Edward Manukyan at TEDx Yerevan
Transcript of the speech
Saturday, September 14, 2013.
[Due to unexpected technical issues, the quality of the audio recording was poor enough that a decision was made to forego publishing the video, out of courtesy to the composer and the musicians.]
About 10 years ago, around this time, I was in a hotel lobby in Lakewood, New Jersey, having a debate with a rabbi who was challenging my secular world-view and my conviction that the scientific method was the only tool available for acquiring knowledge about the world and the universe. The rabbi was an admirably kind and well-mannered man, but he said that I was being delusional and had a blind faith in science and rationality. “If I give you all the money in the world, can you make a heart?” he asked. “Until you can accomplish something like that, I’m not losing my religion over your science.”
I explained to the rabbi that with the available science and technology of the day, making a heart was not feasible, but that I was confident that in the future it would indeed be possible. “You come to me when that’s possible and I’ll admit you were right and I was wrong. I’m willing to bet on anything you want,” he said to me, jokingly adding that as a rabbi he wasn't even allowed to make bets. But we shook hands, all the same, and I took his challenge unhesitatingly.
Well, it didn’t take long - just about 10 years. I’m still a young man and I bet the rabbi is still around, for just a few months ago, at the Texas Heart Institute, a group of scientists made the first lab-grown beating human heart. They’ve done it elsewhere in the world since, and they’ll soon start testing it on patients, once they get the necessary approval. Granted that they aren’t making it completely from scratch; they’re using stem cells and advanced genetic technology, which is essentially a way to program nature in order to produce body parts on demand. But, even earlier, a couple of years ago, they figured out a way to create the world’s first total artificial heart without having to use the stem-cell technology - basically a plastic robot heart, and for the first time a patient with such a heart was allowed to leave hospital and has been waiting for a transplant for close to two years now. But you really can’t say these things in passing. You’ve got to take a moment to think about how incredible this is. There are human beings in this world, today, who can make human hearts... And they’re getting better and better at it.
So, to be clear, the rabbi was willing to give up his religious convictions, simply by having to face the fact that modern humans can make something as complex as a heart. But I doubt that many of us here today even know about recent breakthroughs of this sort. We’re taking it all for granted, and doing that effectively renders us too blind to see the exponential growth of technology that’s making us, humans, almost god-like.
I am a composer - a musician and not a scientist. I gave up my early dreams to become a scientist when my love for music became too overwhelmingly powerful. But I still have a poetic sensibility that’s easily aroused by scientific discoveries which show the gigantic power of the human intellect, our ability to not only inquire about our surroundings but also to reach out into the far universe and gather more knowledge. And with the modest influence of my music, I want to help inspire people to appreciate all the goods that rational thinking, the parent of the scientific method, has delivered to humankind. That’s why a lot of my music has been dedicated to scientists and people of reason. We can hear one of them now, a little piece I wrote five years ago, called “Double Helix,” for clarinet and violin, influenced by the Nobel-Prize winning biologist James Watson’s discovery of the DNA structure, which many think was the most important discovery of the 20th century. And that’s what’s behind today’s science-fiction-like bioengineering which brings us this sort of fantastic work like heart-creation. So, let’s hear it now. We have two very talented musicians, Annie and David, who are here to play it for us. [LIVE PERFORMANCE]
Thank you very much for that performance, Annie, David... Well, I hope you enjoyed it. I was inspired to compose this as I looked at the elegant design of the double helix in an impressive animation, and the piece is basically a musical representation of that design. But let's consider for a moment the world we would be living in if all the poets, all the musicians, all the artists, everyone conspired to continue the mindless glorification of the dogmatic thinking which accepts truth from revelation rather than honest inquiry. That thinking wouldn't bring us lab-grown hearts, rockets that fly, or robots that play the violin. We've done this long enough to know that we can only get there when we sit down with an open-mind, eager to find out what’s actually there, and not what our holy texts or our charismatic preachers tell us. I say it’s time for all the artists in the world to come together around the idea that acquiring knowledge and giving it to the world is one of the most beautiful and noble things that humans can do, and it’s worth painting, writing, and singing about. The inspiration we artists get out of that should be great enough to power countless new works of art, which in turn can inspire a whole new generation of young scientists who will continue to give us the opportunity to enjoy the gift of life longer and longer, with every new discovery.
Now, I want to see that rabbi I met years ago. Forgot his name, but he’s out there somewhere, I’m sure. I want to tell him the news about how humans can make hearts today. And I want to say to him: “Rabbi, I win, you lose!”
(TEDx Yerevan, at the Tumo Center for Creative Technologies. September, 2013.)