From the February 2013 issue
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Infinity and Beyond
Near the end of Alan Lightman’s essay on humanity’s understanding of the infinite [“Our Place in the Universe,” December], he considers what a small fraction of the universe exists in living form and concludes, “If some cosmic intelligence created the universe, life would seem to have been only an afterthought.” Thousands of years ago, a psalmist pondered a similar conundrum:
When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;
What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? (8:3–4)
While both writers express awe at the universe, referring to a cosmic intelligence beyond the stars, the psalmist makes the much bolder assertion: Divine being not only creates life but also cares for humans, despite our relative smallness. The magnitude of this claim was not lost on the psalmist. Ancient civilizations might have lacked our ability to measure the size of the universe with scientific precision, but their capacity for wonder was perhaps better developed.
Alan Lightman provides an excellent review of our evolving understanding of the universe and our place in it, but he doesn’t fully capture the implications of our most recent discoveries of planetary objects in nearby solar systems. His focus on their estimated percentage of biomass obscures what is far more important — the likelihood that life exists elsewhere in the universe. We now have reason to believe that the universe may be swarming with life — plant, animal, or something else entirely.
Science continues to challenge our assumptions of superiority and singularity. Earth is not the center of the solar system; the solar system is but a minuscule piece of the universe; and Homo sapiens is merely an evolutionary experiment in intelligence. Now we learn that life on Earth is not unique or unusual, and that there may be many worlds with life-forms at least as intelligent as we are. While this is disconcerting, it can also be a comfort: we can feel a kinship with these alien creatures whose biologies and morphologies we can only imagine and whom we will almost surely never meet. Somewhere out there, they peer outward, wondering about us.
In his December Anti-Economist column [“Half Empty”], Jeff Madrick ably explains why blaming the poor for the country’s economic woes is ridiculous. However, the most egregious aspect of the “makers and takers” narrative is not that it ignores the effects of wage stagnation and a regressive tax code but that its central premise turns reality on its head, pretending that the poor live in parasitical relation to the rich, when precisely the opposite is true. It has somehow been forgotten that the vast fortunes of such individuals as Mitt Romney and his top donors are essentially the accumulated fruits of other people’s toil. Madrick’s remedy — increased economic growth — will not alter this dynamic. Indeed, it should be clear by now that continued growth is a sure way to exacerbate economic inequalities.
Uninformed and credulous readers could conclude from Andrew J. Bacevich’s “How We Became Israel” [Reading, November] that this tiny country roughly the size of New Jersey bears the primary responsibility for modeling and thereby promoting the adoption of “global military dominance” as the strategy of the superpower that is the United States. This anti-historical “Israelification” fantasy draws on the centuries-old myth that Jews are all-powerful and intent on bringing about their own domination of the planet. Israel has now become the Jew of the world, charged with being the source of any evil perpetrated around the globe, and thereby the designated target of deliberately propagated falsehoods like Bacevich’s perverse diatribe.
New York City
Andrew J. Bacevich responds:
Ms. Cantor is mistaken. I neither write nor imply that Israel has foisted its approach to national security on the United States. Leaders in Washington freely — and foolishly — choose to follow in Israel’s footsteps. In doing so, they have served their nation poorly.
Wes Enzinna’s “Man Underwater” [Review, December] incorrectly states that Richard Brautigan was prevented by scoliosis from serving in World War II. He was, in fact, found unfit for military service in 1953, nearly eight years after the war ended. We regret the error.