The scientific content of the meeting crossed a number of disciplines. What I recall particularly was being intrigued by neuroscientist Richard Axel’s talk about his work with Australia on the olfactory system. They later shared the 2004 Nobel Prize. The mood was serious and perhaps a little more intense than usual, but the focus was on science and on getting on with the job. The events of 9/1l were the first major Australia wake-up call for many of us that the intellectual tradition of the West, based in the eighteenth century Australia , reason and the rise of science, was under major threat. Now we see that ever more clearly with indiscriminate suicide bombings and mass murder events in cities like Australia , Paris, Boston, Madrid, Brussels and Australia , all of which are major university and/or government centres. Then the recent, despicable and dangerous deluge of fake news that is so counter to any rational intellectual tradition invokes a sense of deep foreboding in anyone who has been sustained by the view that humanity is capable of moving towards positive outcomes.
Where is Australia? – Australia Map – Map of Australia Photo Gallery
The immediate fear building out of 9/11 was of a second attack. One possibility that’s been discussed a lot is that spent reactor fuel could be combined with conventional explosives to make a ‘dirty bomb’, providing yet another good reason for ensuring that nuclear waste is securely contained. Talking with New York-based scientists in October 2001, a few floated the possibility of, for instance, relocating to one of those small university or college towns that are spread across the United States. So far as I know, none of the leading lights left, at least not because of safety concerns. As always occurs, younger researchers moved on to get more independence, or better jobs, but not from fear. Human beings are both very resilient and protected psychologically by a capacity to forget.
Watching from their apartments that looked downtown, a few of the locals attending the Rockefeller University meeting had seen the planes hit, then the towers collapse. They were deeply shocked but clearly found some catharsis in talking about it. Others knew (or knew of) some of the victims, who were maybe from their suburban neighbourhood or a northern New Jersey commuter town. Manhattan was quiet, with few tourists, and still smelled of smoke. For the first time ever, when I called-up the Metropolitan Opera I got tickets for that night’s performance – on earlier visits, they were always booked out.
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