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Les Étoiles Brillent pour Tous

In my lighter moods, I sometimes wonder how I ought to prepare for the time when my mental faculties fail me, whether through cerebral accident or mere senescence. Of particular interest is the case where I might be rendered inexpressive -- where I might be able to see and hear all that goes on around me, but not be able to make my thoughts or wishes known. This would be a particular hell, of course, since I rather self-evidently need to blab myself out into the world. Still, if it happened I don't think I would particularly want to die. I do like to learn about new stuff. If I could still do that, even if confined to a silenced hell, that might be enough. I have always wanted to know what's new on the Rialto.

And so I've considered having a sort of Living Input Will drawn up whereby I will give specific instructions on what sort of thing I want pumped into my mute head should I ever drain away into one form or another of a persistent vegetative state. I have a new music show that I listen to, so I'd want that pumped in. I have certain composers I like, notably Sibelius, Grieg, R. Strauss, along with all the Standard Biggies. They would all certainly have to be on my hosp-iPod. And I don't know... will the hospice have the Sundance and Sci-Fi Channel's? Discovery? The Learning Channel? PBS ("Nova" and "Frontline", please)? If so, do prop me up in front of the T.V. occasionally. Try to aim my dead eyes in the general direction of the screen. And I would like someone engaged to read for me the Science Times every Tuesday. If I think of anything else, I'll let you know, but don't be afraid to show some initiative in this. Give me new and interesting stuff. I'm sure it will be fine.

So given all of that, it is with particular interest that I read about Les Étoiles Brillent pour Tous ("The stars shine for everyone"), an organization established last May by Didier Barret, an astrophysicist at the Laboratory of Space Astrophysics (CESR) in Toulouse, France.

Let me pause here for a moment to apologize for linking to an article that is at a paid-subscribers only site. On the one hand, I know this is rude of me and frustrating for you. On the other hand (since I see no other article about this on the web) you wouldn't know about any of this if I did not tell you about it here, would you? Perhaps you should consider subscribing to Nature? It's not that expensive and it has plenty of stuff any intelligent and well-read non-scientist can follow. And by the way, I want my subscription to Nature renewed annually when I'm consigned to the hospice. This is non-negotiable. I shall fill my drool-cup relentlessly until my demands are met.

Anyway, I read about Les Étoiles Brillent pour Tous in an article -- just up at the Nature site -- called  "Astronomy and the public: Prison talk" by Alison Abbott, Nature's senior European correspondent.

Abbott describes a series of lectures on Einstein's theories of matter, space and time, and other astronomical topics which Barret and three of his colleagues gave to 50 or so inmates of Muret -- "France's 'four-star prison', where inmates have their own rooms, and the warders encourage educational events." The lecture series was regarded as such a success that the authorities are asking Barret and his group to organize another round of talks. This is more than a little remarkable for as Abbott says, "Muret is a prison for serious sexual crimes and murder. It is not an easy place for intellectual curiosity to take root."

Discussions after the lectures, [Barret and his colleagues] said, were much like those after any 'normal' public lecture, although they tended to drift towards philosophical aspects of cosmology, such as the unimaginable scale of the Universe. Perhaps cosmology helps the prisoners gain a fresh perspective on their incarceration, muses von Ballmoos. "On such an immense scale the prisoners have essentially the same level of freedom as a non-prisoner," he says.

And whatever the topic of the lecture, the prisoners were always keen to discuss extreme events, such as the Big Bang and black holes - violent cosmological phenomena in which matter gets crushed to infinite density under the pull of infinite gravity, and the laws of physics break down.

There were occasionally aggressive interjections that would not be expected in other public forums - for example, when one prisoner was irritated by a question from another and stormed out, yelling offensively; or when a technical problem with the microphone precipitated ill-tempered (and nerve-racking) heckling.

But the regular attendees tended to be well-behaved and deeply engaged. Talking after Barret's lecture, one prisoner, a former trade-union employee who had already served seven years, explained how physics became an immediate passion when he heard about CERN, the European particle-physics laboratory in Geneva, through his job. The prison lectures are magnificent, he says, and help him continue his self-education. A bit of a Renaissance man, he spends some of his prison time writing poetry, and the cosmos provides him with a rich source of metaphors.

I can imagine a certain rough equivalence between a life-sentence in prison and being condemned to live in a persistent vegetative state. But with regard to Les Étoiles Brillent pour Tous, I actually don't have to do any imagining along those lines because they have done it for me. They don't, you see, just confine their outreach to prisons.

Barret and his colleagues have given up their time to teach lower-level astronomy to terminally ill children who will never again see the outside of a hospital. "We feel an academic duty to bring our subject to every human being, whatever their disadvantages," says Barret. The stars, after all, shine for everyone.

Which is what caught my interest with regard to my musings on my own Living Input Will, of course. In addition to the items listed above, I will also want Barret and his colleagues flown over to my hospice on an occasional basis. It doesn't have to be every week. I'm not unreasonable. But neither am I kidding about the drool-cup.


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