The Unbearable Insignificance of Being Born

Since Lee just tagged me with this little Wikipedia meme and I’m a sucker for history, I figured I’d join in.

This is an interesting exercise for anyone who wants to learn a little more about world history, but it’s also food for thought: to most Americans, a birthday is a very special personal holiday, yet the event of any given individual’s birth is staggeringly insignificant in the harsh light of the thousands of years of recorded human history.

On August 12, all of the following happened:

In 490 BC, the army of Athens (Greece) defeated an invading Persian army at the Battle of Marathon, an event that later gave rise to the Olympic running event by the same name. According to Herodotus, some 6400 Persians gave their lives (in stark contrast to fewer than 200 Athenians) in the failed attempt to conquer those portions of Greece that were not yet under Persian control. Had the Persians won the battle, the development of Greek — and subsequent Western — civilisation may have been delayed several hundred years, or not happened at all, an idea first put forth by the English philosopher John Stuart Mill, who famously claimed the Battle of Marathon to be more important to British history than the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

Languishing in captivity in the Artis Magistra zoo in Amsterdam in 1883, the last known quagga on Earth died. The extinction of the quagga, a zebra-like animal that was found in great abundance on the South African plains in the late 1700s, was the second major human extinction of an African species (the first being that of the dodo in Mauritius some 250 years earlier).

In 1985, Japan Air Lines Flight 123 crashed into Mount Ogura after a catastrophic loss of the vertical stabiliser and subsequent loss of control, killing 520 of the 524 souls aboard in the worst single-craft air disaster in history. (The Tenerife disaster, which involved two 747s, remains the worst aviation accident to date.) The Boeing 747SR had sustained a tail strike some seven years previous and the repair, effected by Boeing, used only one row of rivets where two were called for. The failure of the bulkhead caused the vertical stabiliser to detach from the aircraft and also severed all four hydraulic systems, leaving the aircraft with only engine thrust for directional control. Many of the JAL staff, as well as the Boeing mechanic responsible for the faulty repair, committed suicide as a result. In a similar incident some four years later, Captain Al Haynes managed to land United Airlines Flight 232, a DC-10, in Sioux City, Iowa, after total hydraulic failure using only the two remaining engine thrust levers (the number two engine, in the tail, had catastrophically failed and caused the situation) for directional control, probably saving the lives of the 185 survivors.

I share a birthday with several people of at least minor historical significance, but the two that most jump out at me are Erwin Schrödinger and Richard Reid.

Schrödinger, born 1887, was one of the most famous physicists of the 20th century. His contributions to the field of quantum mechanics are virtually unparalleled. Perhaps his most famous work is the Schrödinger equation, although he is probably better-known among the general populace (particularly those with less than a Ph.D. level of physics knowledge) for his thought experiment involving a cat, a vial of poison, and a black box.

Richard Reid (born 1973) is better known as the “shoe bomber”, and is the individual you can thank next time you find yourself standing in line in your stocking feet at the airport, wondering when the TSA wand-wavers are going to realise you pose no threat to your fellow travelers. The response to his attempted terrorism is emblematic of the reactionary defence philosophy put forth by Homeland Security and ignores the fact that such organisations as Al Qaeda are unlikely to strike by the same means twice. A reactive defence is no defence at all.

Finally, my birthday shares a day with the anniversary of the death of the English novelist Ian Fleming, best known as the creator of the archetypal Cold War spy, James Bond. To date, Fleming’s most famous character has spawned 20 “official” films (along with two unofficial films and a TV movie) and almost singlehandedly turned both Sean Connery and Pierce Brosnan into household names. (The franchise also virtually destroyed the career of Timothy Dalton, who has done nothing remarkable since his second and final Bond film, “Licence to Kill”, in 1989, though Dalton’s interpretation of Bond was critically well-received.) This coming November will see the release of “Casino Royale”, the 21st Bond film and the first starring new Bond actor Daniel Craig, based on Fleming’s first Bond novel (published 1953).

Since my blog-circle contains many of the same folks as Lee’s, I doubt I’ll be able to pass the torch to five people, but Eric, Raena, and Wes all seem like they’d be pretty interesting candidates for a bit of discussion here.

posted by Chris on 08 April 2006 at 2307 in general

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