Content note: discussion of fasting.

Three weeks ago, I announced a plan to fast from the 25th to the 27th, in honor of Nikolai Vavilov and the staff of his botany institute, several of whom starved to death in the service of ending famine (and were partially successful, although far from the sole contributors). The goal was to test/improve my own ability to do hard things in the service of worthy projects. 

I had wanted to put much more research in the original post than I did, but decided it was more important to get the announcement out quickly and I should save something for the day-of post anyway. Since then, a lot has happened. Over three weeks I had 3 or 4 urgent demands around the size of “my furnace is maybe poison and my landlord is being difficult about it”. Everything is fine now, but it was a lot of effort to get it that way. I also had some emergency work drop in my lap for an extremely worthy project. I’m glad I got the opportunity to contribute and I’d make the same decision again but it ate up all of the slack I had left. And then my cell phone broke.

The immediate impact of this is there’s I’m not writing the highly researched post on Vavilov I wanted to. The internet is full of articles of the quality I could produce in the time I have available, there’s no reason to add to them.

But the more important impact is that I said I wanted to test my ability to do hard things, and then I did that, before the fast even started. My capacity was not as high as I wanted but more than I feared, and my capacity to respond to my limits gracefully instead of failing explosively exceeded my hopes.    

So in a lot of ways the purpose of the fast has already been served. I thought about letting myself out of it, but there are a few dimensions this month hasn’t tested and I still want to play with those. However in light of the fact that I am starting from a place of much lower slack and much higher time value than anticipated, I will be removing some of the rules, such as “I have to work a normal workday” and “I have to do at least one physical activity”. Those rules were for someone who didn’t expend all her reserves doing intense cognitive work on no notice while angry people made horrible noises banging on her furnace for three days straight. As of writing this (Monday night) I haven’t made up my mind on relaxing the calorie restriction to allow for ketone esters, which for me are a small source of calories that greatly reduce the cognitive and emotional costs of fasting. 

Tomorrow (the 26th) is the 69th anniversary of Nikolai Vavilov’s death. The day after is the 68th anniversary of the end of the siege of Leningrad, which meant the institute staff no longer needed to starve themselves to protect their seed bank. I will be fasting from 10PM tonight (the 25th) to 10AM on the 27th, but no promises on doing more than that. And if that high-value project needs more no-notice immediate-turnaround work from me and the ketone esters aren’t enough, I don’t even promise to keep fasting. Because this was never about pain for pain’s sake, it was about testing and increasing my ability to follow through on my own principles, and one of those principles is “don’t pointlessly incapacitate yourself when high impact time-sensitive work is waiting”.  

“…it was hard to wake up, it was hard to get on your feet and put on your clothes in the morning, but no, it was not hard to protect the seeds once you had your wits about you. Saving those seeds for future generations and helping the world recover after war was more important than a single person’s comfort.”

unknown Vavilov Institute scientist
New Comment
7 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

Cross-posted from FB:

During the 872 day long Siege of Leningrad, almost a million people died, mostly of starvation. Twelve of those people died while surrounded by food they refused to eat. They were the scientists and staff at the Institute of Plant Study, a seed bank containing the life's work of Nikolai Vavilov.

Vavilov had already starved to death in a Soviet gulag, for holding to Mendelian genetic theory, as opposed to the false-but-government-endorsed Lysenkoism. It wasn't just a principled stand either. Vavilov knew that the truth of genetics could help them feed the country with better crops, while the false theories would fail.

Vavilov's absence left just his workers to guard the seed banks from destruction. They did their best, knowing that the seeds would be instrumental in rebuilding after the war. But the majority of the seeds still rotted, even as they were protected from the starving masses outside their door.

The workers starved rather than eat the seeds, but still most the seeds were lost.

That may make it seem like all a waste, but what did survive proved to be invaluable. Today 80% of Russia's cropland is growing the descendants of the seeds from the Institute. Many millions, maybe even a billion people are alive because of the sacrifices of Vavilov and his workers.

Like many others, I'm currently fasting in honor of Vavilov Day. While it's officially a one day fast, I'm vaguely aiming to make it to Saturday, which would make it my longest fast yet.

There's a segment on "The Seed Potatoes of Leningrad" (and also the botanists who refrained from eating them) in a podcast episode here:

Starts at 11:40 if you want to skip the first half, about Tetris. Although I would happily recommend that too, and the podcast as a whole.

Thanks for sharing the story. I've done some research myself and stumbled over the fact that Vavilov's favourite phrase was: "The life is short. One needs to hurry."

It expresses the same sentiment as Nick Bostrom's "Why did we start so late? " but I personally like it much better.

I'm joining in Vavilov day.  I really appreciate you finding and sharing those links of things to read.

Minor note: for some reason the first link in the article to the previous post doesn't work for me.  (It looks like it's expecting me to be logged in to wordpress?)

Another minor note: very last link, to splendidtable, seems to include an extra comma at the end of the link which makes it 404

thanks to both of you, fixed now.

Thank you for your idea and for sharing these links. I just listened to the Anthropocene Reviewed on the Seed Potatoes of Leningrad (linked in another comment, starts at 11:40) and How Nikolay Vavilov, the seed collector who tried to end famine, died of starvation while eating a late dinner before the fast begins. It was a little painful to feast on pita sandwiches and french fries while hearing about people dying of starvation, but it felt a little appropriate, too; in my life, famine is more or less ended, and that wouldn't have been a guarantee for my ancestors a century ago.