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Window Seat: Disaster and Innovation

18/04/2021 at 8:13 AM

Human history has shown disasters often give rise to inventions.  In April 1815, a volcano erupted in Mount Tambora in what is now Indonesia. It was one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history. A shattering blast blew the mountain apart on the evening of April 10. The blast, pyroclastic flows, and tsunamis that followed killed at least 10,000 islanders and destroyed the homes of 35,000 more.

What followed the eruption was even more destructive and disastrous. A vast plume of dust and ash spread around the world, blocking out the sun and reducing global temperatures. In China the cold weather killed trees, crops and water buffalo. In North America a “dry fog” reddened the sun and there was summer snowfall in New York. Harvests failed in Europe. Food prices soared and tens of thousands of people died from famine and disease. Large scale riots and looting broke out. Horses, the primary mode of transportation starved or were slaughtered, as the high price of oats forced people to choose whether to feed their animals or themselves.

This last predicament prompted Karl von Drais, a German inventor, to devise a personal-transport machine to replace the horse: a two-wheeled wooden contraption which he called the Laufmaschine (literally, “running machine”) in 1816. Sitting on a saddle, Drais propelled it by planting his feet on the ground and pushing every few metres, while steering it using a tiller. The tricky part was keeping it balanced while gliding along, which took some practice.

Drais’s invention didn’t replace the horse: the weather returned to normal, leading to a bumper harvest in 1817. Even so, enthusiasts continued to improve on his design. The crucial addition of pedals occurred in France in the 1860s. Other refinements included better brakes, a steel frame, lightweight metal wheels and a chain to drive them. By the late 1880s these elements had been combined into a recognisably modern design: the bicycle.

An invention prompted by the challenges of a global crisis thus ended up in a device that became part of everyday life across the world. Over one billion people ride bicycles.

What innovations might the coronavirus outbreak spawn? The possibilities are endless.

Breathing here is Injurious to your health

Jyoti Pande Lavakare has recently published a book on poisonous air that we are forced to breath in many cities of the country including the capital city  Delhi. Hardly any one seems to care about the slow poisoning of an entire population except for those who are suffering the most or are vocal enough to raise  their voice including the author of this book.

There are over 70,000 scientific papers  linking  air  pollution with  harm to human health. Lavakare in her book mentions  a 2018 Lancet study which says “India’s dirty air killed an  astonishing 1.24 million people in 2017.  Contrast that with Corona death toll   one and half lakh in 2020. Death by air pollution is not attracting public attention and Government intervention as  it is a slow killer. Many  are not concerned  with the  fact that pollution  shaves  of  anything between  4.3 (average) and 10 years (daily ) of life of every Indian.

Particulate matter and toxic gases that poison our air come from a wide range of sources,  right from the humble cow dung cake fuel of rural India to the emissions of factories, power plants, vehicles, agricultural and urban waste incineration, firecrackers and much else in between. Tackling all this requires innovative solutions and coordinated policy effort piloted by a political will to put the health of people before all other considerations. It needs citizens activism to prioritize the issue.

‘Lazy citizens make lazy governments’, writes Lavakare in the final pages.

Word of the Year

The word of the year refers to any of various assessments as to the most important word(s) or expression(s) in the public sphere during a specific year. This tradition started in 1971 in Germany in 1971. The American Dialect Society started the English-language version in 1977 followed by others and in other languages.

Oxford Languages began to choose Hindi word of the year in 2017. In 2020 it chose ‘Atmanirbharata’ as the word of the year. “In an unprecedented year, ‘aatmanirbharta’ found resonance with a wide cross-section of people as it is seen to be an answer to the revival of a COVID-impacted economy,” said Oxford University Press India managing director Sivaramarkrishnan Venkateswaran.

The year 2020 saw Oxford Dictionaries expanding  its word of the year to encompass several “Words of an Unprecedented Year”.Its words are chosen to reflect 2020’s “ethos, mood, or preoccupations”. They include bushfires, Covid-19, WFH, lockdown, circuit-breaker, support bubbles, keyworkers, furlough, Black Lives Matter and moonshot.

In the recently held Seventh Language Conference held at Puri, Odisha I urged the linguists attending the event to begin this tradition of choosing word of the year in different Indian languages. It will throw up many new words to encapsulate the present day concepts, moods and things.

Tailpiece: Why wear a mask?

Yama to Chitragupta:  “You went to the earth, what happened?”

Maharaj: “People are wearing masks. I couldn’t recognize many of them.  So, I brought only those who weren’t wearing any mask.”

(Courtesy: Social Media)

About the Author:

Journalist turned media academician Mrinal Chatterjee lives in Dhenkanal, Odisha. Odia translation of an anthology of essays titled Mahatma Gandhi: Journalist and Editor.


This is the personal opinion of the author. The views expressed in this write up have nothing to do with the www.prameyanews.com

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