Dear visitor (if there is any) please note the following: The blog "Broken Radius" is hosted at Google Blogger's server. I can therefore not guarantee that your visit to the blog or any comment you write wont be recorded by the NSA. If you have any worries about this, you can visit instead my alternative blog Letters-to-a-Persian-Cat. This one is hosted at a European server which hopefully acknowledges visitors privacy.


The HEIDELBERG Ion Therapy Center and the continuation of the Epic of Gilgamesh

Arriving at Heidelberg train station on a February afternoon not necessarily makes you believe that this place could somehow be linked to the eternal problem of mankind of how to conquer death, a question that is at least 5000 years old has echoes that since these ancient times have never died out. Still, the search for an answer and attempts to overcome the finiteness of life influences what we do and how we exploit our talents today and in the future.
I am on my way from Munich to the Heidelberg Ion Therapy center, through the snow covered abandoned fields of southern Germany, to attend a small informal meeting with pediatric oncologists. We are about to discuss the potential of novel accelerated particle beams in cancer therapy to find a better cure for some rare forms of childhood tumors. Whereas we are confident that scientific progress, medical research and innovation is the most promising way to finally overcome disease and death, 4 and half thousand years ago the most eloquent and free thinkers had less hope that the natural sequence of birth, life and death could be conquered by human innovation. But even then, long before Christian religion invented a fairy- tale of life after death for those who follow the holy bible and are positively selected at the gates of heaven, a narrative existed in Mesopotamia which appears very modern, complex and human from today’s perspective. 
In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the main hero initially falls into despair when he realizes that physical life will inevitably end one day. He first tries to get around this shocking frustration by adopting a wild life-style, fighting everyone whom he could define as an enemy, drinking and eating and celebrating bacchantic feasts every night. And of course he soon discovers the ultifmate remedy against the fear of death:  Sex as much as you can. So at least this seems to provide some solace, the hope that if not our own body and soul will gain immortality, at least the fruits of our loins could live on. And even people who understand little about reproduction, evolution of a species and human demographic instinctively know that when we love, death can loose its horror. And in the moment of highest sexual pleasure, death even becomes a joke. Why else does a loving couple cries “Kill me”, if not to show that love is so mighty, that even death is no thread any more. So death and love, in essence excluding each other, form a dipole in our unconsciousness, with the one being impossible without the other.
 I remember that for myself the starting point of puberty was not when I felt the first physical attraction to girls, but when at the age of fourteen after a traditional kids initiation feast I recognized at a silent moment and without any obvious reason that my own life is not infinite, that perhaps one day quite far away in the future, everything that I feel, think, watch, worry about, love, everything will end.  This was one of the most frightening discoveries that I ever made, and I remember that I locked myself in my room and cried bitterly. In particular, it seem absolutely absurd to me that all the guest at this party, my parents, relatives and invited friends celebrated my entry into adulthood, whereas at the very same moment I had discovered for myself the inevitable death. Now I know, that without this horrible recognition that life is not endless, I would have perhaps never discovered the thrill and fascination of love. But the inevitability of death is not only the ultima ratio for love, but vice versa the fight to conquer death is also the only unambigious proof of love. Same as medieval knights showed their love to a young lady by fighting her free from the claws of the evil dragon, we remember cases from more recent episodes of war and oppression when a father or a mother saved their kids life by shielding it with their own body from the bullets and shrapnels.
But the epic of Gilgamesh would have never become the book with by far the longest publication history in mankind (from the first edition of the verses written down on sumeric cuneiform clay plates between 1700 and 2000 B.C. till today with currently more than a hundred different editions listed in the english Amazon alone), if it would have described only the pleasures of love between man and woman. When Gilgamesh meets Enkidu, the uncivilized creature that arises from the wild, he has first to realize that his physical power is not unlimited, but that Enkidu is an respectable fighter as well. Later on he learns from him that sex is nothing that can distinguish a human being from all other animated creatures on earth, and that physical reproduction alone might only give us the illusion of eternal life. Gilgamesh and Enkidu finally decide that death can only be overruled by the active productivity of men, by their creativity and their desire to change to world it was there at a persons birth. Gilgamesh becomes the founder of many cities which give shelter and home and pleasure to many of his nation. In a famous journey, he travels to Libanon to bring from there the famous cedar wood, the strongest and most durable building material in ancient times to roof large palaces and temples. And here, at the gates of the cedar forest, fighting a hostile dragon is not a funny game any more to demonstrate his muscle power, but it has a clear practical purpose: to attain the material he needs for his architectural ambitions.
When Gilgamesh looses his friend Enkidu in the fight against the dragon he comes to the conclusion that the most durable legacy of Enkidus life are the results of his creativity. Reading how high Gilgamesh acknowledged the creative power of man to beat the horror of death, we are wondering today how J.W.Goethe or Karl Marx could have come to a very similar conclusion without knowing  about Gilgamesh’s epos. Its first English translation by the assyrologist and archeologist George Smith was published 1872, 64 years after Goethe’s Johan Faust discovered that “… only those deserves freedom and life, who has to fight for it day by day…” and 5 years after Karl Marx declared the productive labour as the source of all human assets and the driving force of historical progress.
The earliest parts of the epic of Gilagmesh have their origin in the 3rd millennium B.C., perhaps predating the Jewish thora. It is more than 2000 years older than the Christian bible and about 3000 years older than the Quran. But in it admiration of the individual, of the values that a man sets for himself, in the complete absence of any dogmatic, divine rules or moral codices, the Epic could have been written by a modern philosopher. Unlike the thora, the bible or the holy Quran which today have little more than a historical or linguistic value and seem absurd by setting anachronistic standards of a righteous life, the epic of Gilgamesh still today reads like a contemporary essay about the sense and the purpose of human existence.

