship in a Technological World,” which was published last year. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Why did you write a book about technology and recovering relationships?
In “The Life We’re Looking For,” I define a person as a heart-soul-mind-strength complex designed for love. The world we’ve built using technology is less and less good for the most important thing about us, which is our design for love. From the moment we come into the world, what we are most looking for, most in need of, most designed to learn to give and receive from others, is love — intimate, profound, mutual relationships of giving and receiving, even at great cost to ourselves. That is truly what love is. In the psychiatrist Curt Thompson’s beautiful phrase, we’re all “looking for someone looking for us.” None of us were born looking for a screen. We were all born looking for a face.
Are you pitting love and technology against each other? I think some might say that technology connects us to real relationships. Are these communities online real?
There’s something real about mediated relationships. But I think that all mediated relationships generate a hunger for full presence. When we read a great book, we want to meet the author. When we hear a great interview on the radio, we would like to meet the interviewer and the interviewee if we could. And to the extent that relationships start online, they generate a hunger to be present in person, as they should.
It’s relatively rare that I hear someone say, “I would rather be friends with these people online than in person.” What I hear is, “I do not have anyone in person who attends to me the way that this online community does. And if I could be with them in person, I would, but I can’t.” It’s less a validation of the intrinsic good of a mediated relationship as a recognition of the failure of the immediate relationships around people that cause them to take refuge in online communities.
And it’s striking how social media is trending away from relational engagement. The whole premise of Facebook, including its name, was that you saw the faces of people you had known at some stage in your life and you continued that originally immediate relationships in mediated ways. Then we got things like Twitter where you are very likely to encounter people you’ve never met and engage with them. Now TikTok is celebrity driven. It’s a one-way relationship between the performer and a very large audience who is aggregated through algorithms, not through any kind of lasting community. So the trend of what’s best for the social media platforms — the most revenue generating, the most attention generating — is not toward greater community online. It’s toward greater and greater performance, celebrity and influence.
I was fascinated by the part of your book where you discuss the idea of magic and how it relates to technology. When people think of magic, they often think of fantasy or perhaps archaic beliefs. Technology seems like the opposite of that — it’s scientific, modern. So how is technology like a quest for magic?
The fundamental dream behind our technology is impersonal power, power that does not require us to be in relationships with persons to get things done in the world, power over nature and other people that operates independently of relationship with nature or people. This can be traced back to the ancient dream of magic, which was the dream of command of the world and command of other people, of seeing change happen in the world without having to change ourselves. What if I could have an effect in the world by waving a wand, putting on the sorcerer’s hat or learning a spell? That would be an extraordinary kind of power, since most changes I want to see actually require me to change.
In pretechnological times, to get certain kinds of work done, I or somebody had to become a strong person. Or we had to find an animal that was strong and develop a relationship with that animal such that it would do the work for us. To do that requires you to grow and change in profound ways.
But now a machine will do it. Someone else will build a whole technological system that will get done what I want done in the world. I don’t have to change at all. Now I can press a button, and something happens. That is the dream of magic.
So what are the downsides of this quest for magic or effortless power?
There are things that our technology and our pursuit of this dream of magic are undermining — our relationships with each other, with our institutions. We’re missing the development of persons. Our capacities in the world — our physical strength, our heart, soul, mind and capacity for love — these things matter more than we realize for getting the good that we really need in the world.
Technology often undermines the development of relationships and of bodies. It is a delicious dream that a button press away is whatever I want. But the flip side of that dream is the dwindling of my actual knowledge and capacity in the world.
Before, if you wanted music, either you or someone you physically knew had to make it. Now you just have Spotify or YouTube Music or Apple Music, and music fills your home. But there are no people you have relationships with who have actually cultivated the life of a musician. Whereas it used to be that if you wanted music in your house, someone in the house had to have cultivated the life of a musician. So there’s this dwindling.
The second thing I would say is that it tremendously increases the fragility of our lives and decreases the resilience of our lives. If I’m now dependent on this vast technological system to give me what I want, with no effort or change on my part, that also means that I’m kind of at the mercy of this vast system that I actually know very little about and that I have very little ability to affect. I am purely a consumer. Magic is an illusion. Our sensation of magic is purchased with the toil of people who we have no relationship with and never see — and at the limit, a kind of degradation of other people who I will never see and never feel responsible for.
Talk to me about artificial intelligence and your concerns about it. How will this tool affect our humanity?
I think there are two paths ahead for what we call A.I.
The most likely path is the path technology has taken so far, which in the book I call “boring robots.” The idea here is that before any given technology is fully implemented, we think it is going to transform human existence. And when it actually arrives, we find it’s far more boring, far more banal than we projected. Ten years from now, we will look back on the furor about the G.P.T. models and kind of laugh at how excited we were. I think we’re going to find they’re kind of boring in the way that your dishwasher or your Roomba is boring or that in a certain sense, your smartphone is boring. Of course, it’s given us tremendous power. It’s also done a lot of damage. But the damage is not because it’s so powerful; it’s because of what we dream it will do.
There is another possibility: not boring robots but the sorcerer’s apprentice. This is where the broom that you want to do your work takes over, develops a mind of its own and heads off in its own trajectory. And I don’t think it’s totally out of the question that these A.I. models could, as Geoffrey Hinton and others worry they will, start to operate quite independently of what we ask them to do.
Digital technology is everywhere now. I recently wrote about a kind of technological fatalism that sets in. Is there a way to fight to preserve our humanity amid technological changes?
I do not believe we have to wind back the clock to a time when we didn’t have these capabilities. Because I think we can redirect and redesign them in ways that actually are good for heart, soul, mind and strength complexes designed for love. In the book, I talk about this as pursuing the way of instruments rather than the way of devices. Because instruments — scientific instruments, medical instruments, maybe most beautifully musical instruments — can be very high tech, in that they have a lot of complexity. They draw on science and industry and so forth. But instruments, by definition, are used by human beings in ways that require quite a lot of skill and engagement and human presence. So the first thing is to get back on the track that we were on for millenniums as human beings, which is the development of tools, tools being things that we employ to extend our capabilities in the world but without disengaging us and without this dream of magic or effortless power.
The beautiful thing in some ways about the smartphone, for example, is that my robotic vacuum will never do anything but vacuum instead of me. But my smartphone can be an instrument in that I can decide every time I pick it up whether I’m going to use it in a way that actually develops my heart, soul, mind and strength that is subordinate to and for the purposes of love.
If I pick up my smartphone and I develop a relationship with people I’ll never meet — influencers and celebrities — by watching videos, that diminishes me. But if I pick up my smartphone and I call my daughter or FaceTime her, that activates love and relationship. Basically, it’s using the thing to more deeply engage with the world rather than to retreat from my investment in the world.
And don’t give up on neuroplasticity. We have been rewired to be dependent on these things, but we can rewire again if we choose to put some limits on how we use them. And when you go through any big rewiring, whether it’s learning to play an instrument or detoxing from a dependence, you go through this stage of dysregulation and difficulty where it’s really hard because your brain has become accustomed to operating in a certain way. But on the other side of that is a much better way. It’s so worth it.
Michael Tisius was convicted of murdering two jail guards. He is scheduled to be executed on Tuesday.
The murders were so brazen, so brutal, they stunned the people of Missouri.
Just after midnight on June 22, 2000, Michael Tisius and Tracie Bulington entered a county jail, intent on forcibly freeing an imprisoned friend. Mr. Tisius, 19 years old and carrying a gun, shot and killed two guards during the attempt, then fled.
When a jury was asked to sentence Mr. Tisius for his crimes, its members spent several hours deliberating in July 2010 before rendering a decision: the death penalty.
Now, with Mr. Tisius’ execution set for Tuesday, that jury is facing scrutiny that could cast doubt on the proceedings.
In an unusual step, six jurors, including two alternates, have said in sworn affidavits included in a clemency petition that they would be supportive or would not object if the governor of Missouri stepped in to commute the sentence to life imprisonment, rather than death. It is rare, experts said, to see so many jurors formally taking such a stand in a death penalty case.
Another juror, when contacted recently by legal representatives for Mr. Tisius, told them that he could not read in English, a requirement in Missouri courts for jury service. A federal judge ordered last week that the execution be halted while the claim of illiteracy was investigated, but on Friday, an appeals court overruled that decision.
