Not long after joining the world, we are immersed in brand options: first Pampers or Huggies, later Coke or Pepsi, Apple or Android, Republican or Democrat. Companies spend billions on sharpening brand distinction, touting their brand’s benefits, and trying to win brand loyalty. Whatever tools are used, however, the one constant for marketing mavens is that image and reality have to match. Quality can’t be faked. The product has to deliver.
Nations polish and sell their brands, too. A good brand image facilitates commerce and tourism, and is money in the bank in an international crisis.
Last month, Brand USA, a new public-private consortium established by Congress, released a video titled “Land of Dreams” to promote the United States as a tourist destination. Rosanne Cash sings amid scenes of gorgeous landscapes and a dazzling variety of people enjoying themselves. The video is notable for what it doesn’t show: flags, presidents, monuments, and military might. After the controversial wars of the past decade, America has badly needed image improvement. Reminding the world of its people, natural beauty, and possibilities seems a promising shift.
Russia is a country that needs brand help. Russia has plenty to work with. It is vast, beautiful, and historic. But Russian history has been dominated by czars, commissars, and tough rulers. What always seems invisible are its people, who over the years have been inconsiderately lumped together as serfs and proletariat and are only now emerging as citizens.
In a Christian Science Monitor special report, Angus Roxburgh, a longtime Moscow correspondent and former adviser to the government of Vladimir Putin, looks at the man whose image seems to be defining modern Russia. Mr. Putin is a onetime KGB agent who feints toward democracy and the rule of law, but too often uses his forceful personality to keep an iron grip on government. Putin’s goal, forged in the desperate years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, has been to restore Russia’s power and pride.
It would be a historic achievement, however, if instead of only restoring Russia’s prestige, Putin used his time in the Kremlin to nurture Russian democracy. After all, citizens, not rulers, own a country. What if, Mr. Putin, you made Brand Russia about the Russian people – and made Russia the land of their dreams?
John Yemma is editor of the Monitor.
On May 1, the Monitor entered its fourth year as a Web-first news organization.
Here's where we have traveled since 2009: Our Web traffic has grown five-fold following our shift from being primarily a daily newspaper. Our weekly news magazine, which we redesigned and relaunched in early April of this year, is doing well in print and in its iPad and e-reader editions. Our Daily News Briefing has a steady subscription base. Advertising revenue is growing. Content sales are healthy. The fiscal year that ended on April 30 was the best we've done financially since 1963.
Bottom line: With revenue increasing and modest cost reductions year over year, we've halved our church subsidy and are committed to zeroing it out. Our journalism, which is reaching many times more people than ever before, remains strong and original. Recent examples: The April 9 Monitor Weekly cover story on the reversal of immigration from Mexico, which painted a human-scale picture of why that is the case, was in readers' hands weeks before a recent Pew report confirming the trend. We explained America's gun culture and the "stand your ground" movement weeks before Trayvon Martin was killed. We've been in Myanmar during the stirrings of democracy; Afghanistan during each turn of the war; Egypt before, during, and after Tahrir Square.
We have correspondents around the world and throughout the US. We're on the campaign trail, at the Supreme Court, and on top of tech, science, and the environment. If you read us, you have context for the news in advance of the news.
The point is that our tradition of global, humane, explanatory journalism is not only undiminished by our digital-first strategy but is more timely, relevant, and widespread than ever. (Sure, I'm biased when I say that, but you can easily judge for yourself.)
You might wonder if we are a model for the rest of the news industry. Yes and no. Every news organization has to make the shift from print to digital, to figure out how to carry on the vitally necessary mission of journalism in a new economic environment. Timing varies, depending on business conditions. Our circumstances are unique and always have been. But you might see the systematic decrease of our longstanding subsidy as similar to the erosion of print ad revenue at a locally based newspaper.
Model or not, the most important thing is that we have adapted and are making steady progress toward break-even. Our journalism is strong and distinct. Our goal is to become self-sustaining, which will safeguard the continuation of the Monitor's 104-year-old journalistic tradition.
John Yemma, editor
For more than a century, the Monitor has chronicled humanity’s journey. We do not flinch from writing about wars, repression, and corruption. But we also make a point of watching for progress.
Why do we see that as the Monitor’s mission? Keith Collins, a former Monitor staffer, has written a well-researched history of this newspaper that examines that question. The story he tells is valuable if you are a journalism buff, a Monitor fan, a Christian Scientist, or a person of any faith (or none) who wonders what drives this 104-year-old enterprise – which carries the name of a religious denomination but is widely accepted as a nondenominational source of thoughtful, accurate, world news.
