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Mario Livio

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Nothing Is Perfect!

Posted: 09/19/2012 4:09 pm


The book The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, has been one of my absolute favorites for as long as I can remember. The seemingly simple yet philosophically inspiring narrative, coupled with those charming drawings by the author (Fig. 1 shows the little prince), move me in different ways every time I reread the book. For some reason I decided to read it again yesterday, and predictably, my mind has stubbornly latched onto a few fascinating passages. One of those tells the story of the presumed "discovery" of the little prince's home, an asteroid called B-612. Saint-Exupéry writes:

This asteroid has only once been seen through the telescope. That was by a Turkish astronomer, in 1909. On making his discovery, the astronomer had presented it to the International Astronomical Congress, in a great demonstration. But he was in Turkish costume, and so nobody would believe what he said. Grown-ups are like that...
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Figure 1. The little prince (source)


This perceptive description of one of the types of prejudice that unfortunately continues to color judgments in all disciplines was accompanied by the "explanatory" drawing seen in Fig. 2. Saint-Exupéry then continued his account with an amusing depiction of how the preconception has been "corrected":

Fortunately, however, for the reputation of Asteroid B-612, a Turkish dictator made a law that his subjects, under pain of death, should change to European costume. So in 1920 the astronomer gave his demonstration all over again, dressed with impressive style and elegance [Fig. 3]. And this time everybody accepted his report.
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Figure 2. Astronomer in Turkish costume (source)


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Figure 3. Astronomer in European costume (source)


A second part that stuck in my head was the little prince's encounter with a fox. After hearing that the little prince came from another planet, the fox asks with interest, "Are there hunters on that planet?"

The little prince answers, "No."

The fox continues in great anticipation: "Ah, that is interesting! Are there chickens?"

"No."

"Nothing is perfect," the fox concludes with a sigh.

How true.

Finally, I was touched by the sad part in which the little prince says his goodbyes to the author. In an extraordinarily poignant passage he explains that he is giving the author a special present: "All men have stars ... but they are not the same things for different people ... all these stars are silent. You -- you alone -- will have the stars as no one else has them" (emphasis added).

"What are you trying to say?" the author inquires.

"In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars are laughing, when you look at the sky at night."

Imagine indeed how we would feel once we discover with our future telescopes that on one particular planet an extraterrestrial civilization exists. Most likely, this will not happen anytime soon. Astronomy tends to proceed in measured steps. First, the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope may discover extrasolar planets with liquid water on their surface. Then, the next large optical-ultraviolet telescope in space may detect biosignatures in the atmospheres of those planets, and so on. The important point is that the quest will go on. As Saint-Exupéry so beautifully puts it, "Nothing in the universe can be the same if somewhere, we do not know where, a sheep that we never saw has -- yes or no? -- eaten a rose..."

 

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