In a 56-page petition sent to Gov. Mike Parson of Missouri, jurors recounted in statements obtained from Mr. Tisius’ defense team why they have changed their thinking since the sentencing 13 years ago.
They were still convinced of his guilt, the jurors said, and believed he should never be released from prison. But they spoke of new details they learned from Mr. Tisius’ legal team and what they remembered from the trial: the harrowing background of Mr. Tisius’ childhood, which included abuse and neglect; of his mental impairments; and of his good behavior in prison since his conviction.
“I believe that people can change and should get second chances,” one juror said in an affidavit.
“At this time, based on what I have learned since the trial, I would not object if Mr. Tisius’ sentence were reduced to life without parole,” another juror said.
There is no legal recourse for jurors who have had a change of heart about a death sentence, said Juandalynn Taylor, a visiting professor at Gonzaga University School of Law who teaches on the death penalty, though lawyers often find examples of it in interviews with jurors during the appeals process.
“Jurors change their minds all the time,” she said. “But if no one goes and asks them and discovers it, then we don’t find out about it in public.”
In interviews with The New York Times, two jurors said they have been haunted by their experience. One woman who served as an alternate said she has suffered from anxiety, sleeplessness and guilt. If she had been allowed to vote, she said, she would not have chosen the death sentence.
Another juror, Jason Smith of Republic, Mo., said that in the 13 years since the sentencing, his views on Mr. Tisius, who is now 42, have shifted.
During deliberations, Mr. Smith said, he felt it was a crucial fact that Mr. Tisius had killed more than one person. Mr. Tisius had an opportunity to stop before shooting the second jail employee, Mr. Smith recalls reasoning, making the death penalty a just punishment.
But now he said he knows, based on what he was recently told by Mr. Tisius’ legal team, that doctors who have examined him concluded that he had mental deficiencies that could have impaired his decision-making. And Mr. Smith has learned about medical research showing that the frontal lobe of the brain is not fully developed in the teenage years.
Mr. Smith, 49, said he still supports the death penalty in certain cases and feels that Mr. Tisius should spend the rest of his life in prison.
But he no longer believes Mr. Tisius deserves to die.
“I feel angry and remorseful,” he said. “I feel that I wronged Michael.”
Public support for the death penalty in the United States has waned for decades, and Missouri is one of only four states to have carried out an execution in 2023, along with Florida, Oklahoma and Texas, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
This year, Missouri executed Amber McLaughlin, a transgender woman who had been found guilty of murdering her ex-girlfriend, and Leonard Taylor, convicted in 2008 of a quadruple murder. Two more executions, including Mr. Tisius’, are scheduled in Missouri this year.
When a jury in 2010 was asked to determine Mr. Tisius’ sentence, they were told of the botched escape attempt that resulted in the murders of Jason Acton and Leon Egley: Mr. Tisius had been trying to free an inmate, Roy Vance, who had previously been his cellmate. Mr. Vance, who is serving a life sentence in prison for his role in the murders, has since said that he manipulated Mr. Tisius to carry out the escape plan.
The other person who was trying to free Mr. Vance was Mr. Vance’s girlfriend, Tracie Bulington. She was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences for her role in the killings.
During the resentencing hearing in 2010 — convened after the court found evidence of prosecutorial misconduct in a first hearing — jurors were told of Mr. Tisius’ difficult life, including abuse at the hands of his older brother. One juror, Ginny Young, told The Columbia Daily Tribune in 2010 that as soon as the group left the courtroom, several jurors began to cry.
“They felt bad that they had to put this man to death,” Ms. Young said at the time. “One of them said, ‘You wouldn’t be human unless you feel bad.’ I guess I am not human, because I don’t feel bad. Maybe I need therapy. I think the punishment is justified by the crime.”
Some jurors who were contacted by Mr. Tisius’ legal team affirmed their original decision that Mr. Tisius should be sentenced to death, or declined to sign affidavits, said Keith O’Connor, a lawyer for Mr. Tisius.
An alternate juror interviewed by The Times recalled riding in a van with other jurors after leaving the courthouse. The juror, who declined to be named because she said she had concerns about privacy, remembered weeping, thinking that the jury had made a mistake.
Mr. Smith said it was quiet during much of the long ride.
“A lot of people were probably just reflecting on it,” he said. “We were all ready to get home.”
After the sentencing, he went back to the rhythms of his life. He talked about the case with his parents. At least once, he looked up Mr. Tisius’ booking photo on the Missouri Department of Corrections website.
In the dining room of his home, Mr. Smith picked up the affidavit that he signed supporting the commutation of Mr. Tisius’ sentence, a document that has been laid out on the table since last year. With the execution date nearing, Mr. Smith has been thinking about Mr. Tisius and the trial often, he said.
“I wasn’t emotionally torn up with my decision,” said Mr. Smith, who works in food distribution. But it still weighed on him.
“I hated having a part in somebody dying,” he said.
For Linda Arena of Rocheport, Mo., the sister of Jason Acton, one of the slain jail employees, the death sentence brought relief. The years since have been a long wait for what she sees as justice.
Ms. Arena, 73, remembers her brother as a boy, affectionate and funny, with a deep love of the outdoors. As an adult, she said, he took a job at the jail because he hoped it would be a steppingstone to a position as a park ranger.
It is difficult for Ms. Arena to even say Mr. Tisius’ name.
“He’s a nonentity to me,” she said. “A nonentity who took my brother.”
The Missouri Supreme Court denied an appeal from Mr. Tisius and, in March, scheduled his execution.
Since then, opponents of the death penalty have intensified their efforts to persuade Mr. Parson, the Republican governor, to commute the sentence.
Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the Pope’s representative to the United States, appealed to Mr. Parson for clemency. The American Bar Association argued in a letter that capital punishment should be prohibited in cases of people who have committed crimes while 21 years old or younger.
Mary Fox, director of the Missouri State Public Defender system, asked Mr. Parson to commute the sentence, saying that Mr. Tisius was not effectively represented during the tria. (Christopher Slusher, a lawyer who defended Mr. Tisius during the sentencing in 2010, did not respond to a message.)
Ms. Fox said that the process of capital punishment can be troubling for jurors, prison employees who get to know inmates and the lawyers who defend their clients.
“One of my jobs is to take care of the people who work for me, and one of the things that I see is the trauma that my folks are suffering,” she said. “It’s traumatic for everyone involved.”
In the final days before Mr. Tisius’ scheduled execution, the clemency petition — and statements from several jurors in support of a commutation of his sentence — has left Ms. Arena confused and angry.
“It kind of makes me mad, because they listened to all the evidence,” she said. “They knew that this guy planned to do that. They brought a gun on purpose. He killed Jason and he killed Leon.”
All the years that her brother has been gone, Ms. Arena has thought of Mr. Tisius spending his days in prison. Why was he free to be alive, she has asked, eating meals, having conversations with other people, when Jason was not?
Ms. Arena is determined to drive on Tuesday morning to Bonne Terre, where the execution is scheduled to take place.
She plans to bring a photo of Jason and hold it close. But she is not sure how the execution will leave her feeling, or whether she will be able to look Mr. Tisius in the eye.
“It will be hard,” Ms. Arena said. “I’m not sure how it’s going to affect me, watching someone die.”
Through a spokeswoman, the Missouri attorney general declined to comment, citing pending litigation.
In a statement from prison, Mr. Tisius said he still believed there was a chance that Mr. Parson would commute his sentence. “My only hope is that the Governor makes his decision based on me, my remorse, my life, and my rehabilitation over the last 23 years,” he said. “I feel like I’ve changed, I hope he can see that in me too.”
Mr. Parson has not yet issued a statement on his decision regarding Mr. Tisius’ clemency petition.
Mr. Cohen is the news director of The Forward and the author of the forthcoming “The Einstein Effect: How the World’s Favorite Genius Got Into Our Cars, Our Bathrooms, and Our Minds.”
A decade ago, Ivanka Trump offered her Twitter followers a bit of wisdom from one of the world’s favorite geniuses to impress her legions of Twitter followers. “If the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts. — Albert Einstein.”
