The Earth’s Inexplicable Solitude

Throw your arms wide out to represent the span of all of Earthly time. Our planet forms at the tip of your left arm’s longest finger, and the Cambrian begins at the wrist of your right arm. The rise of complex life lies in the palm of your right hand, and, if you choose, you can wipe out all of human history ‘in a single stroke with a medium grained nail file’  

Lee Billings, Five Billion Years of Solitude (145)  

For most of our days and for most of the time we live in the world of Daniel Kahneman’s experiencing self. What we pay attention to is whatever is right in front of us, which can range from the pain of hunger to the boredom of cubicle walls. Nature has probably wired us this way, the stone age hunter and gatherer still in our heads, where the failure to focus on the task at hand came with the risk of death. A good deal of modern society, and especially contemporary technology such as smart phones, leverages this presentness and leaves us trapped in its muck, a reality Douglas Rushkoff brilliantly lays out in his Present Shock.      

Yet, if the day to day world is what rules us and is most responsible for our happiness our imagination has given us the ability to leap beyond it. We can at a whim visit our own personal past or imagined future but spend even more of our time inhabiting purely imagined worlds. Indeed, perhaps Kahneman’s “remembering self” should be replaced by an imagining self, for our memories aren’t all that accurate to begin with, and much of remembering takes the form of imagining ourselves in a sort of drama or comedy in which we are the protagonist and star.

Sometimes imagined worlds can become so mesmerizing they block out the world in front of our eyes. In Plato’s cave it is the real world that is thought of as shadows and the ideas in our heads that are real and solid. Plato was taking a leap not just in perception but in time. Not only is it possible to roll out and survey the canvass of our own past and possible future or the past and future of the world around, you can leap over the whole thing and end up looking down at the world from the perspective of eternity. And looking down meant literally down, with timeless eternity located in what for Plato and his Christian and Muslim descendants was the realm of the stars above our heads.

We can no longer find a physical location for eternity, but rather than make time shallow this has instead allowed us to grasp its depth, that is, we have a new appreciation for how much the canvass of time stretches out behind us and in front of us. Some may want an earth that is only thousands of years old as was evident in the recent much publicized debate between the creationist Ken Ham and Bill Nye, but even Pat Robertson now believes in deep time.   

Recently, The Long Now Foundation,  held a 20th anniversary retrospective “The Long Now, Now” a discussion between two of the organization’s founders- Brian Eno and Danny Hillis. The Long Now Foundation may not be dedicated to deep time, but its 10,000 year bookends, looking that far back, and that far ahead, still doubles the past time horizon of creationists, and given the association between creationism and ideas of impending apocalypse, no doubt comparatively adds millennia to the sphere of concern regarding the human future as well.    

Yet, as suggested above, creationists aren’t the only ones who can be accused of having a diminished sense of time. Eno acknowledged that the genesis for the Long Now Foundation and its project of the 10,000 year clock stemmed from his experience living in “edgy Soho” where he found the idea of “here” constrained to just a few blocks rather than New York or the United States and the idea of “now” limited to at most a few days or weeks in front of one’s face. This was, as Eno notes, before the “Wall Street crowd” muscled its way in. High-speed traders have now compressed time to such small scales that human beings can’t even perceive it.  

What I found most interesting about the Eno-Hillis discussion was how they characterized their expanded notion of time, something they credited not merely to the clock project but to their own perspective gained from age. Both of their time horizons had expanded forward and backward and the majority of what they now read was history despite Eno’s background as a musician and Hillis’ as an engineer. Hillis’ study of history had led him to the view that there were three main ways of viewing the human story.

For most of human history our idea of time was cyclical- history wasn’t going anywhere but round and round. A second way of viewing history was that it was progressive- things were getting better and better- a view which had its most recent incantation beginning in the Enlightenment and was now, in both Hillis and Eno’s view, coming to a close. For both, we were entering a stage where our understanding of the human story was of a third type “improvisational” in which we were neither moving relentlessly forward or repeating but had to “muddle” our way through, with some things getting better, and others worse, but no clear understanding as to where we might end up.    

Still, if we wish to reflect on deep time even 10,000 years is not nearly enough. A great recent example of such reflection  is Lee Billings Five Billion Years of Solitude, which, though it is written as a story of our search for life outside of the solar system, is just as much or more a meditation on the depth of past and future.