Not every part of Mr. Collins’s book, “The Christian Science Monitor: Its History, Mission, and People,” will make everyone happy. As in any history, some facts and conclusions are arguable. I found this to be so in a section dealing with the internal tensions that led to the resignation of Kay Fanning as editor in 1988 and the subsequent rise and fall of an ambitious broadcasting venture.
Collins distills the central question facing the Monitor as this: Did Mary Baker Eddy found the Monitor as “mainly a good, public-spirited newspaper that represented a more constructive approach to journalism?” Or was it “not designed to make people comfortable so much as to upgrade how they thought, helping them become less fearful and selfish, more perceptive and generous?” He notes that throughout the Monitor’s history, its editors, reporters, governing boards, subscribers, and members of the church have sincerely stood on both sides of that question. But why should it be either/or? Why not both/and? Public-spirited journalism and the decreasing of fear and selfishness are not mutually exclusive.
In any endeavor – from government to business, family to church – people disagree. But if motives are honest and noble, they have a divine source, which allows us to respect and value each other’s best efforts.
Many readers will value and respect Collins’s work. And who can argue with his conclusion – that the Monitor is not living up to its full potential? Like humanity itself, the Monitor can always do better.
John Yemma is editor of The Christian Science Monitor.
Synfuel technology had been developed by oil-starved but coal-rich Germany. It was put on the back shelf during the postwar era of cheap gasoline and was now getting a fresh look. Synfuel processing was complex and expensive, but the oil era was ending, many analysts believed. Any alternative would be useful in the new energy war.
A few years later, while on a trip to Saudi Arabia, I heard oil industry specialists speaking with alarm about a coming bust. Those higher prices in the late 1970s had prompted an oil glut. In 1984, the bottom fell out. Synfuels and most alternative energies were packed away. From Texas to the North Sea to the Middle East, oil fields were shut down and workers were laid off.
Oil stayed relatively cheap until the first decade of this century, when it surged again as demand increased in China, India, and other developing economies. Once again, a warlike effort was urged to break foreign oil dependence – this time by developing alternatives such as solar, wind, and geothermal as well as reviving nuclear .
Now a curious thing is happening. The hydrocarbon supply chain is forking. The oil side is still costly and dependent on overseas sources. The natural gas side, which used to rise or fall in lock step, is emerging as the great hope of energy independence. As Alex Marks writes in a Monitor special report, natural gas has become so plentiful and cheap that it has fundamentally altered the energy security outlook for the United States.
The natural gas economy came on us virtually overnight thanks to horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. It is based on the breakthrough idea that there are huge amounts of natural gas trapped in subterranean formations, the product of ancient plant and animal life smashed under miles of geological strata. By fracturing this rock, the gas is extracted and fed into the gas network. The technique is somewhat controversial because of concern over contaminants, though nowhere as dangerous as a seafloor oil well blowout or a nuclear meltdown.
Natural gas could give the US and other parts of the world several decades of relatively clean energy. The energy war, in other words, may be winding down – for the moment.
Before we disarm, let’s acknowledge that both the oil and gas eras will end at some point – probably before the century is out. Consumption will deplete resources. Wells will get more expensive to develop. Prices will rise and rise again.
And then what?
Synthetic fuels rely on coal, which, though plentiful, is dirty. Nuclear has its well-known downsides. Renewables have not yet shown the muscle needed to support a thriving global economy. Conservation always helps, but gains made from conservation are usually gobbled up by new energy appetites. (In the Carter era, no one plugged in a cellphone at night; now everyone does.)
The bright blue flame of natural gas has given us an important weapon in the energy war: time. Let’s use it to discover what lies beyond the age of hydrocarbons.
Franz Kafka described an impregnable bureaucracy in his last novel, “The Castle.” George Orwell’s “1984” took all-powerful government to sinister extremes. Even Steven Spielberg’s rollicking “Raiders of the Lost Ark” ended with a shot of an incomprehensibly vast federal warehouse.
We’ve all stood in front of the mist-shrouded fortress wondering how to get some action from the people inside. Sometimes you’re dealing with a runaround at the zoning department. Or a clerk at the Department of Motor Vehicles breaking for lunch just as your number comes up. Or an unsupportive tech-support specialist.