There was one problem: Einstein never said that.
Few noticed the tweet, let alone the mistake. That is until Einstein himself returned from the dead to correct her, in a comment on the post.
I know this story because I am Albert Einstein — at least on social media, where, these days, he has more than 20 million followers. As a journalist obsessed with Einstein, I was constantly writing articles about him. My office is filled with Einstein art and Einstein bobbleheads. I even named one of my chickens after him. Eventually, the Albert Einstein Archives at Hebrew University got wind of my enthusiasm and hired me to manage his accounts.
It is a weighty responsibility to speak for Albert Einstein, to protect his legacy and to use my perch to gently nudge others to understand that there is such a thing as universal knowledge and truths, and that they matter. In no small part that’s because the very idea of who a publicly venerated intellectual and expert is has radically changed since his death in 1955.
Still, he might recognize the disdain for facts so common today. Long before the word “tweet” was associated with anything other than birds, Einstein’s career was nearly derailed by an early form of the disinformation now ubiquitous on social media. In 1920, skeptical scientists who deemed Einstein a crackpot, and his theory of relativity nonsense, joined forces. Their critiques were often laced with antisemitism. In that era, propaganda spread relatively slowly — one person passing it along to a friend who, in turn, would forward it to someone else, with circulation often limited by geography or language.
Einstein was annoyedby the whole endeavor. Curious about the campaign, he went to an anti-relativity event at the Berlin Philharmonic Hall where he saw that anti-Einstein pamphlets were being handed out. Nobody knew it was him. “He thought that these people were actually not very dangerous because they’re so silly and so poorly informed,” said Matthew Stanley, a historian of science and the philosophy of science at New York University and the author of a book on the fight against the theory of relativity. “He thought it’s all faintly ridiculous.”
By 1933, when the Nazis took power in Germany, two strains of falsehoods smeared Einstein far more publicly, and widely: One asserted (incorrectly) that his relativity theory was outright wrong, a threat, as Mr. Stanley put it, “to the very foundations of human knowledge.” The other doubled down on the antisemitism he had experienced early on; this whisper campaign accused Einstein of having stolen the idea from non-Jewish German and Austrian scientists. Like other prominent Jews, Einstein was targeted as an enemy of the state, and a bounty was rumored to have been placed on his head. But by then he wasn’t in Germany, having left to spend time at Caltech in December 1932. Though he returned to Europe in 1933, he left the continent entirely in October 1933.
Einstein received a welcome reception whenever he arrived on the shores of New York City. Carolyn Abraham, author of “Possessing Genius,” a book about the fate of Einstein’s brain, writes that reporters would be in such a rush to board his ship whenever it docked in the United States that some fell into the harbor. For the final two decades of his life, he was one of the most widely respected public figures in the world. Time magazine named him “Person of the Century” in 1999.
Consensus around central figures — like that of an intellectual genius — has withered since Einstein’s death. No longer do we gather around the television in the evening to watch Walter Cronkite deliver the news, nor do all new parents have a copy of Dr. Spock’s baby manual on their bedside tables; today we are drawn to echo chambers where news is bifurcated and TikTok influencers give us health advice. These days you might find skeptics of the sort Einstein first encountered congregating in the same Facebook group, or on Twitter — but now instead of one lowly local meeting, their fake news spirals at warp speed.
Even outside of conspiracy theorists, there’s a segment of society today that questions the very need for experts when Google’s vast servers can store information for us. We no longer need to memorize the numerical value of pi or the capital of North Dakota.
This sense of our own intellectual infallibility has led to an extreme lack of humility in all sorts of people, from politicians to celebrities to social media influencers. Asked during the run-up to the 2016 presidential election whom he turns to for advice on foreign affairs, Donald Trump cited himself.
Einstein taught that time is relative depending on your frame of reference. Is it possible that truth itself has also become relative?
I often ponder these questions from my home in the mountains of West Virginia, where I wake up each morning, feed my chickens, help my neighbor milk her cows and log into Einstein’s social media accounts to serve as the voice of a long-deceased Nobel Prize laureate. I’m always eager to see what people have commented in response to my tweets and posts because I know that more than a mere scientist, Einstein is a symbol of intelligence to so many across race, religion, age group and educational background. In our fractured political climate, it sometimes seems he may be the last expert we can all agree on.
The internet has given us streaming movies and the ability to stay in touch with far-flung friends, but it has also birthed message boards littered with disinformation, conspiracy theories and bogus science. With Elon Musk’s dismantling of Twitter’s guardrails, those voices are further coursing through the mainstream.
Election deniers and anti-vaxxers can now easily find comrades in their self-created bubbles, magnifying and emboldening their views. They run for office, flaunting a platform of anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism, and sometimes they win.
What would Einstein, who was driven by a lifelong curiosity to discover truths about our universe, think of the disinformation crisis social media has helped stoke? I can’t imagine he would be comfortable with the deluge of false news and incendiary tweets, nor of the elevation of everyone as an expert, a genius in his or her own mind.
I’d like to think Einstein, famous for his bons mots, would post a pithy tweet in response to the science deniers, flat-earthers and Ivanka Trump. “The search for truth and knowledge is one of the finest attributes of man,” Einstein once said. “Though often it is most loudly voiced by those who strive for it the least.”
The Ukraine conflict is causing soul-searching among the Doukhobors, a peace-loving group that emigrated to Canada in 1899.
When he was growing up among the Doukhobors, a pacifist religious group that emigrated to Canada from Tsarist Russia, J.J. Verigin would sometimes arrive home from school to find naked elderly women trying to burn down his family’s house.
One attempt, in 1969, succeeded, lamented Mr. Verigin, 67, who recently recounted the episode. A blaze destroyed precious family artifacts, including correspondence between his great-great-grandfather, a prominent Doukhobor leader, and the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, an early admirer of the Doukhobors’ pacifism and Christian morality.
The elderly women, Mr. Verigin explained, were part of a small and radical splinter group within the Doukhobors who periodically stripped naked and lit buildings on fire to protest land ownership and what they viewed as excessive materialism. Some among those charged with arson had another motive, he said: getting deported to Mother Russia.
These days, with the Ukraine war raging, most Doukhobors no longer aspire to return to Russia, said Mr. Verigin, who leads the largest Doukhobor organization in Canada and studied in Moscow in 1979. The fires, which for years grabbed headlines in Canada and polarized the Doukhobors, are also a thing of the past, he stressed.
“Pacifism is at the core of what it means to be a Doukhobor, and the war in Ukraine has ended any residual desire that remained to return to Russia,” said Mr. Verigin, the executive director of the Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ. “We feel the emotions of our Ukrainian brothers and sisters because we, too, have faced repression in Russia.”
In the 18th century, the Doukhobors (the name comes from a Russian phrase meaning “spirit wrestlers”) rejected the icon worship of the Russian Orthodox Church. They also resisted serving in the imperial military; in 1895, thousands of Doukhobor soldiers set fire to their weapons, which led to the group’s violent suppression and exile.
Tolstoy devoted royalties from his novel “Resurrection” to help finance the Doukhobors’ transit to Canada, and in 1899, more than 7,500 emigrated to what became Saskatchewan to help farm the Canadian prairies. In 1908, the majority resettled in the rural mountainous region in southern British Columbia, in sleepy farming and mill towns like Castlegar and Grand Forks.
An estimated 30,000 people of Doukhobor descent reside in Canada, and for decades they lived ascetic, communal lives reminiscent of the Quakers or Mennonites, though suffused with Russian culture and traditions. Historically, many were vegetarian and shunned alcohol. Their motto: “Toil and peaceful life.”
Many Doukhobors in Canada still speak Russian among themselves; send their children to Russian-language schools; sing Russian hymns at weekly spiritual meetings; bathe in Russian-style steam baths; and eat traditional dishes like borscht.
But the Doukhobor way of life has been buffeted by intermarriage, the allure of city life and a younger generation drawn more to TikTok than Tolstoy. Today, Doukhobors are doctors, professors, lawyers, professional athletes and, in at least one case, a drag queen.
“Assimilation is a challenge to our way of life,” Mr. Verigin said.
