Monday, February 23, 2004

The Others

Five hundred years after Copernicus, many people are aware that the Earth isn’t in the middle; but we still think geocentrically as the view out the window had a special privilege. Now it may be true, to paraphrase Tip O’Neil, that all astronomy is local; yet I find it curious that we don’t seldom even bother to map our situation relative to nearby stars. Where is Sirius relative to Alpha Centauri or Arcturus?—just to mention a few neighborhood hot spots barely beyond Local Fluff and well within the Local Bubble. And where is superman or Captain Kirk supposed to find a road map? The only book I’m aware of that offers a cartographic look at our corner of the universe is Nigel Henbest and Heather Cooper’s Guide to the Galaxy. A sample.

Parochialism also rules our view of living things. Although we a perfectly aware, or should be, that the dominant life forms on earth are bacterial, not only in respect of their ubiquity, mass, and sheer numbers, but because the prokaryotes are a vastly more varied group than the relatively monotonous eukaryotes—biochemically speaking, it’s hard to distinguish a shitake mushroom from the governor of California and that’s not just this year. Even when people do deign to notice the microbes, it’s almost always in a medical context as if the bacteria never had anything better to do than give us the runs. That’s why I got a kick out of finding A Field Guide to the Bacteria by Betsy Dexter Dyer at Borders the other day. Checking out delta proteobacteria in sulfur-rich environments is unlikely to replace birdwatching as a popular hobby, but a natural history appreciation of bacteria corrects the same kind of error of perception that comes from thinking of the stars as bright lights on the inside of a sphere. (A more synoptic but equally genial tour of the whole world of living things may be found in the third edition of Five Kingdoms by Lynn Margulis and Karlene V. Schwartz.)

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