It's gratifying to see the name of a real hero grace the headlines of the papers today. Norman Borlaug was 95 when he died in Dallas this Sunday. Not familiar with that name? I'll admit that I wasn't either. But I was familiar with the man who developed plants that saved an estimated 1,000,000,000 lives. No, that's not a typo - that is one billion (American usage).
Borlaug's passing gives us time to reflect on a man who used science and technology to improve the world. In fact, the Wall Street Journal article claims that because of his advances, all hunger in the world today is the result of political disasters, not natural ones.
Borlaug's dwarf wheat crop, known as triticale, was responsible for a mutli-fold yield increase. Star Trek fans will recognize the name "triticale" from an episode featuring "tribbles" - it's what they were feeding on.
Borlaug also helped create so-called "Golden Rice" which contained beta carotene, - an essential nutrient often lacking in the diets of the impoverished.
So here we have a man that used science to do incredible things. He won the Nobel prize, and demonstrated once again that a thoughtful man can do more than all the prayer in the world. I dare say that no one else in the history of mankind has ever saved as many lives. I would call him a super hero.
And yet I'm a bit bothered by something I saw on Twitter.
Someone in the skeptics community said something to the effect of "Just learned of Norman Borlaug's passing, and I feel very small."
I know this individual, and though I'm not going to name them, I will say that this person has done a great amount of work for skepticism, and is in no small way responsible for the growth we're seeing across the US. Because of his efforts, hundreds of people are now calling themselves "skeptics."
And yet he feels small. Why?
Norman Borlaug accomplished amazing things, but he couldn't have done so without a great many factors combining to make that result possible. He needed to be born at the right time, in the right environment. He needed to have support and funding and smart, dedicated people helping him. In short, and this takes nothing away from him, Norman Borlaug was fortunate. We have no control over fortune, of course, but we do have the ability to do the same thing Norman did.
We can try.
And that is what makes Norman Borlaug a hero. He CHOSE to try to improve the world. The "tweep" I mentioned earlier has also chosen this path, and in this regard, he and Norman are the same.
I know he'd bristle at the idea of being compared to Norman, but he'll just have to live with that because the comparison is apt.
So yes, by all means, let's hold up Norman Borlaug as a hero. Let's name airports after him, pave roads in his honor, and let his countenance keep watch over the $20 bill (I never liked Jackson much). Norman Borlaug WAS a hero.
But you can be too. All you have to do is try.