Epic of Gilgamesh: Cuneiform text on clay plate (British Museum, London)

One of the perhaps most impressive examples of human creativity can be visited next to the Heidelberg University pediatric hospital, where the most advanced technology for accelerated particle tumor therapy is in operation since 2009. Here, nuclei from carbon ions are first accelerated in a circular synchrophasotron with 65 m circumsphere, than guided through a couple of deflecting and focusing magnets and finally channeled through a 650 t, 16m broad and 35 m long so called gantry, which revolves around the patient like a giant wheel within only a few seconds. The accelerated particles finally reaches 3/4 the speed of light, befor they hit the patients tumor placed in the very center of the revolving steel mass, hopefully sterilizing each single of its malignant cells. The doctors place the patient on a tray mounted to a robotic arm such a way that the deadly tumor will always be in the focus point of the particle beam. Invisible to patient, hidden behind a thin designer plastic blinds the revolving giant machinery around him could remind one of the movie "Contact", where Ellie Arroway (played by Jodie Foster) sits in the center of three huge revolving steel rings that, as the story goes, can eliminate gravity and send her into another time . But in the very real world of the Heidelberg Ion Therapy facility, the hope is that the patient can soon be send home cancer free, whereas the life threatening tumor in his brain or somewhere else in his body is send into oblivion by the high-precision particle beam that has only the size of a straw but transfers hugh energy. Indeed, the idea to fight deadly tumor cells, each measuring just a few micrometer, by bombarding them with atomic nuclei, each being another 10000 fold smaller, but only after the latter have been accelerated in a machine that  measures several tens of meter in each dimension, weights several hundreds of tons and requires 30% of the electricity of the entire city of Heidelberg, such an idea would have sounded like a science fiction plot only 50 years ago. But opposing the paradigm that a deadly thread is an unavoidable destiny or, even worse a proof of Gods enigmatic logic, is what brings the scientists and medics at the Heidelberg Ion Therapy (HIT) center very close to the ideas of the author of Gilgamesh.
The writer Sin-leqe-unnini, believed to have collected and written down the Epos in the ancient sumeric city of Ninive, shows us Gilgamesh fighting against the ordinary sequelae of life, death, and eventually the quick disappearance of all traces that we left behind us. For the people who designed, constructed and operate HIT, their motivation was not so much to become famous. When the first plans of such a machine emerged, it was a long way to go and more than 30 years to test, redesign, optimize technologies, before the first tumor patient could be successfully treated. And it also was quite obvious, that such a complex, sophisticated and unique technical innovation will hardly ever become profitable, at least not in terms of a quick or predictable financial profit. The main driving force that kept all the people at HIT so passionate about their achievements is the feeling that by curing previously incurable cancer types, each single patient that can be send home disease-free is a clear victory over an otherwise inevitable death.
The Ion Therapy Center (HIT) at the Heidelberg University Clinic. The irregular ring on the upper left is the synchrophasotron (65 m circumfere) to accelerate carbon and other heavy atom nuclei to 3/4 of the speed of light. These high energy nuclei are then deflected by a set of magnets before they enter an array of focussing magnets mounted to a so-called gantry. This giant wheel weights more than 600 tones (right side in blue) and revolves around the patient, targetting the particle beam to the tumor with highest precision (photo courtesy of HIT press-office).  
But Gilgamesh’s search for the purpose of life not only experiences this very transcendent form of continuation in Heidelberg, but has a pure physical dimension just a few kilometers south from HIT. Here, at the archeological institute of the university Stefan Maul, an assyrologist recently began to decipher newly excavated cuneiform clay plates which were recently found in Assur. So whether we will soon hold in hand a continuation of the epic of Gilgamesh, telling us in new chapters what happened after Enkidu died, or if we will soon learn something about Gilgamesh’s childhood and the origins of his restless odysses is not clear yet. But I would not be surprised to learn from these additional chapters of the Epic that it was not only the mythology of the deluge which both the Talmud and the Christian bible copy-pasted from the Sumerian epic. 

No comments:

Post a Comment