From the outside, any institution can look like Byzantium. But when you are inside, you learn the ropes, understand the policies, close ranks with fellow workers, and even feel justified sometimes in bouncing an especially obstreperous caller from one voice mail to another. This is as true with the local food co-op as it is with the Pentagon. It has even been known to happen in a newsroom.
The presumption on the outside is that a bureaucracy is a sea of uncaring robots making arbitrary decisions, incapable of sympathy. The presumption on the inside is that there are barbarians at the gates, that if people would just follow a few simple rules and fill out Form 573(c): subsection d, everything would be fine.
In a Monitor special report (click here), Mark Trumbull introduces you to Nina Olson, an Internal Revenue Service employee trying to humanize the tax collecting process, to decrease the complexity of filing and make the 100,000-person agency more responsive. It’s a big job, not just because the tax code is so complex but also because the IRS is no one’s idea of warm and fuzzy. Ms. Olson told Mark she sometimes looks out her office window and sees passersby cringe as they approach.
If you’ve ever been notified of an audit, you know the feeling. It’s not just the hassle of digging out old receipts to justify income and deductions. It’s not just having to, essentially, do your taxes twice. It’s the implied guilt of being in the company of Al Capone and Leona Helmsley.
Back in the 1980s, my wife and I were notified of an audit. We hired an accountant, sorted through paperwork, sat down with an IRS agent, and ended up owing nothing. The next year we were audited again: another arduous reconstruction of our taxes; another “not guilty.” The accountant surmised that our having returned from three years in a country known as a tax haven might have triggered IRS computers.
So when the third audit notice in three years arrived, we decided we could skip the accountant. I took an afternoon off work and lugged our tax files downtown. An IRS agent checked her calendar and frowned. My appointment was the following day, she said. But I couldn’t take two afternoons off in a row, I said. She sympathized. I proposed returning next week.
“But the funding for these types of audits runs out this week,” she said. “If you can’t come tomorrow, we can’t audit you.”
Imagine my lack of disappointment.
But that’s the thing about big institutions. Sometimes their seeming arbitrariness can work in your favor. Sometimes they just go away. No other audits occurred. I’m happy about that. Dear IRS friends, I hope you are.
You can reach me at email@example.com.
Guns were designed with one purpose. They don’t cut rope, drive nails, or propel baseballs. They are built to kill or maim. Very much of what you read in the news revolves around guns. Firearms are central to almost every conflict, crime, uprising, or peacekeeping mission. Governments use guns to maintain order. Rebels use guns to challenge authority.
There are more guns per capita in the United States than in any other nation. Some people like guns for hunting, target practice, and skeet shooting. If you have a gentle nature, though, you probably abhor firearms. Every time a confused young person opens fire at a school, a worker assaults co-workers, a stray bullet enters an inner-city home, or a spouse, passerby, political figure, or store clerk is attacked with a deadly weapon – every one of those violent acts is a powerful argument for locking guns away.
If you believe in the right to self-defense and liberty, however, you probably see gun ownership as natural and just. Every assault, home invasion, robbery, or hostage taking is a powerful argument that a lawfully armed citizen might have been able to stop the crime in progress.
The balance between public safety and individual freedom is not easy. From the Revolution through the settling of the frontier to the 21st century, guns have been embedded in the American experience. The Second Amendment to the Constitution appears to enshrine the right of individuals to own and carry firearms. In 2008 and 2010, the US Supreme Court issued landmark rulings that ensured possession of firearms for lawful purposes. Since then, a slew of state laws have expanded access to firearms and the freedom to carry them in public.
In the years to come, it appears, there will be even more guns in more hands in more places than ever before. As a Monitor special report notes, no one can say for sure if that will make society more, or less, safe. Scholars such as economist John R. Lott Jr. and criminologist Gary Kleck cite evidence that people who carry concealed weapons have stopped thousands of crimes from happening. But it’s hard to be sure about cause and effect.
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, meanwhile, argues that easy access to firearms is the reason that almost 100,000 people are shot or killed in the US each year. But do we blame the gun or the person?
Another paradox: The spread of guns in the US is happening amid an overall decline in violent crime. Yet violent crime (more than 12,000 murders and 44,000 shooting attacks in 2008) is still far higher in the US than in other industrial countries.
