The tragedy in Boston is one of those things about which there’s not much to really say, at least at this point, although a great deal actually will be said, as people work through their shock and outrage. I lived in the Boston area for eight years, and have many friends still there; someone I know crossed the finish line this year five minutes before the explosions went off. That’s my old neighborhood — the apartment I had in my postdoc days was just a couple of blocks away from Copley Square. One of the many wonderfully walkable and public spaces in Boston.

Admittedly, the Marathon and Patriot’s Day were mostly an excuse for me to stay home and get some work done; it was just too difficult to get across Boylston Street to work my way to MIT, and the subway was bound to be jam-packed. (In subsequent years I would find myself living right on the pathways of the Chicago Marathon and the LA Marathon; not sure what it is about my sense of real estate that keeps drawing me to marathon routes.) But I always admired the runners themselves, even as the compulsion that drew them on was completely alien to me.

A marathon is a wonderfully arbitrary goal, based fancifully on the legendary run of Pheidippides. Sure, there is competition at the top ranks, but the vast majority of participants in an event like Boston are only competing against themselves. Trying to prove that they have the discipline to do something difficult and pure.

It’s a perfect target, really, for the kind of madness and anger that must boil inside someone who wants to hurt people and disrupt their lives. Irrational hatred lashing out at something communal and uplifting.

In the first moments after the news hit, I was hoping desperately that it would turn out to be a real accident, a gas main or some such thing. Of course the timing and location made that implausible. With the lack of information we currently have, there’s little point in speculating about who could have done something this terrible, but it was clearly targeted to cause a great deal of pain. If the bombers have any programmatic goal more specific than merely angering people, they will undoubtedly fail.

We won’t ever be completely rid of things like this, at least not in the foreseeable future. Human life is large and messy and risky and unpredictable, and the biggest mistake we could make would be to overreact and curtail our freedom to have fun and share public events in the name of attaining perfect security. As horrible as this is, it was enormously heartening to see people rushing to help out, from first responders to ordinary people offering to lend a hand. That will also always be true; there are more good deeds in the world than bad. Life will go on, and we will continue to run and celebrate and love and discover the secrets of the universe. That’s what we do.

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4 Responses to Boston

  1. Bob F. says:

    A friend of mine from here in central Jersey ran the marathon, and his wife posted to say that he’s OK. His experience was similar to your friend’s: he improved his time by an hour over last year. If he hadn’t, he would have been crossing the finish line just as the explosion happened.

    I agree that we can’t completely be rid of such horrors. At least not until the human race evolves more. Perhaps the neocortex needs to be more developed or the amygdala needs to be less developed.

  2. Amarashiki says:

    I have watched this terrible news right now! So sad! I hope USA will not overreact and will act wisely. Your words are true, Sean. Mad and good people are everywhere, and despite all the scientific advances and the technological devices we have build, yet, there are some humans trying to harm similar humans. 🙁 Nothing more to say excepting that I wish USA and their good and nice people will not be affected by these events too much. USA is a very important country and its has a role in the global context.

    All the best for you and your people, sincerely,

    A Spanish physicist


  3. Amarashiki says:

    PS: About the issue of human evolution, I have always been fascinated by E.Schrödinger book’s Mind and Matter. Erwin wrote wise words about why human evolution is currently “blocked” or “paused”. Maybe, the information era is changing that with the amoung of information that our brains must be able to storage…But that is also used to de-evolutionate some “human species” (social engineering is that…).

  4. Mike D says:

    My thoughts immediately turned to Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature. It’s easy in times like this to be cynical about the apparent downward spiral of humanity, but in the big picture we are still living in the most peaceful era of human history. We’d do well not to forget how far we’ve come.

    I’m also relieved that the bombs weren’t more destructive. Reports indicate the explosives were fairly crude, which suggests to me that this was most likely the work of a disturbed individual and not a well-coordinated terrorist attack.