May the force be with you

Opinion: Columns

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

It's only fitting that 2021 begins with Harvard professor and esteemed theoretical physicist Avi Loeb causing a media stir with his insights about a cigar-shaped piece of space junk called Oumuamua that Loeb says is "the first sign of intelligent life outside Earth," according to a Boston CBS affiliate's reporting. 

The object, discovered in 2017, wasn't an asteroid, because it didn't leave a trail of gas or debris in its wake, Loeb argues in his upcoming book "Extraterrestrial."

"There was only one conceivable explanation: the object was a piece of advanced technology created by a distant alien civilization," according to a description of the book by its publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 

Loeb's theory makes sense to me. The universe is vast. Our own Milky Way galaxy is between 100,000 and 150,000 light years across, scientists estimate. And it's just one among 2 trillion galaxies in the observable universe, which means there may be more galaxies out there that we just can't see yet. 

The idea that we're the only intelligent life in our galaxy, to say nothing of the observable universe, capable of inventing technologies like satellites and other equipment designed to probe the universe and that often winds up as space junk is, at this point probably Copernican. 

A new astronomy study published last month by Caltech physicists points to the possibility of intelligent life other than humanity in the Milky Way and concludes that most "alien civilizations that ever dotted our galaxy have probably killed themselves off already," according to an article summarizing the study in Live Science. 

The study, the article states, "says where and when life is most likely to occur in the Milky Way and identifies the most important factor affecting its prevalence: intelligent creatures' tendency toward self-annihilation."

The study is in keeping with an observation the linguist Noam Chomsky made in his book "Hegemony or Survival," in which Chomsky references the great biologist Ernst Mayr, who said that "what we call 'civilizations' … 'inevitably are short-lived.'"

"Mayr speculates that higher intelligence may not be favored by selection," Chomsky writes. "The history of life on Earth, he concluded, refutes the claim that 'it is better to be smart than to be stupid,' at least judging by biological success: beetles and bacteria, for example, are far more successful than primates in these terms, and that is generally true of creatures that fill a specific niche or can undergo rapid genetic change. He also made the rather somber observation that 'the average life expectancy of a species is about 100,000 years.'" 

Oumuamua, after all, means "scout or messenger" in Hawaii — perhaps a message from an ancient, extraterrestrial civilization within our galaxy that self-annihilated light years ago.

 At some point, I guess, super smart species become too smart for our own Good; or perhaps the kind of intelligence that we consider to be an advantage becomes, at some point, debilitating. 

We confuse technological advancement and innovation for innovation's sake with progress while key elements of a thriving social life like basic fairness, solidarity, compassion, love, empathy, kindness and transparency are left behind like debris from a comet. 

On Monday, a few hundred engineers and other employees at Google announced that they were forming a union, an 18th century social technology that, perhaps more than anything, created the American Middle Class. In a report a day ago, NPR called the 21st century Google union "a breakthrough in labor organizing in Silicon Valley where workers have clashed with executives over workplace culture, diversity and ethics." That's a sentence that could have been ripped from a 20th century history textbook. 

On Tuesday, the Washington Post reported on yet another mutation of the coronavirus, which is up to 70 percent more transmissible than other strains of the virus that are circulating. The new strain, the paper said, could mean an even higher number of cases. 

A day earlier, the President of the United States tweeted that the "number of cases and deaths of the China Virus" reported by his own agency are fake. "Fake news!" 

The tweet, of course, was overshadowed by news that the president had urged a Georgia elected official to "find" him the amount of votes need for him to flip the state from blue back to red. 

The tape added fuel to the heated national argument over issues of voter suppression and white mob rule, issues many well-meaning people thought we had dealt with in the 1960s. 

In November, 74 million people voted for the incumbent president — including nearly 3,000 people in sophisticated Oak Park and about 1,500 people in sophisticated River Forest, for a share of roughly 9 percent and 22 percent of the vote in each town, respectively. 

If we think 2020 was an outlier, a blip, a missed beat in the steady drum roll of progress, we'd be wrong. The year, it seems to me, was right in line with a civilizational tendency toward self-annihilation that seems common to most advanced civilizations — whether on Earth or elsewhere. 

That tendency, however, doesn't have to be endemic within us individual human beings. The civilized world may be sadistically individualistic, pathologically greedy, selfish and ruthlessly ambitious, but we as individuals don't have to be. And as a conscious collective — aware of our commonalities — we can still put up a fight. Just like those Google employees. 

But we can't innovate or invent or code our way out of this struggle. We have to do what the late, great Aloysius Leon Higginbotham, Jr. — a towering Black federal judge — urged a newly installed Justice Clarence Thomas to do in 1991, not long after Thomas assumed his seat on the Supreme Court. 

"This is a grave responsibility indeed," Higginbotham wrote in a public letter to Thomas. "In order to discharge it you will need to recognize what James Baldwin called the 'force of history' within you. You will need to recognize that both your public life and your private life reflect this country's history … and while much has been said about your admirable determination to overcome terrible obstacles, it is also important to remember how you arrived where you are now, because you did not get there by yourself."  

To get through these dystopian times, we're going to need to stick together. 

 

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com 

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