Intelligent life on a planet comes of age when it knows what in its environment can harm or kill it, and can take adequate measures for its survival.

If not, it needs someone to save it. It’s said a carpenter saved mankind on a Friday afternoon about 2000 years ago. On a Sunday night in September 1983, the world was saved once again by a much less famous army-man, Lt. Colonel Stanislav Petrov.

During that night, an alarm system told Col. Petrov that America had launched 5 nuclear missiles at Soviet Russia. 40 min… and his country will be in ruins. He knew his country would respond to this threat in line with the widely prevalent ‘MAD’ (Mutually Assured Destruction) doctrine.

MAD seemed to be a sensible strategy to prevent nuclear war. Put simply, it told the enemy you shouldn’t try to kill millions of our people… because if you do so, we will kill millions of yours. A strategy that kept many ambitious generals in check.

Petrov had only minutes to decide whether the alarm signal was false or not. Yet he knew his decision would have substantial consequences – after he made up his mind, half of the remaining time would go in communicating the decision up the chain of command to members of Soviet Politburo who could authorize retaliation. So they would have another 15-20 min to decide how to act on it. Verification from other sources in that time span would be difficult and unlikely. Most likely…

A lot depended on him.

Petrov decided the alarm was false. He reasoned if the Americans had been mad enough to ignore MAD, they wouldn’t launch only 5 missiles at Soviet Russia and risk apocalyptic payback. In his words, “That big an idiot hasn’t been born yet, not even in the US.” No, they would launch thousands of missiles together to destroy Russia utterly and make it incapable of a retaliatory attack.

He grabbed the telephone and reported a false alarm to the command station.

Many of us are alive today, and all of us live healthy un-radiated lives, because Stanislav Petrov decided we were so sane that we had not only first gone MAD, but gone so mad that we had come back to become sane again. One of the best examples of this kind of sanity is this quote by Albert Einstein: “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”

Animals, of age, know what in their environment can kill them. In contrast, the young of many species don’t. They injure or kill themselves by mistake because they are not mature enough to comprehend their environment in its double-edged complexity, and therefore can’t take precautions to save themselves.

Not that the danger is common, especially in case of young animals. Even when the parents are not looking, nature provides young animals adequate protection in the form of ‘instinct’: a baby swallow is instinctively afraid of a hawk and other dangers in its natural environment.

Young human beings also possess this thing called instinct; 2 year old Eve from Belfast, Ireland fears snakes instinctively though her country doesn’t have snakes. This is because nature intended Eve to live in a world where snakes were her main enemy as the reptiles could sneak on the curious, exploring Eve without her parents’ knowledge. However, nature didn’t account for human inventions like domestic poisons, or swimming pools… or nuclear weapons. Therefore every year, more than 2000 toddlers drown in swimming pools world over; many more are harmed or killed by domestic poisoning.

And let’s hope we don’t ever have such a statistic about nuclear weapons! Eve needs to be careful.

Now you may be wondering what this book is about – why am I telling you all this? How in the world is a narrowly missed nuclear catastrophe or Eve’s fear of snakes connected to being rich?

Well, this book is not about being rich in the conventional sense. It’s about a few riddles and how these human riddles are supremely important to our existence in the 21st century. Solving them could make us ‘rich’ in a new sense, and this someday may help us save our lives when another Col. Petrov is not there to save us again!

Talking in riddles has been a favorite of human and mythical beings right from ancient times. Be it the Oracle of Delphi in ancient Greek history, the mythical Egyptian monster Sphinx, or the god ‘Dharma’ in the Indian epic Mahabharata – they have all been famous for posing riddles that illuminated deep truths of life.

Similarly, in the fifth decade of this century, the famous British philosopher Isaiah Berlin chose to examine a riddle he thought ‘History’ posed to all of us. When Jean Jacques Rousseau, Father of the French Revolution, sat on the banks of Lake Geneva, gazed up at Mont Blanc, and inspired by that cosmic view, created the idea of the Noble Savage breaking the chains that society had put him in – did Rousseau imagine a savage called Stalin would one day put a million chains around his own countrymen and threaten them into doing his bidding saying “the only real power comes out of a long rifle”? Or when Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Father of German Nationalism declared he who is firm in will molds the world to himself, did he know a man named Hitler would take his words to heart and kill 6 million people with a firm will as he molded the world?

Perhaps not; I bet the Nazi propaganda movie The Will To Power would have given Fichte heart attack.

Prof. Berlin, himself a member of the persecuted race of Jews, asked this baffling question: How did the progressive and optimistic spirit of eighteenth century Age of Enlightenment – the age of liberty, equality and fraternity (at least for Europe), freedom and hope, science and literature – give way to the dark and terrifying worlds of the late nineteenth and twentieth century? How did Rousseau lead to Stalin, Fichte to Hitler?

Dr. Berlin thought over the question and came up with an interesting answer – an answer that rather upset the prevailing ideas of freedom, liberty, and the likes. However, let’s skip his answer for now (we will come to it later as it forms the very basis of this book) and go on to a more basic question: why should we be interested in Dr. Berlin’s riddle in the first place? What’s the incentive?

We are in the 21st century. The genocides of Hitler and Stalin are far behind us. Most children these days wouldn’t be able to even pronounce Rousseau. And as for Fichte… who’s he? Then why?

The reason is that life on our planet has not come of age. We are the most advanced species on this planet. And as individuals, we regularly reach adulthood developing the talent of self-preservation in a seemingly hostile environment. Yet global occurrences such as the 1983 nuclear fiasco show we haven’t, as a species, become mature yet.

Our actions as a group shows dismal ignorance of the criticality of factors that threaten our survival at the planetary level. And since we are the most advanced life form on this planet, we have dragged other species down to our level of immaturity. We threaten them as well, and they can’t do a thing about it! Just because of us, our planet hasn’t come of age.

Solving Dr. Berlin’s riddle, and a few other riddles, may yet raise us above immaturity, and save us from the threat of extinction.

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