OPINION

The twins paradigm, or the point of no return

Ladan and Laleh Bijani touched the world with their courage and determination to win their independence. Their desire to stand opposite each other, to look at each other, to walk away and come back and tell separate tales to each other – what the rest of us do every day – cost them their lives. They were 29 years old. Despite being joined at the head from birth, they were pretty and sharp young women and had studied at university. They knew what they were getting into when they decided to take the risk to be separated. Millions who never knew them wept on Tuesday when we learned that they had died. But we were saddened not because they had tried but because they had failed. Seldom has the Greek revolutionary poet Rigas Feraios’s battle cry rung more true – «Better to live free for an hour than in prison and slavery for 40 years.» Like everyone who has given up a quiet life to fight for an ideal, express their own will, the twins went into battle to win their freedom from the bonds with which a quirk of nature had enslaved them. We are saddened not only because they died (and were thus deprived of even that single hour of freedom) and not only because they had suffered so much while they lived, but because they had shown us – in the brief glimpse we got – that inside them burned the flame of freedom, the spirit of adventure that would have given them a great shot at happiness when free. Was their death any sadder than that of any young person full of promise – one of the thousands who died around the world on the same day? Not unless we consider that the difficulty of every minute of the twins’ life made them more deserving of a chance at happiness (to which one might answer that the hardship of their lives made death more of a release from suffering, whereas the death of any other young person could be seen as cause for greater sorrow). But the twins touched us, first, because we had got to know them a little from our television bulletins and, second, because they put themselves in harm’s way in front of our eyes. Like the astronauts who died when the space shuttle Columbia blew up high above the earth on February 1, we were as close as we could be in this sanitized age to the raw essence of life, the awe of death in the public eye. The difference between conjoined twins battling a handicap and seven astronauts at the peak of physical and mental fitness could hardly be greater. Yet the Bijani sisters and the Columbia crew are united in a way that most of us can only imagine as we buzz about our daily lives. Whatever the roads that brought them there, each one came to the point where they had to decide to stay where they were or go that one step further, beyond the point of no return. Like every one of us, they tried to calculate the odds; they focused their minds on the dangers and their hearts on triumph, and unlike the rest of us they stepped out into the great unknown. Many others have crossed the point of no return, rocketing into space, and then come back. But where the Bijani sisters chose to go no one has gone. That, along with their shy smiles and knowing eyes, is what makes them pioneers and heroes in our hearts. The most important thing about pioneers and heroes is that they give us a yardstick with which to measure everyone else and ourselves. And though this is always useful, it is perhaps when they fail that pioneers are most valuable to us – because they show where the point of no return is so that it can be pushed forward. For example, it appears that the surgeons working to separate the Bijani twins were held up by the thickness of the skull bone, which had grown thicker and tougher at the point where their heads met. As this was the first time surgeons had performed such an operation on adults, it is obvious that they had never faced a similar obstacle. Also, because only infants had undergone such surgery before, doctors were unable to predict that the two initially separate brains had fused together. Significantly, reports said that brain scans had not been able to alert the surgeons to this. So it was not only the Bijani twins who had to plunge into the unknown, but the very human hands and eyes of the surgeons had to go where technology could only help them up to a point. Therefore, every step that was taken in the fog of uncertainty before the operation today constitutes a step on the path of scientific knowledge. The space shuttle disaster also showed us the limits of all our technology. When a mission that had seemed so routine resulted in the worst accident in humanity’s few decades in space, it drove home the message that no matter how many times we may succeed at something that is dangerous, there is always the danger of our making a mistake, or of unexpected circumstances catching us unawares. Patients may still die while undergoing an appendectomy. With regard to America’s space program, a team of experts has been working on a report on the Columbia crash since February, and it hopes to complete it by late August. The report will focus not only on the technicalities of space flight and complicated engineering but on the very basic routines of how those involved in the shuttle program work to keep the spacecraft safe. Because if we compare the death of the Bijani twins with the Columbia disaster, the latter would appear to have been caused by something closer to an appendectomy than to groundbreaking surgery. An experiment carried out on Monday suggests that the Columbia, despite being the culmination of technological wizardry, was destroyed by something as mundane as a piece of insulating foam slamming into its wing at liftoff. This opened a hole that allowed superheated gases to blast into the wing and tear apart the shuttle as it entered the atmosphere on its return from the tranquility of space. The inquiry has found that shuttles suffered such damage in at least seven earlier flights. But because each time the shuttle landed safely, engineers had become confident that damage caused by falling foam was not a danger – until the basic laws of science reasserted themselves. For the seven astronauts on the Columbia, the point of no return was crossed long before the hole was punched into the wing, long before the shuttle began to break up over America. It was crossed when engineers grew complacent with their success, when they ignored what their minds should have seen and relied on, hope as if it were knowledge. Ironically, when our systems fail, we may see that whereas hope is the last to die it is sometimes hope itself which leads us to disaster. Most of us, thankfully, do not have to face the choice of the Bijani twins, nor are we surgeons, space flight engineers or air-traffic controllers. But we all come to points of no return in our daily lives – perhaps when risking a dangerous maneuver while driving, or in making decisions that could affect our future. In the past two weeks, we saw Prime Minister Costas Simitis stake his party’s electoral fortune on a dramatic break with its past. PASOK, 29 years old, was showing intolerable strains between its reformers and old guard, who cannot stand each other. We shall see whether Simitis’s choice was a triumph of hope over reality or the other way round. PASOK is in orbit and we, a captive audience, are watching.