At a recent choir practice at a Doukhobor cultural center, Jasmine Popoff, 34, a nurse with purple hair, led her choir in a rousing version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” — in Russian — followed by a spirited rendition in English of Queen’s “Somebody to Love.”
“As Doukhobors, it’s important that our culture evolves so that we keep it going,” Ms. Popoff said.
As the discussion turned to the war during a rehearsal break, choir members of all ages said they rejected the authoritarianism and militarism of Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin. “I don’t feel any connection to Mother Russia because Russia isn’t our mother,” said one singer, Kelly Poznikoff.
Mr. Verigin said that, because of anger over the Ukraine conflict, several Doukhobors in recent months had been denied service in local shops in Castlegar.
In the past, prejudice against the Doukhobors in Canada has been fanned by the extremist splinter group, the Sons of Freedom, which in the 1920s began marching in nude protests and torching public buildings and homes. Members of the group opposed property ownership and public schooling for their children. In the 1950s, dozens of their children were forcibly sent to government boarding schools.
Among the last of the radicals was Mary Braun, who in 2001, at age 81, was sentenced to six years in prison after setting fire to a community college building in British Columbia. Before her sentencing Ms. Braun disrobed in court. She had previously gone on numerous fasts and lit small fires in courtrooms.
Nadja Kolesnikoff, a yoga instructor who grew up in a Sons of Freedom household, said she had been confused at age 5 when her paternal grandmother burned down her own house and was jailed for three years.
“We were supposed to be pulling together as a community,” she said. “I never asked her why she did it.”
But Ms. Kolesnikoff said her upbringing was also empowering. Her family used kerosene lamps and stored vegetables and fruits underground in winter. Luxuries were frowned upon.
“I learned to be self-sufficient, and to this day I feel there is nothing I can’t do,” she said by phone from Costa Rica, where she now lives.
At the Doukhobor Discovery Center in Castlegar, the museum director, Ryan Dutchak, said that some Doukhobors over the past decades had changed their Russian-sounding last names for fear of being ostracized. In Canada’s 2021 census, only 1,675 people identified as Doukhobors.
“Being stigmatized has pushed some people away,” he said.
Elders say preserving the Russian language holds the key to the group’s survival.
On a recent Thursday, dozens of Doukhobors gathered for a spiritual meeting. Wearing colorful kerchiefs, blouses, skirts and aprons, the women sat on one side across from the men. On a table lay a loaf of bread, salt and a pitcher of water, traditional symbols of Doukhobor hospitality.
“Gospodi blagoslovi” — Lord grant us your blessing — they said before singing the Lord’s Prayer in melodious Russian.
Standing at the front of his classroom at an elementary school in Castlegar, Ernie Verigin, a Russian teacher, acknowledged the challenges in preserving the Doukhobor faith. “The younger generation wants a quick fix, but spirituality is a lifelong process,” he said. “It’s hard to compete when my 14-year-old daughter is on Instagram and Facebook.”
The competing pulls of Canadian, Russian and Doukhobor identity can be complicated.
AJ Roberts, 21, a video game designer in Vancouver who grew up in Castlegar, regretted that his Russian was rusty. But he is learning to make his own borscht, even if his mother brings him many jars on every visit.
“I am proud to be Canadian but I don’t shy away from saying I am Doukhobor,” he said. “Because of the war, I am more ashamed of saying I have a Russian background.”
Humbled by centuries of fatal colonial expeditions, Canada’s military is learning Arctic survival strategies from the austere area’s only inhabitants.
A moon dog hung low over the horizon. It showed up on the first day of the Canadian soldiers’ patrol, and the Inuit rangers guiding them in the country’s far north spotted it right away: Ice crystals in the clouds were bending the light, making two illusory moons appear in the sky.
It meant a storm was coming, despite the forecast of fair weather. The Inuit rangers told the platoon to pitch their tents and hunker down.
“If it gets worse, we’re going to be stranded,” said John Ussak, one of the Inuit rangers, recalling how the soldiers wanted to keep going, but backed down. They awoke to a blizzard.
Canada is now on a mission to assert its hold on its Arctic territory, an enormous stretch that was once little more than an afterthought.
As Russia and China focus greater attention on the region’s military and commercial potential, Canada’s armed forces are under pressure to understand the Arctic’s changing climate, how to survive there and how to defend it.
The contest is a global one, with the American secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, having paid a five-day visit to Northern Europe last week to rally allies against Russian and Chinese ambitions in the Arctic.
Canada’s mission to secure the Arctic means relying more heavily on the Inuit, the only people who have lived in this austere part of the world for thousands of years, keeping watch over the country’s vast, isolated stretches in the far north.
It also means dredging into the country’s colonial past, changing hard-wired ways of thinking and undoing generations of mistrust. The Canadian government has a long and ugly history of abusing the Inuit, including misleading families into moving to the High Arctic to cement its hold on the territory during the Cold War and refusing to let them leave.
But in recent years, Canada has embarked on a wide-ranging attempt to come to terms with and atone for its colonial history. Efforts to secure Indigenous Canadians’ rightful place in the country have filtered through different levels of governments, schools, the arts and business.
Canada is also focusing on the most intractable element of post-colonial relationships — people’s way of thinking — by emphasizing learning from the Indigenous. On Arctic patrols, that brings practical benefits.
“Leaders need to show humility and understand it’s more important to acknowledge what you don’t know than what you do know,” said Maj. Brynn Bennett, the army commander who led the patrol in March with the Inuit rangers, part of a military exercise called Operation Nanook-Nunalivut.
Before the soldiers ever landed in Rankin Inlet, the hurdles were clear. Like nearly all other Canadians, most had never been this far north.
Military exercises between the Inuit rangers and the army have been held for decades, but the stakes have gotten higher as the world’s superpowers vie for pre-eminence in an Arctic made more accessible by climate change.
Russia is rapidly building up its military and partnering on commercial ventures with China, as thawing ice provides access to vast natural resources below the Arctic sea floor and unlocks new shipping lanes. Even Canada’s closest ally, the United States, disputes Canadian claims of sovereignty over the Northwest Passage.
While the exercise took place on uncontested Canadian territory, it is also part of a broader effort to build up Canada’s military capacity in the Arctic and to fend off any potential rival claims on the increasingly navigable waterways.
The Inuit rangers’ advice to delay the patrol — and, more than anything else, Major Bennet’s deference to them — not only shielded the seven Inuit rangers and nearly 40 soldiers from a blizzard, but cemented the authority of the Inuit in a region that continues to confound outsiders.
It was not always the case.
Around Rankin Inlet, a small subarctic town on the west coast of Hudson Bay, stories passed down for generations speak of Inuit advice and help offered, and refused, by explorers and whalers marooned on Marble Island, about 30 miles off the coast.
“My mom talked about it, even though I told her I didn’t want to hear about the past, because it really hurts me,” said Marianne Hapanak, 51, who has been a ranger for 24 years. “Our elders tried to help the white people,” she added. “Why didn’t they accept our help?”
“Maybe just to act tough?” she said.
With about 3,000 people, Rankin Inlet is the second most populated town in Nunavut, a Canadian territory nearly three times the size of Texas with a population of only 40,000 people, most of them Inuit.
For centuries, European colonial powers led expeditions in search of a Northwest Passage — a shorter and faster sea route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the labyrinth of islands and waterways in Canada’s Arctic.
In 1905, a Norwegian man, Roald Amundsen — who went to live among the Inuit to learn how to survive in the Arctic — became the first European explorer to cross the Northwest Passage. But some of the doomed efforts, most famously the Franklin Expedition, have become parables of colonial cluelessness: European explorers who died of scurvy by rejecting the Inuit’s vitamin-rich diet of raw meat or after ignoring the Inuit and getting lost.
Harry Ittinuar, 59, a former Inuit ranger who used to run boat tours to Marble Island, grew up listening to stories of outsiders stranded on the island, including James Knight, an 18th-century English explorer who was shipwrecked with his crew after failing to find the Northwest Passage.
“One of the stories I heard, they knew one crew was struggling, so they went over in winter by dog team,” said Mr. Ittinuar of the Inuit.
“When they were able to cross the ice, they offered them help and food, but the sailors refused to eat seal, walrus, whale or caribou, or whatever was offered to them,” Mr. Ittinuar added. “That was their demise.”
