Sunday, July 9, 2006

Reach for the Stars

That bit of advice is usually offered metaphorically, but it was advanced very literally by famed British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking in a speech he delivered recently in Hong Kong. According to Hawking, if the human race manages to survive the next 100 years, we'll have acquired the know-how to colonize a planet in some other star system ... which should allowhomo sapiens to survive at least another millennium.

"It is important for the human race to spread out into space for the survival of the species," Hawking said. "Life on Earth is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster, such as sudden global warming, nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus or other dangers we have not yet thought of." (See AP story.)

Well gee, Steve, thanks for the good news!

To cheer us up, Hawking then revealed that he's working on a children's book with his daughter. Hope it's not a bedtime story...

"If the human race manages to survive." Hawking obviously considers this such a big if that he put the question out to universe ... the universe of Yahoo! Answers, that is. For the uninitiated, Yahoo! Answers is a service that combines the features of your local library's reference desk with those of an online gambling casino. You ask your question and then take your chances on the answer you get from any Joe or Jane Smith who considers himself/herself an expert on the topic. As a matter of fact, the question is still open, so hop
over there and enlighten Hawking and the rest of us with your response.

Well, it's Sunday morning, and I'm pondering Hawking's question along with an article on the price put on human life appearing in this morning's Washington Post. The life of an American fetches a higher price in dollars, of course. Families of American military personnel killed in the line of duty receive a $
400,000 death benefit, while families of Iraqi civilians inadvertently killed in the line of being liberated receive a payment of $2,500. That the death of a human being becomes a dollar figure and then just another statistic is bad enough, but the fact that someone's worth depends on his/her nationality, ethnicity, or whatever is beyond pitiful. (We Americans don't have a monopoly on this sort of relativism. See this morning's BBC report on sectarian killings in Baghdad.) Sort of makes me agree with one of the more than 600 (at this count) respondents who answered Hawking's question with another question:

"Do we deserve to survive the next hundred years?"
With disasters such as global warming or nuclear war looming, Hawking dreams about moving to another planet. Sure. Then when we wreck that one, we can move on to the next one, right? And while we're at it: just who is going to get to pile themselves and their belongings into those intergalactic moving vans? Maybe there will be a lottery à la Shirley Jackson. Or maybe the "lower classes" and those whose lives fetch a lesser dollar amount will simply get left behind, like those who traveled steerage on the Titanic.

Things like putting a price tag on human life and looking for the next planet to trash could really get me down this morning.

Fortunately, hope comes in the form of South African writer William M. Gumede who responds to a much more concrete question posed by the Washington Post: If you were appointed as mediator in this latest Israeli-Palestinian crisis, what steps would you recommend?

"What is now needed on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, says Gumede, "is for them to, just for one moment, suspend the past and even the present."

...even the future...or rather, for the sake of the future, I'd add.

Gumede describes the compromises that had to happen before the bloody conflict over apartheid could be settled, learning to overcome mutual distrust and the ever-present, irrational fear of appearing weak to the other side. (Some people still think that way, apparently: "You have to understand the Arab mind ...The only thing they understand is force -- force, pride and saving face.") Compromise and mutual respect are signs of strength not weakness. And these are our only real hope. In other words, appraise your neighbor's life at the same price you would want your life appraised..

"Out of the despair, a solution is still possible."
I choose to reach for the stars named cooperation and mutual respect. I don't flatter myself that I'll get a ticket on Hawking's starship (if I live that long).

Cartoon "Homo sapiens celebrating their diversity" from the American Anthroplogical Association Newsletter, as found at

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