2015: A year of madmen and a genius

Plus endless questions on state of economy, the clash of civilisations, and future of Earth

It's hard to figure out 2015. Four more days to go but you could spend another year trying to make sense of what's been happening.

Who can understand why young men in their 20s would slay innocent people in the streets of Paris in the name of their own twisted version of religion?

And to have it more or less repeated in San Bernardino in the United States, barely three weeks later.

What's the real reason why the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or ISIS has been able to rise so quickly and powerfully and attract recruits from all over the world?


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Another inexplicable 2015 special: Why is it that when oil prices plunge, there is worry and not rejoicing about its effect on the global economy?

("US banks hit by cheap oil..." screamed a Financial Times headline on the front page last Thursday).

This one is for the world's sole superpower: How can a person like Donald Trump with his quack views become a credible candidate in the US presidential elections, leading the Republican nomination in several polls.

(Other question: Does it say more about him or the US?)

It was a year of endless questions about the state of the global economy, the clash of civilisations and the future of Planet Earth.

The problem in 2015 isn't with the questions.

It was the answers which made it a year of living inexplicably.

Take the war on terrorism.

If you ask anyone round the world to explain the rise of ISIS, you will get many different answers.

Take your pick:

American foreign policy is to blame for destabilising Iraq when it deposed Saddam Hussein and destroyed his cruel but strong authoritarian rule.

Without a strongman in charge, Iraq descended into anarchy, out of which ISIS eventually emerged.

Or this: The problem goes back to the beginning of the rivalry between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims, more than 2,000 years ago.

The current problem is a modern replay of that old struggle, fought on many fronts, including in a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and other assorted groups in between.

Who can say that it wasn't out of this battle for the hearts and minds of Muslims that a group like ISIS came to be formed?

Or take oil.

You and I know that it isn't just a commodity whose price is determined by demand and supply.

The black stuff has started wars and revolutions and is of strategic importance to many countries, influencing where and how they deploy their military, shaping their foreign policies, and their relationships with each other.

There are large forces at work not only in the Middle East but also in the US, Europe and Russia, and they have been at it since the first gush spewed out of Mother Earth.

When it is such a complicated story with so many players involved, each with its own vested interest to protect, who really knows how and why the price of oil moves the way it does?

2015 was no help with the answers.

And so there are new rounds of anxiety when the price hits another record low.

So what if these questions - whether of terrorism or oil or life for that matter - go unanswered?

The problem is that human beings have an intense need for explanations and, if none is forthcoming, they will create their own narrative or believe someone's that comes closest to theirs.

This drive for meaning is what makes us human.

Religious wars, nation, culture, identity: they spring from the desire to imagine a larger purpose beyond an individual's limited existence.

ISIS could not have grown so large or, for that matter, Western civilisation, if it did not succeed in creating a larger meaning for its followers.

It is possible they were completely misled, but 2015 showed it didn't matter because they were prepared to die for it.

Which also makes it a year of dying inexplicably.

But 2015 is also a year to mark a different kind of inexplicable imagining, one worth celebrating.

In case you didn't know (because no one died as a result?), this year is the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein's General Theory of Relativity.

If you really want to know inexplicable, nothing comes close to his theories about space and time and how they can be warped by matter, and all the strange things that happen when you travel close to the speed of light.

But you don't really want to know because there are easier things to think about like ISIS and the price of oil than quantum mechanics.

All you should know then is that Einstein discovered these spellbinding insights from just thinking about them inside his head.

He did not do what most scientists did to verify his theories, by conducting experiments in the laboratory, because the stuff he was dealing with could not be tested at the time.

So he had to do what he called thought experiments.

One of his first when he was only 16 was to imagine chasing after a beam of light.

What would such a person see as he caught up with it and how would what he observes square with the then prevailing theories of light?

Being Einstein, he found his answer.

In another, he described it this way:

"I was sitting in my chair in my patent office in Bern. Suddenly a thought struck me: If a man falls freely he would not feel his weight. I was taken aback. This simple thought experiment made a deep impression on me. This led me to the theory of gravity."

He was to do many more of these imaginings as he developed his theories which would change our understanding of physics, cosmology and astronomy in a fundamental way.

Isn't this inexplicable?

The mysteries of the universe can be uncovered inside man's head from his power of imagination (but, of course, you have to be an Einstein).

Now, 100 years later, when many of his ideas have been proven by actual experiments, it is a fitting time to celebrate the inexplicable genius of man in his search for meaning.

Happy New Year.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 27, 2015, with the headline '2015: A year of madmen and a genius'. Print Edition | Subscribe