Some Inuit rangers say they have noticed a change in mind-set among the soldiers coming from “down south.”
“They’re more respectful now,” said Mr. Ussak, 47, who has been a ranger for two decades. “Our culture is a big part of being a ranger because we teach our knowledge in exercises like this. We teach them what we learned from our ancestors.”
The Inuit rangers who participated in the recent patrol are among 5,000 Canadian Rangers, part-time reservists in the Canadian Armed Forces. Above the tree line where it gets too cold for trees to survive, most of the rangers are Inuit.
With Canada’s military refashioning its relations with the Inuit by tapping into local knowledge, Canadian soldiers are heading north better prepared for the patrols, according to Inuit rangers.
Jack Kabvitok, 83, an Inuit who served as a ranger in the 1990s, recalled how soldiers occasionally arrived without the proper gear for temperatures that drop to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit in winter.
“They didn’t want to shoot their rifles because they didn’t want to touch the steel,” Mr. Kabvitok said. “They didn’t have coats or boots for up here. When they were few, we could deal with them. We would give them our clothes because we carry extra clothes all the time when we go hunting.”
Before their patrol, the soldiers trained at Petawawa, a base in Ontario. They practiced driving snowmobiles and built traditional Inuit sleds called qamutik. Despite an unusually brutal cold snap at the Ontario base, landing in Rankin Inlet was a shock to some.
“There’s winter all over Canada, and you think you know it until you come to a place where you don’t see any trees, just tundra,” said Corp. Simon Cartier, 30, from Montreal. “And if it wasn’t for the buildings, you’d probably feel like you’re on another planet.”
At their base in Rankin Inlet, the soldiers spent a day fixing their qamutiks, which the Inuit rangers immediately noted were inadequate for the subarctic. As the soldiers and Inuit rangers headed out on their five-day patrol, the weather, at least, looked favorable.
“We thought we were going to have good weather for the week based on the forecast,” Major Bennett said.
But on the first day, a soldier had to be evacuated after slipping and twisting an ankle. Continuing problems with the qamutiks forced the soldiers and Inuit rangers to set up camp about midway to their destination, in Chesterfield Inlet, a hamlet 60 miles northeast.
Then later that evening, the moon dog, a rare optical illusion, emerged low over the horizon.
When the Inuit rangers woke up the next morning — to the blizzard that made it impossible to see beyond 600 feet — they also saw a sun dog, a similar optical phenomenon that often precedes bad weather.
The oldest and most experienced Inuit ranger, Gerard Maktar, 65, and Mr. Ussak went to a morning briefing with the army leaders. Mr. Ussak said he met some pushback when he advised the soldiers to stay put until the weather cleared.
Lt. Erica Rogers, 29, a soldier from Toronto, acknowledged that there was initial skepticism of the warning from the Inuit rangers.
“We were going, well, it’s not that cold, we can still go out — if we were back in Petawawa, we would go out,” she said.
The delay prevented the soldiers from reaching their destination, but Major Bennet considered the patrol a success. His soldiers learned much from the Inuit, including building igloos, deciphering the meaning of snowdrifts, ice fishing, hunting and butchering caribou — and observing the moon dog and sun dog.
He added that his advice to the commander of the patrol after his was “Listen to Gerard” — referring to the elder Inuit ranger.
At the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, the Canadian government asserted its presence in the Arctic, not by listening to the Inuit, but by using them as human pawns. Officials misled 92 Inuit into relocating far away from families and long-established communities to uninhabited areas in the High Arctic where they found little food, 24-hour darkness in winter and an unfamiliar life that contributed to depression and alcoholism.
The Inuit rangers in the patrol said they believed that the joint mission would help Canada’s defense of its great north, though they said they did not want to be embroiled in a larger conflict.
“I wouldn’t want to go to war,” Ms. Hapanak said.
Even as Canada tries to up its game in the Arctic, Ms. Hapanak observed that the soldiers had a lot to learn — a point made clear with the start of the second patrol, a new group of 36 Canadian reservists and 10 British rangers.
As novices, they drove their snowmobiles slowly, taking more than three hours to reach a shooting range only six miles north of the base. One soldier had flipped on the side.
The soldiers started pitching their tents as it became clear they would have to set up camp just on the outskirts of Rankin Inlet.
“Boring!” said Ms. Hapanak, who had hoped to make more headway.
The Inuit rangers killed time. Mr. Maktar sculpted a miniature igloo out of the hard snow. Two bulky, middle-aged men played tag.
Ms. Hapanak singled out one British ranger who was wearing a light coat and kept making big, rapid circles with his arms to stay warm.
“I tried asking him, ‘Where’s your big coat?’” Ms. Hapanak said. “‘I’ll be good,’ he said.”
A woman with a vascular malformation in her brain undergoes a peculiar medical intervention. While she is fully conscious, neurosurgeons map the language areas before removing the lesion to protect her vast linguistic skills
Between dreams, she wakes up. With her eyes open, feeling everything, Ani, 36, searches for friendly eyes among the crowd of healthcare workers. They come and go, moving around her in the neurosurgery operating room at the Hospital del Mar in Barcelona. ”Calm down, everything is fine,” a nurse whispers. “You’re doing very well, Ani!” exclaims Dr. Gloria Villalba, the neurosurgeon in charge of the intervention, as she injects anesthetic around the circumference of Ani’s skull. It’s not customary for a patient to be awake in the operating room, but in this case there’s no other choice. There are six hours to go with her skull open. Ani — who is completely lucid, only occasionally dozing — has to maintain her calm to assist the doctors. Without her help, problems could arise.
Ani has a cavernoma — a vascular malformation — lurking in a complex area of her brain, bordering the areas that control mobility and language. The injury has already caused dangerous bleeding in the brain, which may reoccur. The lesion must be removed, but it’s not easy to reach it. The patient speaks five languages and needs them for her work — hence, the neurosurgeons cannot even slightly damage any area that influences her language skills. To chart the safest path to the cavernoma, doctors need to map the brain regions around the lesion and find a point of access without impairing mobility or language. And only Ani can help them with this: the mapping and removal must be done while she is awake, as they perform neuropsychological tests to verify that there’s no brain damage in the process.
Ani’s native language is Armenian. All four of the others came to her through a mix of personal interest and life experiences. “Armenia is a small country, with a unique and ancient language… no one else speaks our language or understands our letters,” she notes. “So, I was interested in learning more languages to be able to communicate with others. ”She learned Russian — a legacy from when her country was part of the Soviet Union — at school. She also learned English, perfecting it with her taste for literature. Spanish, meanwhile, she cultivated from scratch when she moved to Spain 15 years ago. And, with her husband, she practiced French at home, as he’s a native speaker. She also honed it with a season in Quebec, Canada.
“Every place I went to, I wanted to know the language to learn the culture and understand [the local people’s] way of thinking. I was fascinated by learning each language,” she recounts. For this reason, the possibility of losing them — in addition to the impact it would have on her work — causes Ani to feel a deep “sadness.” But her life is at stake.
A cavernoma develops during childhood. This is a silent process, not necessarily giving off any signs or symptoms, the most common of which are bleeding in the brain and epileptic seizures. Ani’s injury showed up just a few years ago, in 2018, on a regular day at work. In the middle of a meeting, she began to mix up languages, couldn’t find the right words, lost her balance and fell down. Medical tests revealed that a kind of tangle of malformed veins and arteries in the left hemisphere of her brain — about one inch deep — was bleeding. In the process, this injury had altered some brain regions that control language and mobility. ”The problem [with the malformation] is that, once it has bled, the probability of it happening again is very high,” explains Dr. Villalba. This year, during a routine check-up, the doctors noticed that the lesion was already bigger and had started to bleed again. “The risk of a third [bleeding episode] was higher, so we opted to remove it. And now, I feel relieved, because they’ve done a huge amount of preparation… this gives me confidence that everything will turn out well,” Ani tells EL PAÍS, on the eve of the procedure.
