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Man, Woman, Birth, Death, Infinity

Anyone alive in the 1950s and 1960s will remember the introduction to the Ben Casey show (starring Vince Edwards and Sam Jaffe). In gritty black-and-white a hand scribed some symbols on a chalk-board while Jaffe pronounced, "Man, woman, birth, death, infinity!" Then the theme song kicked in and viewers were treated to one of the most popular TV medical shows ever to hit television.

Some might think that this was a cheap trick to try to drag the viewer into the vortex of drama. Whether or not this was the case, the symbols do indeed have meaning and the introduction to Ben Casey made people think a bit more philosophically if only for a moment. It is obvious that the list of concepts here is meant to represent the path of human existence and also to reflect on the cycle in which doctors became deeply enmeshed.

Interestingly enough the symbol for man comes before woman. This might have been a conceit of an era that had not yet seen the feminist movement. If the same symbols were to be used to begin a show in the current day, it is difficult to know which would come first or if they would be side by side. The symbol for man is meant to be the combination of the shield and spear of Mars (the Roman god of war). Perhaps it represents the aggressive spirit of man or rather men taken as a gender. No doubt that the spear also has overtones regarding reproduction as it relates to the next two symbols.

The symbol for woman comes next. It is meant to represent the mirror and handle of the Roman goddess Venus. It is surprising that this goddess of love, known in the Greek as Aphrodite, still remains the symbol for women, for she was known to preoccupy herself with beauty and for her reliance on men. Perhaps the wise and warlike Athena would provide a better symbol today. Of course, in this series of symbols, we think of man and woman coming together to lead to the next stage.

Birth is represented by an asterisk. Does this mean that our birth and childhood are a mere footnote to our lives? Not exactly. Birth has been important to humans in almost every culture. Symbols for birth are manifold, hippos, peacocks, eggs and the sunrise in the East. This last might have been the inspiration for the birth-symbol. Of course, the sunrise in the East would represent a beginning and the sunset in the West would be death - allegorically comparing the passage of an entire life in a single day (or in the case of Ben Casey, perhaps a single episode). But the sunset was not the genesis of the next symbol.

We quickly jump from birth to death in this series as though the entirety of life is immaterial. Perhaps in the context of the television show this was true. Yet the selection of the Cross as a symbol for death was interesting. First, because it is thought of primarily as a Christian symbol for the death (and sacrifice) of Jesus that brings life to the world. Used in this way, it would be more of a contradiction. But Crosses make a frequent appearance at grave sites, and it may have been this image that sparked the designer of the symbol. Perhaps a better choice would have been an X as in the notch on a gunslinger's Colt 45 or the simple crossing out of a life as we might cross out a word.

The final symbol is infinity. It comes from the fact that the circle had already been used for zero, and the great selectors of symbols in the misty reaches of time needed a symbol that could be traced "infinitely" without raising a pencil from the paper. The "sideways eight" fulfilled this requirement. Be that as it may, this is an optimistic symbol to follow death. It certainly evokes ideas of an afterlife or at least a some kind of cosmic "foreverness". Yet it is still quite nebulous. It could represent infinite oblivion or a return to dust of the body to allow it to begin a cycle. But is this series of symbols a cycle or a direct path? It is difficult to say. If we construe infinity as the afterlife, then it must be a path, yet it could still be a cycle of creation of man and woman infinitely coming together to continue to create more men and women who are doomed to birth, death and infinity on their own direct paths.

Or is it as Henry Cranston looking up at the infinite stars on a clear crisp evening noted, "Sometimes I think we make too much of things."

W.J. Rayment

History of the RAND Corporation - Also:
- Rand and Systems Analysis
- Rand and Game Theory

How Microscopes Work

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