Siddhartha Mukherjee on Steve Jobs: His death was a failure of imagination

Editor's Note: Firstpost editors Sandip Roy and Lakshmi Chaudhry report on the ultimate celebrity conference. A five star line up of authors, intellectuals, biz tycoons, actors, politicians and more have gathered at the Grand Hyatt in Goa as part of Thinkfest. Co-organized by Tehelka and Newsweek, this haute version of TED brings together an eclectic and intriguing range of A-list names, from Nobel peace prize winning Leymah Gbowee to Omar Abdullah to author Siddhartha Mukherjee to Arvind Kejriwal. Here are their reports on some of the most interesting conversations.

Don't get mad, get even: The anti-terror project

Hasan Elahi, a Bangladeshi-born American artist was detained at a Detroit airport in 2002 by FBI agents. The FBI admitted that they made a mistake and released him. The 38-year-old Elahi, an associate professor at the University of Maryland turned surveillance on its head with his website Tracking Transience which hosts a GPS device that will tell you where Elahi is right now. Everytime he uses his debit card the transaction is visible on his website. Before each trip he calls FBI agents and lets them know.

Siddhartha Mukherjee on Steve Jobs: His death was a failure of imagination

The Thinkfest has an eclectic range of speakers — Nobel peace prize winning Leymah Gbowee, oncologist and author Siddharth Muherjee, Jairam Ramesh and Shashi Tharoor.

Shehrbano Taseer: A journalist, at present reporting for Newsweek in Pakistan, Shehrbano Taseer, 22, is the youngest child of the assassinated governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer. In January 2011, Salman Taseer was assassinated in Islamabad for opposing Pakistan’s blasphemy law. He was shot 27 times by his own security guard.

It's an odd and potentially intriguing combination. A man who resists an overbearing state intent on fighting terrorism by offering absolute compliance. A young woman who fights extremists by offering absolute resistance. But, the encounter mostly fizzles primarily because Taseer sounds every bit her age — an earnest 22-year old with good intentions, but very little insight or analysis.

Elahi is – in stark contrast – electric when describing his encounter with the FBI agent at the INS detention centre. He was in the end saved by technology — by the daily entries on his Palm PDA that allowed him to account for his movements, from hour to hour, for any date that the FBI picked. And that is his counter-intuitive message. Let's not complain about talking about the need to embrace, not fear the surveillance society. "Instead of fearing this apparatus, let's embrace it. My response to the FBI was: I've got a job to do, you've got a job to do. I'm all about cooperation."

But his bigger point is that the very same technology that allows the state to track our every move can also be our friend. Whether it is fighting extremism or overthrowing an oppressive government a la Tahrir Square, he says, "It's not about big brother but little brother, in fact, a million little brothers. We all can do this together."

The history of cancer: How tragedy can inspire

Siddhartha Mukherjee, born and raised in Delhi, is an oncologist and professor at Columbia University who began thinking of writing a book after one of his patients, who had stomach cancer, told him she was willing to go on fighting but needed to know what she was fighting. The book, The Emperor of All Maladies won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction.

Mukherjee was in conversation with award winning journalist Barkha Dutt.

Siddhartha Mukherjee, winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction, The Emperor of All Maladies. Sandip Roy/Firstpost

No conversation about cancer these days can happen without talking about its latest and most celebrated victim, Steve Jobs. "Steve Jobs' death is a brutal reminder about the extent to which we've failed people like Jobs," said Mukherjee. "He gave us life altering technologies. Did we give him life altering technologies back? His death was a failure of imagination."

Mukherjee has been described by the New York Times as someone who doesn't look like a scientist, perhaps more like a star in a Bollywood musical. Not quite, but he's an engaging talker, who can go from the science to the numbers (the US spends more in one month in Iraq than in its annual budge for the National Cancer Institute and FDA combined) to a philosophical musing about the importance of grieving. "If we forget to grieve we deny our mortality."

He talks about the shame of cancer. In the 50s the New York Times couldn't list a group for breast cancer survivors because it couldn't print the words "breast" and "cancer" — but offered instead to list it as women with diseases of the chest wall. Now we still cannot talk about vaccinating young people against cervical cancer – a no-brainer to him. It would have been fascinating to hear him talk about whether the challenges of fighting cancer are different in a country like India with its own resource challenges. But there was no time for that.

Instead he left us with this warning. With all the distractions out there, we could be facing the lost decade of science. Too many scientists on Facebook?


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Updated Date: Nov 08, 2011 09:02:25 IST

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