Dr. Villalba admits that the injury is in a complex place and getting to it isn’t easy. Also, monitoring two or three languages has been done in the past, but five languages multiples the challenge. During the last team meeting outside the operating room, the neurosurgeon goes over the intervention again, noting the complexity. ”We don’t know if we’ll be able to remove the cavernoma. It leaves us very little leeway to get in. If we cannot access it, we’ll leave it as it is,” she says. The motto of the operation is to improve the situation or, in the worst case scenario, leave it be — never make it worse.
At stake are Ani’s five languages. And, in a way, her life as well. The threat of another hemorrhage — if the malformation is left in place — leaves little room for maneuver. After Dr. Villalba explains the situation to Ani, the patient feels two emotions overwhelm her: ”It [would make me] sad to stop speaking a language, but the most important thing is my life. I’m going to undergo very serious brain surgery… surgery that people undergo to save their lives. Mine could also be at stake. And, at the same time, I’m thinking about languages, but as something secondary. Although it would be rare that, from one day to the next, I would lose the ability to speak any.”
Ani clearly remembers a phrase by Dr. Villalba that determined her decision: “You have many years ahead of you and the cavernoma can give you problems. If you were my sister, I would tell you to have surgery.”
It’s after nine in the morning and Ani is already on the operating room table, halfway between sleep and wakefulness. Villalba begins to cut a straight line on the skin of her skull with the scalpel. Ani feels some pain and the anesthesiologist, Dr. Juan Fernández, increases the sedation until she falls asleep. For now, he notes, you don’t need to be fully awake. “This type of intervention is a challenge, because we have to keep the patient — especially at certain times — fully conscious. It’s important to talk a lot with her, to explain to her what the procedure consists of and when we’re going to require her full awareness. You also have to apply a good local anesthetic, which will allow us, at times when we cannot use sedation, to be able to hold her head in place so that it doesn’t move. The third important thing is sedation — with individualized adjusted doses — so that she can be unconscious, but still breathing on her own, at times when she’s not required to be awake,” Fernández explains. The drugs they use, analgesics and hypnotics, are fast-acting, in order to quickly regulate the level of consciousness.
The neurosurgeon reaches the wall of the skull, at the level of the left frontal and temporal lobe. She starts the craniotomy. With an electric drill, Villalba draws a circle on the skull and lifts it up, like a small lid. The sinuous grooves of the brain come into view and Ani begins to regain consciousness. The neurosurgeon asks for silence in the operating room to hear the patient. Now, it’s her turn.
Ani’s participation is key to mapping the five languages, Villalba emphasizes. “We’ll do a series of tests, because language isn’t just speaking: it’s also understanding, naming and describing. We’ll do the tests for five languages and, in addition, another test for facial expression recognition. This is to validate social cognition — which is something that has barely been studied — especially in the left hemisphere [of the brain],” Villalaba explains. The doctors will use the opportunity to see if there are critical areas for emotional processing on that side of the brain as well.
Flags of different countries and facial icons are placed on the table of surgical instruments. Borja Lavín, the scrub nurse, precisely cuts out each illustration, while Villalba grips a pointed stimulator, with which she will apply small discharges in the patient’s cerebral cortex. The sparks — applied to a specific area of the brain — will cause certain neuronal systems that are related to language or mobilily to stop working. When that happens, the neurosurgeon will mark that point with a sticker — she will know that the area is compromised and she will not be able to go there during the surgery. The doctors begin to measure Ani’s mobility with tiny electrical lashes to that exposed piece of brain. Nothing happens… until it happens. At one point, Ani complains that her mouth has gone numb and Villalba plants a tiny pennant with a pair of thick lips drawn between two grooves in the brain. Then another. And one more.
The patient continues with the test, counting from one to 10 in Spanish over and over again. She chants numbers and describes everyday objects that pop out of a computer screen, as she relentlessly raises and lowers her arm until, suddenly, as if by magic, her body stops. The patient’s forearm is suspended in the air and words do not come out of her mouth. The doctor has just stimulated a risk area and fixed a Spanish flag at a point on the frontal lobe. “I know the word, but it doesn’t come out,” Ani says. The mapping continues, in Armenian, English, French and Russian. Sometimes, Ani’s arm freezes again and her voice stops. “I knew what it was, but I couldn’t find the word,” she insists. At times, during the test of emotions, she also fails. Sometimes she isn’t able to correctly identify whether the expression of a face is happy, lazy, sad, or angry.
After two hours of exercises, the visible portion of her brain is full of colorful flags. There is barely a free hole to the right, with only a tiny window that is less than one-fifth of an inch through which the brain can be penetrated so the cavernoma can be extracted. Villalba hesitates, argues with her team, weighing the possibilities. The margin is minimal. “In the study we do to prepare for surgery, we study motor and language functions — it gives us an idea of how we can see neurons in surgery. But it’s only a projection. The information told us that it was possible to access the cavernoma in a viable way… but, with intraoperative monitoring, we’ve found a slightly more complex situation: as there’s a wide distribution of the five languages [in her brain], this allows us very little space to access [the lesion],” she states.
With the help of a surgical microscope, Villalba begins to penetrate the brain in search of the vascular malformation. Ani continues with the tests: the mapping is complete, but it’s important to check that the mobility and language functions are still intact as the doctors make their way through the brain. In the background, a vascular ball appears on screen. The neurosurgeon extracts it little by little, without looking up.
Villalba manages to remove the entire cavernoma, which rests, frayed and tiny, in a small container. It’s not without a cost. Everything that could have been complicated has really been complicated, the neurosurgeon admits. “The space we had to access the cavernoma was very small. The surgery has challenged us, but we’ve been able to do it. Once we’ve reached the lesion, the ideal is to be able to remove it en bloc, in one piece, to make sure that you remove every last millimeter… but since this cavernoma had previously bled, it was totally stuck to the brain and we had to take it out little by little,” she explains. Until the control MRI, in a few days, the team will not know if they have removed 100% of the cavernoma. It’s already after 3 p.m. when the neurosurgeons — who have already closed the craniotomy — are busy sewing up the last layers of skin. Ani is now resting under the effects of sedation. Despite the difficulties, the doctors are optimistic. “When we finished monitoring and resecting the cavernoma, the patient [moved well] and spoke correctly. We’re happy with how the surgery has gone,” Villalba states.
A month after that very long morning in the operating room, Ani is recovering by leaps and bounds. Her five languages are intact. In subsequent MRIs, there is no trace of the cavernoma or unwanted side effects. She lacks some agility in her speech, but she’s happy: “I have to plan what I’m going to say… that takes a lot of effort. Maybe I don’t speak as fluently as before, but it’s a matter of time. In a month or two, I think I’ll recover everything,” she notes.
Ani looks back and remembers the long road that she has travelled. It was hard, both physically and emotionally. The first hemorrhage happened when her eldest son was barely 10 months old. The intervention took place when the younger one was only seven months old. “An interrupted maternity,” she sighs, due to “the restlessness and anguish” of living with a constant threat. She is still recovering from that sense of regret.
“It was a strange feeling when I went home after the operation. I saw my children… [they looked] very big. And the feeling of being able to hug them was like something new, as if I had never done it before. That interrupted maternity is a process. Emotionally, it hasn’t been easy.” At least, she says, the most important thing is that it’s all over: the dangerous malformation, along with the uncertainty that came from living with it.
I was 5 or 6 when I got my first sense of the joys of computer programming. This was in the early 1980s, when few people had a computer. One day, my dad brought home a Sinclair ZX Spectrum, one of the world’s early affordable, mass-market PCs. The device looked like a chunky keyboard; it had 48 kilobytes of memory (my phone has about 125,000 times as much RAM); and it used your TV as a display. Software, mainly games, came on cassette tapes that you loaded into the computer with a connection to a tape player — the floppy drive of its time.
But the games took forever to load, and while waiting I would often pore over the incredible programming manual that came with the Spectrum. The book was full of simple programs written in the accessible BASIC programming language. Most of it went over my head, but as I experimented with the examples, I began to feel the thrill that people who fall for computer programming often talk about — the revelation that, with just the right set of incantations, you can summon to life these otherwise inert machines and get them to do your bidding.
My obsession with programming deepened when I got to high school (I was very popular!), and there were a few weeks early in college when I thought coding could be something I did for a living. Of course, I didn’t stick with it; for me, writing words won out over writing code.