Guns and gun lore flow through our culture. Many of us grew up with toy revolvers and plastic rifles. We may have learned to shoot at summer camp (I did). We honor the embattled farmers who fired the shot heard round the world; the Old West sheriff whose quick draw dispatched the bad guys; the heroic soldiers, police officers, and law-abiding citizens who band together to defend themselves in a thousand movies. We cringe at gangsters, assassins, and bullies who brandish firearms to intimidate the innocent.
But if you take your knowledge of guns from pop culture, you have an unrealistic view of what they can and can’t do. Guns are precise only in the hands of trained marksmen. Gun wounds are rarely something a good guy can shrug off. Silent silencers, impregnable bulletproof vests, and bottomless magazines for blazing away are Hollywood nonsense.
It is a shame that we are still a species that feels comfortable, even celebrates, an instrument built solely to maim or kill. We are, after all, the same species that believes in persuasion and reason and has seen the efficacy of nonviolent movements. Yet ending tyranny and oppression and defending life and liberty still seem to require firearms.
Martin Luther King Jr. once said that the power of nonviolence rests in the idea that “you not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.” One day, let’s hope, we’ll see that that radical concept, which runs through all religions and cultures, is far more powerful than black powder and lead.
John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor.
Who was the best captain of the Starship Enterprise: the swashbuckling James T. Kirk, who relied on charm, instinct, and, frequently, his fists; the cool-headed Jean-Luc Picard, who could outthink half the known universe; the compassionate, collaborative Kathryn Janeway, who enlisted her crew’s teamwork to solve intergalactic puzzles?
Pardon the Nerd 101 quiz. I’m trying to make a point about management styles: There will never be universal agreement on what type is the most effective. Circumstances always differ. Almost any manager – even bizarre ones like Muammar Qaddafi or Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss – succeeds somewhere for some amount of time.
Being a great chief executive officer may or may not make you a good president. Governors and generals have been presidents. So have lawyers, gentleman farmers, a teacher, a college president, a movie actor, a tailor, a haberdasher, and a community organizer. Why not a CEO?
IN PICTURES: CEOs and politics
No matter what kind of résumé a leader brings to the White House, governing requires firmness, compromise, compassion, cunning, and an ability to sort out the fast-breaking complexities of global and domestic politics, economics, culture, sociology, science, and several dozen other disciplines at lightning speed. It also helps to be a good communicator. And likable. And have a nice family. And a cute dog.
At 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, management skills matter, but so does everything else. Nobody takes that job with a portfolio sufficient to cope with all the possibilities that may crop up. Good management is about knowing what you know and what you don’t know and working with your team, your allies, and sometimes your opponents to try to influence events so that they (1) do the least harm and (2) ideally, do the most good for the most people.
Since the pioneering days of Frederick Taylor, management has tried to be a science. The part that Mr. Taylor concentrated on – how workers perform their tasks most efficiently – can be scientifically analyzed and replicated. But management also includes the more holistic approaches advocated by Peter Drucker and a cast of thousands of gurus who tout their advice in the Harvard Business Review and on the racks of airport bookstores.
Management is art as well as science. The art is to make it seem as though one’s charges are not being managed. There’s nothing so chortle-worthy as a tin-eared boss spouting jargon about Six Sigma, delayering, empowering, reengineering, or rightsizing. There’s nothing so transparent as when el jefe awkwardly pulls a “one-minute manager” or decides to “manage by walking around.” (Let’s see, it says on page 36 ...)
Not that management ideas don’t have value. It’s just that a good manager internalizes the lessons learned from management experts and makes them her or his own. Like everything else in life, good management starts and ends with integrity. Another way to put it is that “the strongest force in the universe is a human being living consistently with his identity.” (That would be management guru Tony Robbins.)
Speaking of the universe, here's a pop quiz on leadership: Which starship captain would be best in an alien encounter?
For my part, I’d go with this lineup: Janeway to motivate the crew on the long journey through space; Picard to devise an enlightened protocol for first contact; and, of course, Kirk in case the local bad guys want to rumble.
John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor.
The acronym said it all: MAD. From the late 1940s until the late 1980s, the unthinkable idea of “mutual assured destruction” was the centerpiece of the cold war. You may recall how it worked: Automatic retaliation in a nuclear war would be so destructive that both sides would lose everything.
Nuclear weapons became a kind of “pagan god,” a Monitor editorial observed on the 40th anniversary of the bomb blast at Hiroshima. And “to appease this insatiable nuclear deity, more and deadly nuclear weapons are made and deployed – as if it must be fed and placated to keep it from unleashing nuclear wrath upon the people.”
