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Universality

Universality is a big word, and a dangerous one,” Leonard Bernstein said. “At the same time that it implies likeness, it also…By Kevin Berger

Universality is a big word, and a dangerous one,” Leonard Bernstein said. “At the same time that it implies likeness, it also implies diversity.” The great conductor and composer made that remark during a lecture on music at Harvard in 1973.

The problem of pasting the universal label on something is that it obscures its uniqueness. Saying an Indian raga, beneath its groove, can share universal musical elements with a 19th-century European symphony, may sound right. But who gets to define “universal”? It’s a question of power and culture that generates some dangerous answers. In music and science.

The issue opens with “Gaia, the Scientist” by geobiologist Hope Jahren, author of Lab Girl, winner of a 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award. Jahren cracks open the question of who gets to qualify whom as a scientist, and why, a fraught question when applied to women. “Now that I’ve learned and practiced both, why doesn’t cooking count as chemistry?” Jahren writes. “Why doesn’t sewing count as geometry? Is gardening so different from botany?”

Refreshing questions abound. We may be in the battle against COVID-19 together, but Robert Burioni, a virologist and immunologist from Italy, points out society loses when science is seen as democratic. People don’t get to debate whether COVID-19 vaccines work to arrest the pandemic. They do. Human biology is universal. The value of human convictions is not.

Bold points of view define this issue. They spotlight universality in biology, cosmology, and, yes, music, only to deconstruct them.


Lead image: Sergey Nivens / Shutterstock

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