The week of September 7 I spent in the beautiful Eastern European country of Romania, home of the blood-sucking vampire Count Dracula in Transylvania and the soul-sucking Communist dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu in Bucharest. I was invited by the physicist and historian of science Gheorghe Stratan at the Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj (pronounced Kloog), who translated two of my books, Why People Believe Weird Things and Why Darwin Matters (published by Humanitas publishing house in Romania). Dr. Stratan has also translated books by Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, Daniel Dennett, and Ernst Mayr. The central event was an evolution conference in Cluj celebrating the Darwinian bicentennial, and there were many interesting talks on evolutionary biology, history, and cultural impacts.
While I was there the Romanian Humanist Association invited me to give a talk in Bucharest, hosted by the organizers of that fine organization with the very Roman names of Ovidiu Covaciu and Remus Cernea, both of whom were exceptionally kind in escorting me about the city and treating me to their local beers and meals, such as here as Ovidiu and I enjoy an Ursus (Bear) beer and lunch consisting of polenta with pork wrapped in grape leaves.
Ovidiu and Remus also took me to the infamous “People’s Palace” (now the Palace of the Parliament), constructed by Ceaucescu to be his pyramid-like monument to himself as the largest building in the world. (They claim that the Pentagon is actually the largest by square footage, but that the palace may actually be larger if you don’t count the inner empty unused center courtyard of the Pentagon.) The Palace is unbelievably huge. Inside, the hallways are so wide that you could drive a tank down some of them. The ballrooms are breathtakingly enormous, and of course the exterior exudes strength and power.
Our tour guide told us that after the overthrow of the Communists in 1989, the Palace, still unfinished and bankrupting the country (with the people starving, the streets unlit at night, etc.), that they nearly took an offer of $1 billion from Donald Trump, who wanted to turn the Palace into the world’s largest casino. Somehow that seems fitting. Someone wised up and had the place assessed by an American company, which put the price tag at $22 billion, so The Donald missed what would have been his biggest real estate deal ever.
Inside the Palace hangs the propaganda artwork of Sabin Balasa, commissioned to paint idealized happy Romanians under Communist rule. Here are two classic pieces.
Most disturbing was the level infusion of religion into science education. (Romanians are overwhelmingly Eastern Orthodox with a level of belief in God approaching 99.9%, an overreaction, my hosts assured me, to the state enforced atheism—you can’t force people to believe.) Here is the 11th grade science textbook featuring the six days of creation, along with a 9th grade biology textbook written by two teams of authors: biologists and theologians, and on whose first page it reads “God Exists.” (Click the thumbnails below to view larger photos in my Flickr photostream.)
Remus is planning on running for President of Romania on a secular government platform that would enforce the separation of church and state, which at this point in the country’s history is going to be difficult. Nevertheless, I support him in his cause. Here is Remus and I in the beautiful Venezia hotel they hosted me in.
Other impressions: Both of my talks were well received, the Romanian people were exceptionally friendly, almost everyone I met my age and younger spoke quite good English , and the city of Cluj was quite beautiful. On the down side, I was amazed at the number of cars in Bucharest (and remember, I’m from L.A.!), jammed into every nook and cranny (without an SUV to be found). I was also stunned by how many people smoke. Everywhere I went the acrid smell of smoke was in the air, including restaurants, which once again reminded me of the tension I feel between my libertarian tendency to prefer freedom, including the freedom to smoke, and my personal preference for a smoke free environment anywhere I go. I know, second hand smoke has not been proven to cause serious lung illnesses, but it sure does stink and bothers me to no end. One market solution, of course, is to allow, say, restaurants to choose to be smoke free or smoke filled, and then let customers decide. But even in the outdoors second-hand smoke stinks and makes it difficult to appreciate the otherwise clean air (well, okay, not with all those cars, but you get the point).
I also got to visit the spectacular Botanical Garden in Cluj where I got an insider’s tour, as well as walking about town a fair amount and going inside a classic Orthodox cathedral:
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