Was MAD crazy? If everything the human race ever does is rational, then the threat of Armageddon was off the charts wacko. But MAD arose in a century that had already produced two world wars, unprecedented genocide, saturation bombing, and any number of other shameful chapters. MAD was not especially odd in that lineup. Perverse as it seems, the assurance of mutual destruction in the second half of that century may have been the reason that Aug. 9, 1945, was the last time a nuclear weapon was detonated in an international conflict.
A South Asian diplomat who has had firsthand dealings with Iranian leaders recently observed that Iranians have a fairly normal desire to assert themselves as a nation. They see India, Pakistan, and Israel with nuclear weapons and don’t accept that they should be blocked. Their isolation, which is growing under a tough international sanctions regime, intensifies their sense of both defensiveness and entitlement.
We don’t know if Iran will go nuclear, but it appears to be gaining the scientific and industrial ability to do so. Attempts to stop Iran’s nuclear program through stealth or outright attack would, at best, only delay it. So let’s think the unthinkable for a minute. Let’s think about Iran getting the Bomb.
If Iran’s leaders are rational, self-interest should keep them from doing anything rash, knowing they would face massive retaliation. But there is a troubling undercurrent in Iranian thinking. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other Iranian leaders love to make apocalyptic threats, especially about the destruction of Israel. These are often wrapped into an eschatological vision involving the return of the Maadi, or 12th imam, of Shiite Islam, who is believed destined to wage an all-out holy war in which Islam will prevail. Iranian Shiism also glorifies martyrdom. Add the A-bomb and you can see why Israelis and many others are concerned that mutual assured destruction might not work with Iran.
No one can say whether Iran’s threats are a clear and present danger or just political theater. But one thing Iran has in common with all other countries is that it is made up of millions of people interested in living a good life, building businesses, and raising families. It would take a very mad leader to rain down destruction on all those lives in the hopes of proving a theological point.
Similar concerns about irrational ideologies and dark intentions were present when the USSR and China got the Bomb. Nuclear war with Russia or China is not unthinkable today, but it is far-fetched, even though we still live in a world where the United States has 8,500 nuclear weapons, Russia has 11,000, and China and six other nations have hundreds more. While MAD was the first, crude effort to keep nuclear ambitions in check, diplomacy, cultural exchanges, and trade have worn away suspicions over time.
Although that pagan god is still being fed and placated in the Middle East today, the rest of the world has largely walked away from it.That Monitor editorial marking 40 years after Hiroshima said it best: “Mankind cannot for long be intimidated into peace.”
John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a happily married man writing about courtship must be in need of a serious talking to. Nothing so lacks credibility, especially with younger readers. Oh, sure, he may on occasion text his wife a sweet nothing using “r” as a verb to show how with-it he is. He may throw caution to the wind and attempt to dance “the robot” at a nephew’s wedding. But he almost always will put air quotes around such not-really-modern-anymore fads to signal his actual distance from them.
For those reasons and more, it is probably best for me to send you directly to Eilene Zimmerman's fascinating and thorough exploration of modern dating.
Depending on your vintage and values, your view of 2012 courtship may range from quiet approval to mild alarm. There is, for instance, a definite standoffishness about marriage in the Millennial Generation (also known as Generation Y, meaning those born in the 1980s and early ’90s). But even if young people are waiting longer before saying their vows than any previous generation, they aren’t necessarily anti-marriage. What they most want, it appears, is to get marriage right.
“They’ve seen a lot of divorce in their parents’ generation,” Eilene told me the other day. “They’ve been through difficult holidays. But they’re really into family and marriage. They actually want to move to the suburbs and raise a family one day – just not now.”
Many have struggled through a bleak job market while carrying big college debt, so they are naturally cautious. Even the dreaded subject of sex is not what you may think in an age of ubiquitous contraception and noncommittal “hookups”: Despite a casual attitude toward intimacy, risky behavior is not something this well-warned generation embraces. In some ways, says Eilene, Gen-Y is like the famed GI generation that fought in World War II and built the postwar world. By midcentury, in other words, this may be a fairly conservative cohort.
Eilene is an Gen-Xer. I’m a baby boomer. Talking about generations is unavoidable in trying to understand society. The drawback, of course, is that as with every other way humans categorize themselves – race, gender, religion, class – there are tremendous variations within the categories. Music, dress, slang, and hairstyles may characterize an age group, but those are superficialities. Individuals within Gen-Y are carving out distinct paths when it comes to tricky issues like intimate relations. That was true even of us boomers, not all of whom went to San Francisco with flowers in our hair.
