Yahoo News featured an interesting short report issued by Agence France-Presse on November 20. In it we discover that a consortium of French, German and Hungarian mathematicians are claiming to have proven that Einstein's famous equation, e=mc2, is correct. The report is all good except for one very small aspect. They call the effort of these mathematicians "heroic" in contradiction to the root meaning of the word. Mathematics isn't "heroic" and it is a degradation of true heroics to say it is.
Unfortunately, while a small thing too casually used in the AFP report, it proves a sort of degradation of our language. Not only that, but it further devalues real heroism, making the word mean less with each garbled usage.
Here is how AFP used the word:
It's taken more than a century, but Einstein's celebrated formula e=mc2 has finally been corroborated, thanks to a heroic computational effort by French, German and Hungarian physicists.
So, what was "heroic" about this effort? Did these mathematicians find that they were being murdered for their efforts? Where they herded into cattle trucks and sent to their deaths for having made the effort to prove the Einsteinian theory? Was there discrimination or oppression as a result? Were their families at risk because of their important work? Or, on the other hand, did their "heroic" efforts save many lives? Did their figuring save even one?
No is the answer to all of those questions.
Even in using the word at its cheapest meaning (a great effort), it is still meant to imply a monumental overcoming of obstacles at self-peril. But, seriously, is this effort a "heroic" act?
It many be monumental, it may have been difficult, it may even have far reaching effect, but "heroic" it isn't.
A soldier putting his life on the line, that's heroic. A fireman entering a burning building to save a child, that's heroic. Medical missionaries in third world nations risking their own safety and health to save the lives of people that have no access to modern medicine is even heroic.
Applying the word hero to greater and greater groups of people, though, degrades real heroism. It dilutes the word until even doing one's job can become "heroic." Politicians, movie stars, sports stars even average Moms and Dads doing their jobs, while all good things, does not rise to the level of heroics. No football player is a "hero" just because he runs around a stadium like a 12-year-old. And neither are mathematicians.
We must not make the word hero into one defined by efforts so common place that just anything applies. Unfortunately, the cultural left is very prone to this sort of moral equivalence and the media loves to over dramatize everything to heighten the emotional level of the tale but we should resist it, nonetheless.
Like I said, this is a small issue, but one that reflects a sad degradation of our society. When there are no heroes, there is no inspiration. Where there is no inspiration, we find little being valued. Everything becomes morally equivalent, nothing is special, better, or worth striving for.
There is a popular saying that holds that "words mean things" and it is a good rule of thumb to observe. Words do mean things. In an age where cynicism has taken a toll on our national character cheapening many of our most cherished beliefs, let's not cheapen this one. If everyone is a hero, no one will be as the word will cease to have a distinction. And our society will suffer all the more for it.
(Image credit: pbs.org)