Though I did find it fascinating to learn to think the way computers do, there seemed to be something fundamentally backward about programming a computer that I just couldn’t get over: Wasn’t it odd that the machines needed us humans to learn their maddeningly precise secret languages to get the most out of them? If they’re so smart, shouldn’t they try to understand what we’re saying, rather than us learning how to talk to them?
Now that may finally be happening. In a kind of poetic irony, software engineering is looking like one of the fields that could be most thoroughly altered by the rise of artificial intelligence. Over the next few years, A.I. could transform computer programming from a rarefied, highly compensated occupation into a widely accessible skill that people can easily pick up and use as part of their jobs across a wide variety of fields. This won’t necessarily be terrible for computer programmers — the world will still need people with advanced coding skills — but it will be great for the rest of us. Computers that we can all “program,” computers that don’t require specialized training to adjust and improve their functionality and that don’t speak in code: That future is rapidly becoming the present.
A.I. tools based on large language models — like OpenAI Codex, from the company that brought you ChatGPT, or AlphaCode, from Google’s DeepMind division — have already begun to change the way many professional coders do their jobs. At the moment, these tools work mainly as assistants — they can find bugs, write explanations for snippets of poorly documented code and offer suggestions for code to perform routine tasks (not unlike how Gmail offers ideas for email replies — “Sounds good”; “Got it”).
But A.I. coders are quickly getting smart enough to rival human coders. Last year, DeepMind reported in the journal Science that when AlphaCode’s programs were evaluated against answers submitted by human participants in coding competitions, its performance “approximately corresponds to a novice programmer with a few months to a year of training.”
“Programming will be obsolete,” Matt Welsh, a former engineer at Google and Apple, predicted recently. Welsh now runs an A.I. start-up, but his prediction, while perhaps self-serving, doesn’t sound implausible:
I believe the conventional idea of “writing a program” is headed for extinction, and indeed, for all but very specialized applications, most software, as we know it, will be replaced by A.I. systems that are trained rather than programmed. In situations where one needs a “simple” program … those programs will, themselves, be generated by an A.I. rather than coded by hand.
Welsh’s argument, which ran earlier this year in the house organ of the Association for Computing Machinery, carried the headline “The End of Programming,” but there’s also a way in which A.I. could mark the beginning of a new kind of programming — one that doesn’t require us to learn code but instead transforms human-language instructions into software. An A.I. “doesn’t care how you program it — it will try to understand what you mean,” Jensen Huang, the chief executive of the chip-making company Nvidia, said in a speech this week at the Computex conference in Taiwan. He added: “We have closed the digital divide. Everyone is a programmer now — you just have to say something to the computer.”
Wait a second, though — wasn’t coding supposed to be one of the can’t-miss careers of the digital age? In the decades since I puttered around with my Spectrum, computer programming grew from a nerdy hobby into a vocational near-imperative, the one skill to acquire to survive technological dislocation, no matter how absurd or callous-sounding the advice. Joe Biden to coal miners: Learn to code! Twitter trolls to laid-off journalists: Learn to code! Tim Cook to French kids: Apprenez à programmer!
Programming might still be a worthwhile skill to learn, if only as an intellectual exercise, but it would have been silly to think of it as an endeavor insulated from the very automation it was enabling. Over much of the history of computing, coding has been on a path toward increasing simplicity. Once, only the small priesthood of scientists who understood binary bits of 1s or 0s could manipulate computers. Over time, from the development of assembly language through more human-readable languages like C and Python and Java, programming has climbed what computer scientists call increasing levels of abstraction — at each step growing more removed from the electronic guts of computing and more approachable to the people who use them.
A.I. might now be enabling the final layer of abstraction: the level on which you can tell a computer to do something the same way you’d tell another human.
So far, programmers seem to be on board with how A.I. is changing their jobs. GitHub, the coder’s repository owned by Microsoft, surveyed 2,000 programmers last year about how they’re using GitHub’s A.I. coding assistant, Copilot. A majority said Copilot helped them feel less frustrated and more fulfilled in their jobs; 88 percent said it improved their productivity. Researchers at Google found that among the company’s programmers, A.I. reduced “coding iteration time” by 6 percent.
I’ve tried to introduce my two kids to programming the way my dad did for me, but both found it a snooze. Their disinterest in coding has been one of my disappointments as a father, not to mention a source of anxiety that they could be out of step with the future. (I live in Silicon Valley, where kids seem to learn to code before they learn to read.) But now I’m a bit less worried. By the time they’re looking for careers, coding might be as antiquated as my first PC.
This is a speech about speaking your mind when other people don’t want you to.
To those of you who are protesting or planning awalkout, I thank you for not seriously disrupting my speech. And though I’m sorry you won’t hear me out, I completely respect your right to protest any speaker you dislike, including me, so long as you honor the Chicago Principles. It is one of the core liberties that all of us have a responsibility to uphold, protect and honor.
To those of you who choose to stay, I thank you for honoring another Chicago principle, one that was dear to my dear friend, Bob Zimmer: Namely, that a serious education is impossible except in an environment of unfettered intellectual challenge — an environment that, in turn, isn’t possible without the opportunity to encounter people and entertain views with whom and with which you might profoundly disagree.To John Boyer, who welcomed me to Chicago in 1991 when I was a nervous 17-year-old freshman, I want to salute you for everything you’ve done to make the college so much better, while preserving what always made it great: the conviction that to think clearly, we must be able to speak freely; that to disagree intelligently, we must first understand the views of our opponents profoundly; that to change people’s minds, we must be open to the possibility that our minds might be changed. All of this asks us to listen charitably, argue candidly, consider deeply, examine and re-examine everything, above all our own deeply held convictions — and, unlike at so many other universities, to respond to ideas we reject with more and better speech, not heckling or censorship.
And to the class of 2023: You and your families should all be exceptionally proud of the diplomas you will soon hold in your hands. I know how hard you’ve worked to get them. And I know that the education you got here is qualitatively different from the education you would have received nearly anywhere else — not just better, but also dedicated to something higher and more important than the mere acquisition of complex knowledge and specialized skills.
What I am referring to is the capacity, the desire and above all, the courage to think for yourselves — and to express and behave yourselves accordingly. This is more than just the purpose of an education. It is what the world you are entering most desperately needs from you. And it is what, I trust and hope, you are uniquely equipped to offer.
The herd of independent minds are the people who say they make up their own minds when it comes to politics, and yet somehow, and generally without exception, arrive at precisely the same long list of political conclusions as millions of others. The herd of independent minds were the Republicans who were ardent NeverTrumpers in 2015, fervent Trumpers from 2017-21, NeverTrumpers again after Jan. 6, and are now tilting back toward Trump: In other words, Lindsey Graham. The herd of independent minds are those who think “La La Land” is a great movie but “Miss Congeniality” isn’t.
The point is: There are very few people who don’t see themselves as independent thinkers. There are even fewer people who are.
This is true wherever you go, in most walks of life. But it seems to be especially true in places and institutions heavily populated by people with elite educations: The kinds of places and institutions that many of you will soon be a part of. Groupthink is the affliction of those who ought to be — and often think of themselves as — the least vulnerable to it.
Consider some examples:
Why did nobody at Facebook — sorry, Meta — stop Mark Zuckerberg from going all in on the Metaverse, possibly the worst business idea since New Coke? Why were the economists and governors at the Federal Reserve so confident that interest rates could remain at rock bottom for years without running a serious risk of inflation? Why did the C.I.A. believe that the government of Afghanistan could hold out against the Taliban for months but that the government of Ukraine would fold to the Russian Army in days? Why were so few people on Wall Street betting against the housing market in 2007? Why were so many officials and highly qualified analysts so adamant that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction? Why were so many people convinced that overpopulation was going to lead to catastrophic food shortages, and that the only sensible answers were a one-child policy and forced sterilizations?
Oh, and why did so many major polling firms fail to predict Donald Trump’s victory in 2016?
The cases are almost endless, the consequences frequently disastrous. And it raises the question: Why is it that, when you bring together a lot of smart people in a room, their collective intelligence tends to go down, not up? Why do they always seem to press the mute button on their critical faculties when confronted with propositions that, as an old colleague of mine liked to say, ought to vanish in the presence of thought?