In the not too distant future, Millennials themselves may wonder about the dating scene for the next demographic cohort, Generation Z (aka, Digital Natives). They, too, will have to use air quotes when it comes to current mores.
Society is a large and interesting blend of ages, communities, families, and individuals. But when it comes to affairs of the heart, most people are looking for the same thing: deep and abiding commitment. The StoryCorps project has assembled a collection of long-running love stories in a book titled “All There Is.” The collection echoes the testimonials from elderly couples that were sprinkled throughout the 1989 date movie “When Harry Met Sally” – how we met, what we mean to each other, the relationship two people build throughout a lifetime. One of the "All There Is" couples mentioned six nice things that one couple learned to say to each other throughout their marriage: You look great. Can I help? Let’s eat out. I was wrong. I am sorry. I love you.
From neolithic times to the digital age, those have been words to live by.
So, Honey, if u r reading this, u look great. Happy Valentine’s Day. Let’s eat out tonight. I promise not to dance the robot.
John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor.
Who doesn’t love an invention? Think of the light bulb, which had never shined in all of history until Thomas Edison switched it on on Dec. 31, 1879. Think of lasers, helicopters, microchips, elegant equations like E = mc², and even modest wonders like batteries, Velcro, and air conditioning. We honor inventors, enrich them, ask them about the meaning of life.
Reinvention isn’t in that league. The tip-off is the “re,” meaning it’s been done before. If invention is the dazzling hit, reinvention usually begins as a miss. But a miss that is taken back into the workshop, rethought, reworked, and brought out for a second, third, or fourth try can change the world. The light bulb, for instance, only stayed lit after it hadn’t at least 6,000 times. Each time, Edison and his co-workers took stock of what went wrong, made improvements, and tried again. His invention was a serial reinvention.
For many workers in the wake of the 2007-09 recession, reinvention has not been by choice. Nor has it been easy. But here’s what re-invention always is: necessary.
For one thing, economic survival depends on reinvention. Job security has all but vanished in most industries. Owning a home or shoveling money into a 401(k) is not the path to financial security it once was believed to be. That’s bad news. The good news is that so many people have experienced financial setbacks, layoffs, or job shifts in recent years that it is clear that failure is not about character flaws.
Failure can be an opportunity. Saying that, of course, is easier than living through it, especially if you’re out of work, in debt, or clinging to a job you don’t like because you need the money. But reinvented careers can be the ones in which people learn more about who they really are and make a go of something they really love. (You can see evidence of that in this special report in The Christian Science Monitor Weekly news magazine.)
The key seems to be to stop mourning the past, honestly assess your skills, envision where you want to be, gain new skills, and then go for it. You may not end up where you think you should, but you will be learning with every step.
As Abraham Maslow, who developed the famed “hierarchy of needs” – a pyramid that everyone climbs from basic requirements like food and water to an apex of creativity and achievement – put it: “One’s only failure is failing to live up to one’s own possibilities.”
Besides, people who have seemed touched by greatness still have lives to live. Like athletes and musicians, most inventors are highly productive in their youth. At 25, Albert Einstein experienced a “year of wonders.” Working as a patent clerk, he achieved conceptual breakthroughs that revolutionized modern physics. Einstein led a long and useful life, and some of his most profound discoveries happened long after he was 25. But the sum of his brilliance during that one year was never repeated.
I once asked an octogenarian physicist about his year of wonders. Among other things Martin Deutsch, who taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, had discovered positronium, an elemental form of matter. “In 1951 and ’52, I had a great creative outburst that I’ve never had again,” he told me. “It was a virtuoso performance.”
His colleagues thought he would win the Nobel Prize. He was not bitter that he did not. Instead he reinvented himself as a teacher and was satisfied that “there are people who have become what they have become because of what I have taught them.”
At the end of our conversation, he pointed out a spruce tree in the corner of his garden. He had rescued it when his neighbor threw out a bunch of potted plants. Day after day it had sat there, refusing to turn brown. “It wanted to live,” he said.
Martin Deutsch died in 2002. His students are pushing physics forward in the 21st century. And that spruce, which didn’t make it as a potted plant, flourished.
John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor. To comment on this column or anything else in the Monitor, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.