In 1584, an Italian philosopher named Giordano Bruno said the universe was infinite and contained a countless number of suns surrounded by a countless number of earths. For this and other heresies, the church had him burned at the stake.
Four hundred years later, two scientists at the University of Geneva found the first planet circling a star other than our sun. Today, the number is more than 500 and growing.
In 1925, Edwin Hubble proved that some of the smudges long observed in the night sky were not stars at all but distant galaxies similar to our own Milky Way. Today, you can see these distant galaxies on your computer at the NASA website's Astronomy Picture of the Day archive.
On the other end of the spectrum is our journey into the infinitely small. At this point, we are no longer dealing with matter; we are dealing with probability. Maybe it's here and maybe it isn't. The galaxies are incredibly beautiful; the behavior of subatomic particles defies everything we know or think we know, but what does it all mean to the average man on the street.
For one thing, it means knowledge is expanding faster than our ability to understand it and use it in a beneficial manner. You'd think this would make us humble, but it seems to have just the opposite effect. Never have people been so sure of their own bias.
In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama tried to appeal to both sides of the political divide, but according to columnist Kathleen Parker, he never mentioned the one word that would tell conservatives he understood their vision for America.
Obama spoke of the American Dream, "... a place where you can make it if you try." "We are successful," he said. We are "productive" and "prosperous." "We do big things." But he did not say we are "exceptional."
What's going on here? Is "exceptional" another one of those code words politicians use to rally the faithful? Does it have some special meaning for those in the know? Apparently.
A little research traces the word back to the French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville who visited the U.S. in 1831 and spoke of "American exceptionalism." De Tocqueville thought America was uniquely different than other nations because of its commitment to egalitarianism, individualism, populism and laissez-faire. Fine, but somehow this has morphed into a belief that American is a favored nation, blessed by God and entitled to a privileged place in world affairs.
Is that what the conservatives wanted to hear from their president? Or perhaps they focused on the phrase "laissez-faire," which describes an economic doctrine that opposes government interference in commercial affairs. Or maybe they equate populism with the tea party movement. It's hard to tell.
I'm a word buff. The dictionary is my friend, the thesaurus my companion; but I find it hard to keep up with the various code words political speech writers use to manipulate the public. When someone says "exceptional," I figure they mean unique or one of the other dictionary definitions. So if Mr. Obama has had a problem with the "E word" because of its political ramifications, it simply did not register with me.
What does register is the universality of everything around us. No two people, no two situations are exactly alike, and yet they are. There is a common bond between every living creature. Furthermore, we can look out into space and know we are not alone. Somewhere there are others like us.
Then we turn and look at the very small. Here what happens and what doesn't happen is a matter of chance.
Before we start parsing the president's words let's consider something a little more important than political infighting: How can we use our minds and our ever-growing body of knowledge to cultivate that which is truly exceptional in everyone.
Joan King lives in Sautee. Her column appears biweekly on Tuesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com.