I’m not sure if there’s one right answer, but here are a few thoughts based on my own observations and experiences:
First, the problem isn’t that people aren’t smart. It’s that they are scared.
To yell stop when everyone else says go — or go when everyone else says stop — takes guts, and guts aren’t part of any kind of normal college curriculum. In my generation, the hardest people to say “no” to were the people who had professional power over us. In your generation, I think, it’s the people who are in your own ideological tribe. Whatever it is, how many of us, if we’re honest with ourselves, really have that kind of courage?
Second, there is the problem of rationalization — of smart people convincing themselves, and others, of some truly dumb things.
Robert McNamara, one of the original “Whiz Kids” and probably one of the brighter bulbs in 20th-century American public life, was one of the fathers of the Vietnam War when he was at the Pentagon, and of the Third World debt crisis when he was at the World Bank. Somehow, he always managed to convince the other smart people in the room that he was right. Will you be able to notice the underlying flaw in an idea when the arguments for it sound so persuasive?
Third, there is the psychological dimension.
Some people are inveterate truth seekers. They are almost congenitally willing to risk rejection, ostracism, even hatred for the sake of being right. But most people just want to belong, and the most essential elements of belonging are agreeing and conforming. Would-be belongers engage in what’s known as “preference falsification,” pretending to enjoy things they don’t, or subscribe to ideas they secretly reject.They go along to get along, because the usual emotional companion to intellectual independence isn’t pride or self-confidence. It’s loneliness and sometimes crippling self-doubt.
Is that a price you are willing to pay?
All these factors are, to a large extent, the product of human nature — of our deeply ingrained instinct to join and stick with the pack no matter where it leads. But there’s a fourth factor, maybe the most crucial. It’s culture. Does the culture of a society, or of an institution, encourage us to stand out or to fit in; to speak up or to bury our doubts? Does it serve as a conduit to groupthink, or as an obstacle to it?
I mentioned a moment ago that all of us like to think of ourselves as independent thinkers, even if comparatively few of us really are. There’s an institutional corollary. Nearly every American institution outside of certain religious orders claims to encourage open debate and — that awful cliché — thinking “outside the box.” Apple’s famous slogan, “Think Different,” was one of the most successful ad campaigns of my lifetime.
But, at least in my experience, very few institutions truly welcome it, at least when it exposes them to any sort of pressure or criticism, much less loss of social capital or potential revenue.
Take Fox News: The network likes to think of itself as the scourge of “cancel culture,” at least when the people doing the canceling are on the left. But when its own election desk called the state of Arizona for Joe Biden on election night in 2020, the network quickly fired its chief polling analyst, Chris Stirewalt, claiming, in the disingenuous words of Rupert Murdoch, that he was “overly casual” in discussing election results.
Or take M.I.T.: After it canceled a lecture on the potential for life on exoplanets by Chicago’s Dorian Abbot — not on account of Professor Abbot’s scientific credentials or the substance of his talk but because his political views had incited protest — the departmental dean at M.I.T. said, “Besides freedom of speech, we have the freedom to pick the speaker who best fits our needs.”
Each of these examples — and we can all think of scores of others — is an unwitting reformulation of the classic line widely attributed to Groucho Marx: “These are my principles; if you don’t like them, I have others.”
Institutions and their leaders invariably say they support independent thinking and free speech — but usually when that support is easy and costs them nothing, not when it’s hard and requires them to take a stand. They want provocative thinking — provided it isn’t too pointed and offends only the people who don’t count in their social network. They want to foster a culture of argument and intellectual challenge — so long as nobody ever says the wrong thing and feelings don’t get hurt.
But this doesn’t always have to be the case. Institutions can, in fact, practice what they preach. They can declare principles, set a tone, announce norms and expectations — and then live up to their principles through regular practice. They can explain to every incoming class of students or new employees that they champion independent thinking and free expression in both word and deed. They can prove that they won’t cave to outrage mobs and other forms of public pressure, either by canceling invited speakers or by never inviting controversial speakers in the first place.
There’s a way this is done. It’s called leadership. You have one magnificent example of it right on this stage, in the person of John Boyer. And you have had a historic example of it in the person of Bob Zimmer. I want to say a few words about him.
In its obituary for President Zimmer, The New York Times mentioned that, in his career as a distinguished mathematician, his main interests lay in “ergodic theory” and something called “Lie groups.” I don’t know what those are, either.
But I think it’s notable that a man whose scholarly career was probably the most insulated from any kind of political pressure so profoundly and intuitively understood the importance of protecting intellectual freedom throughout the whole academy. To adapt Martin Luther King Jr.’s line about injustice, Bob knew that a threat to independent thinking anywhere was a threat to independent thinking everywhere, including in abstruse mathematics and the hard sciences. The stands he took when it came to hot-button questions about safe spaces, trigger warnings and controversial speakers ultimately had little to do with relatively lowly questions about university politics. They were about defending the life of the mind at its highest and furthest reaches.
Bob understood something else: that “one man with courage makes a majority.” He showed other university presidents how it’s done — what it means to take a stand, how to effectively communicate your beliefs, and when to put your foot down. In contrast to how M.I.T. handled Professor Abbot’s opinions, he responded to a Chicago campus campaign to have Abbot sanctioned with a reminder that “the University does not limit the comments of faculty members, mandate apologies or impose other disciplinary consequences for such comments, unless there has been a violation of University policy or the law.”
People often note that the Chicago Principles have been adopted by scores of universities, and that’s great. But where Bob’s real legacy lies is in the academic leaders who are finally finding their nerve to stand up to the enemies of intellectual freedom. And, in doing so, he showed that a university president who was morally courageous and intellectually cogent would also attract the best students, inspirit the best faculty and regain the loyalty of doubting alumni — because leaders with courage are leaders with followers.
In short, Bob created an institutional culture that, as Salman Rushdie once said, serves as a safe space for thought, not a safe space from thought. And my question to you, both in the audience and on this stage, is whether you will take inspiration from it in your own lives and careers.
I hope you do, whether you choose to lead a private or a public life. And I hope you do so by writing your own version of “The Joy of Argument” — which is like a similarly titled book from 50 years ago, updated for an era that has become curiously and depressingly afraid of both. The joy of argument is not about “owning” or “destroying” or otherwise trying to disparage, caricature or humiliate your opponent. On the contrary, it should be about opposition and mutuality, friction and delight, the loosening of inhibitions and the heightening of concentration, playfulness and seriousness, and, sometimes even, a truly generative act.
Yes, I am comparing great arguments to great sex. But the analogy bears a brief follow-through because, in the last analysis, the only way in which we are going to create institutions in which independent thought and free expression flourish isn’t through a declaration of principles, however well constructed it may be — at best, those principles can only lay the ground for what we are trying to achieve. Nor can it be on account of some worthy but abstract goal, like the health of democracy — which, again, is wonderful, but rarely motivates people to action.
We are going to succeed at the task only when we persuade others, and ourselves, that these things you’ve all been doing at the University of Chicago for the past few years — discussing and debating and interrogating and doubting and laughing and thinking harder and better than you ever did before — aren’t the antithesis of fun. They are the essence of it. They make up the uniquely joyful experience of being authentically and expressively and unashamedly yourself and, at the same time, having a form of honest and intimate contact with others who, in their own ways, are being authentically and expressively and unashamedly themselves.
Enough with the sex analogy. You are about to go out into the real world, as real adults, with a real hand in shaping the conditions of our common life. Many of you will soon join and eventually lead great institutions, and a few of you will create significant businesses, NGOs, schools and other institutions of your own. I’m guessing not many of you are thinking: “I want to make them just like the University of Chicago,” at least as far as subzero temperatures, midterms that begin the third week and the food at Valois are concerned.
But I hope you can at least say this: that, at Chicago, you learned that institutions become and remain great not because of the weight of their traditions or the perception of their prestige, but because they are places where the sharpest thinking is given the freest rein, and where strong arguments may meet stronger ones, and where “error of opinion may be tolerated” because “reason is left free to combat it” and where joy and delight are generally found at the point of contact — mental or otherwise.
If you can say this, then Chicago will have served you well. And if you can bring this mind-set and this spirit to the places you will soon make your own, then you will have served Chicago even better.