Thursday, 1 September 2011

Happiness is a butterfly.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Yet sometimes words can reveal more than pictures when it comes to more abstract topics like happiness, love, death, destiny and friendship. I'm sure everyone has come accross quotes that have inspired them or had an impact on their life in some way. Below is one of my personal favourites and I will go through why I like it and what it means to me.

“Happiness is like a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.” – Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)  

This simile was the brainchild of Nathaniel Hawthorne, an American novelist and writer whose father tragically died at sea when he was a child. Misfortune struck again 5 years later when a sporting accident left him lame and bedridden for the remainder of his life. His first novel Fanshawe was unsuccessful and he only started enjoying success with his writing later in life. Despite his tough childhood and adolescence, he always had a carefree and optimistic perspective on life. An ideology which he crystalised so elegantly in one simple phrase.
I find it fascinating how he captivated his view on happpiness so eloquently and succinctly. Happiness and butterflies are both colourful, graceful, carefree and often elusive on the cloudy days when they are needed most. Yet for me the parallell between them continues beyond that. These strangely mesmerising creatures all emerge blissfully after what must seem like an eternity in a dull and motionless cocoon. Yet their limited time as a butterfly does not appear to be diminished by spending a large part of their life trapped with no escape. Similarly to the butterfly and cocoon, people who seem to have found happiness have often gone through tougher times in their lives. Perhaps we even need the gloomy periods in life to put the joyful times into perspective and treasure them more.

Happiness is a state of mind that cannot be forced or controlled, to pursue a constant state of euphoria would achieve nothing more than turning a happy day into an ordinary one. Instead I try to live the ordinary days in life for what they are so that any one of them has the potential to become extraordinary, and cherish them when they do.

Friday, 4 March 2011

A blast from the past!

It was 1996 and our family had just moved from a small apartment in Brussels to the tropical island paradise of Mauritius. It was quite a culture shock, moving from a busy and rainy city in the heart of Europe to a small and sunny island in the middle of the Indian Ocean! Yet the change was very welcome as we lived in villa on the beach with everything 6-year old me and his siblings could ever dream of! We had a big swimming pool, garden, sauna, jacuzzi, lizards to chase, palm trees and more. We used to go snorkeling and catch fish from the reef for the aquarium, then release them after a week and catch new ones. This truly was a paradise, or so I thought...
Albion was still fairly isolated back then so the closest school was almost an hour away with the school bus. A much bigger problem however was that education was in English, a language that at the time I knew exactly 3 words in: yes, no and milk (random, I know). I can still remember parts of the first day at school like it was yesterday, a time which to this day probably remains one of the most intimidating experiences of my life. Moving to a completely new country without understanding a single word or knowing anybody would be a daunting experience for anyone, let alone a 6-year old kid who had just been dropped off at a school on a mountain in the middle of nowhere!

The first class was art and I was anxious but tried to follow anyway even though I wanted nothing more than to go home. We started the class by making a list of all the things we would need throughout the year, easy enough one would think. At first the teacher wrote words on the board including ‘pencil’, which I mistakenly translated to penseel in Dutch (a paintbrush). Other words like rubber made no sense at all so I just copied them figuring my mum would know what they were when I got home.
Next we had to write the name of our class on the notebook which we had in front of us. The teacher told me to write ‘A3’ pointing at the cover of my notebook and gesturing 3 fingers. I wrote E3 instead because an A is pronounced in English as an E would be in the languages I did know (Dutch, German and French). She gave me a disapproving look and managed to get the message across that it was wrong, pointing at my notebook and saying ‘E3’. I thought I had already written down what she said at first so I reasoned that it was the second thing she wanted me to write. Since the pronunciation of an ‘E’ in English is identical to that of an ‘I’ in the alphabet I knew, I wrote down I3 confidently...

This went on for a while and eventually the teacher got annoyed, probably thinking I was just pulling her leg all along. It was incredibly frustrating because I was trying but for some reason the teacher was angry at me anyway. At this point I still had no idea what I had done wrong or what anybody was even saying, it was driving me crazy! The next thing I remember is being in the principal’s office on the verge of tears. I already wanted to go home before all of this transpired and now even more so!
This was an art class so I don’t need to paint a picture of how this fiasco compared to classes like English over the next couple of weeks. It was also virtually impossible to make friends given that I couldn’t communicate with anyone. I felt really lonely having no one to talk to, something which was compounded by the fact that I wasn’t used to a language barrier in the first place.

Additionally not all the teachers were particularly helpful, I was 2 years ahead and opinions were divided on whether this was acceptable. Some of them thought that I was stupid because I couldn’t follow in class and I didn’t belong in a class where everyone was several years older than me. When we had classes I could do, like maths, I was eager to prove myself and was all over it like a smartass. Although I didn't recognise it at the time, presumably that didn't go down so well either. Yet despite the objections of some I remained in the class, probably due to some convincing by my mum who was a professor doing research on children learning new languages.

Every day was like a bad dream, I was counting down the minutes to the end of the day before the bus even got there in the morning. My favourite weekday was Wednesday for the simple reason that it was only half a day of school. Even the lunch breaks were no consolation because I had nothing to do and was always bored. At some point I ended up inventing nicknames for all the other students, and watching them while eating my lunch alone. Being quite introverted things barely changed throughout the following months and didn't really make any friends.

Sometimes I couldn't help but wonder whether being a few years ahead was the reason I was struggling at school, not the language barrier. That thought gave me the motivation to excel, so I could show the sceptics they were wrong. Gradually my English did improve, I changed school turned into a normal student. Academically things were progressing and a few years later I finished primary school a little after I turned 10, winning the Dux of the School award. It might not be a great accomplishment but given how far I had come it certainly was quite gratifying at the time. Now I'm 23 and in the last year of my PhD in Molecular Biology at Imperial College London, but I can safely say that primary school has been the toughest part of my academic journey thus far!

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

The Origin of Life?

"Where do we come from and why are we here?"

It is quite possibly the single most important question we can ask ourselves and surely one we have all thought about multiple times. Yet it remains a question to which the answer is aggravatingly elusive, with different people having resorted to different beliefs in order to come to terms with it. This belief ranges anywhere from resolute religous zealots to die-hard scientists convinced that evolution is the key. As somebody with a passion for Genetics one might assume I am siding with the latter, yet you would be mistaken!

Ironically, delving into the fascinating and beautiful workings of life at a microscopic level has made it increasingly harder for me to accept, that in all its brilliance life is the result of no more than mere evolutionary serendipity. Although I am not trying to question the presence of evolution and natural selection, I am doubtful about the extent to which it can account for the entire legacy of life on our planet.

Yet If biochemical evolution did occur on Earth during the past 4.5 billion years, why only here? Life on Earth is thought to have arisen after about a billion years ago yet the universe is estimated to be over 13 billion years old and over 90 billion lightyears accross. Undoubtedly the universe is vast enough for evolution to have occured in other solar systems far older than our own. Even celestial bodies close to home like Titan (one of Saturn's moons) are thought to have many of the properties needed for life, so what would make us so unique? Could we have arisen from molecules that somehow collected on our beloved planet? Would we be able to tell if extraterrestrial life landed on our planet many billions of years ago and gave evolution a helping hand?

There are many questions which still need to be addressed before we can make bold claims about our existence. Yet when looking at how far we have come in even the last 100 years, perhaps even questions as overwhelming as these can be answered. For now however, I struggle to answer this question with any conviction. Yet whether through random alignment of the cosmos, a greater being or even some other reason, we have been given a remarkable gift that we should cherish and enjoy!