Thursday, November 06, 2008

Yesterday, I found myself staring blankly at the above color-coded map of global HIV prevalences. Below the map there was a list several numbers, the kind of number with many trailing zeroes. As I looked at the map, I got that feeling that I sometimes get when looking into the night’s sky--that feeling of being very very small.

Monty Python has a mirthful song called “The Universe Song,” and its middle verse goes like this:

"Our galaxy itself contains a hundred billion stars,it's a hundred thousand lightyears side to side.

It bulges in the middle, sixteen thousand lightyears thick,but out by us it's just three thousand lightyears wide.

We're thirty thousand lightyears from galactic central point,we go 'round every two hundred million years.

And our galaxy is only one of millions of billions,in this amazing and expanding universe."

The song is light-hearted and I sometimes listen to it for find it comforting. There is comfort to be found, I believe, in the idea that we are insignificant, no matter what we do or do not do. The acknowledgement that life is uncontrollable, that we are to an extent along for the ride, is, in a sense, a relief.

Well, for me, maps with a lot of reds and zeroes that represent sick children have a similar effect. They remind me that I am just a pixel on the map. (As I was born in the USA and born without HIV, I suppose I am one of the burnt orange pixels in the map above.)

Yesterday, in Botswana where I currently live, I saw a twelve year-old child with recently-diagnosed HIV and undiagnosed tuberculosis. His name was Samuel. He had been coughing and losing weight for months, and had several fevers a day. I asked him how is cough was, expecting him to say “better,” “worse,” or “the same”. Perhaps “wet” or “dry”. Instead, he said something that I did not expect. He said, “It hurts.”

Because of a 0.0001mm germ, Steve’s immune system was in tatters. For those of you who know the pleasure of picking out the Milky Way on a dark, out-of-town night, you would have had no problem recognizing the stippled white smudges over the upper lungs of Samuel’s grossly abnormal chest x-ray.

Samuel was sick, a dark red pixel on the map of global HIV, in danger of flickering out of the picture all together.

Having told you this, the question I want to ask you is as follows: On a small planet in an immense galaxy that is hurdling through space with countless others, on a planet where millions are dying of a tiny virus, does it matter if I help Samuel get better?

Or perhaps, my question for you is this: Is there anything in the big big universe that matters more?


The HIV virus. (

"A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte", by Georges Seurat's, uses Pointillist technique (which I have always called “stippling”) to capture the scene at a nice seaside park. I learned about this painting as a child, and then saw it again in the 1986 film Ferris Bueller's Day Off. In this film, Cameron stands very close to the painting and zooms in on the little girl in the middle, only to find that there is no shape or form to her face. Personally, if I ever have the chance, I am going to do the same with woman carrying a parasol in the right foreground of the painting. Though you may not be able to see in the image above, she seems to wear a subtle smile. I like to think that, if I stood inches from the original painting, there would be but one or two dots that ensure that her expression is one of contentment and not one of indifference or sadness.