When I was a kid there were 9 known planets all within our solar system, and none beyond, and now, though we have lost poor Pluto, we have discovered over a thousand planets orbiting suns other than our own with estimates in the Milky Way alone on the order of 100 billion. A momentous change few of us have absorbed, and much of Five Billion Years of Solitude reflects upon our current failure to value these discoveries, or respond to the nature of the universe that has been communicated by them. It is also a reflection on our still present solitude, the very silence of a universe that is believed to be fertile soil for life may hint that no civilization ever has or survived long enough, or devoted themselves in earnest enough, to reach into the beyond.

Perhaps our own recent history provides some clues explaining the silence. Our technology has taken on a much different role than what Billings imagined as a child mesmerized by the idea of humans breaking out beyond the bounds of earth. His pessimism captured best not by the funding cutbacks and withdrawal of public commitment or cancellation of everything from SETI to NASA’S Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF) or the ESA’s Darwin, but in Billings’ conversations with Greg Laughlin an astrophysicist and planet hunter at UC Santa Cruz.  Laughlin was now devoting part of his time and the skills he had learned as a planet hunter to commodity trading. At which Billings lamented:

The planet’s brightest scientific minds no longer leveraged the most powerful technologies to grow and expand human influence far out beyond earth, but to sublime and compress our small isolated world into an even more infinitesimal, less substantial state. As he described for me the dark arts of reaping billion dollar profits from sub-cent scale price changes rippling at near light-speed around the globe, Laughlin shook his head in quiet awe. Such feats, he said, were “much more difficult than finding an earth-like exoplanet”. (112)

Billings finds other, related, possible explanations for our solitude as well. He discusses the thought experiment of UC San Diego’s Tom Murphy who tried to extrapolate the world’s increasing energy use into the future at an historical rate of 2.3 percent per year. To continue to grow at that rate, which the United States has done since the middle of the seventeenth-century, we would have to encase every star in the Milky Way galaxy within an energy absorbing Dyson sphere within 2,500 years. At which Billings concludes:

If technological civilization like ours are common in the universe, the fact that we have yet to see stars or entire galaxies dimming before our eyes beneath starlight-absorbing veneers of Dyson spheres suggests that our own present era of exponential growth may be anomalous, not only to our past, but also to our future.

Perhaps even with a singularity we can not continue the exponential trend lines we have been on since the industrial revolution. Technological civilization may peak much closer to our own level of advancement than we realize, or may more often than not destroy itself, but, if the earth is any example, life itself once established is incredibly resilient.

As Billings shows us in the depths of time the earth has been a hot house or a ball of ice with glaciers extending to the equator. Individual species and even whole biomes may disappear under the weight of change and shocks, but life itself holds on. If our current civilization proves suicidal we will not be the first form of life that has so altered the earthly environment that it has destroyed both itself and much of the rest of life on earth.

In this light Billings discusses the discovery of the natural gas fields of the Marcellus Shale and the explosive growth of fracking, the shattering of the earth using water under intense pressure, which while it has been an economic boon to my beloved Pennsylvania, and is less of a danger to us as a greenhouse gas than demon coal, presents both short term and longer term dangers.

The problem with the Marcellus is that it is merely the largest of many such gas shale field located all over the earth. Even if natural gas is a less potent greenhouse gas than coal it still contributes to global warming and its very cheapness may delay our necessary move away from fossil fuels in total if we are to avoid potentially catastrophic levels of warming.

The Marcellus was created by eons of anaerobic bacteria trapped in underwater mountain folds which released hydrogen sulfide toxic to almost any form of life and leading to a vast accumulation of carbon as dead bacteria could no longer be decomposed. Billings muses whether we ourselves might be just another form of destructive bacteria.

Removed from its ancient context, the creation of the Marcellus struck me as eerily familiar. A new source of energy and nutrients flows into an isolated population. The population balloons and blindly grows, occasionally crashing when it surpasses the carrying capacity of its environment. The modern drill rigs shattering stone to harvest carbon from boom- and- bust waves of ancient death suddenly seemed like echoes, portents of history repeating itself on the grandest of scales. (130)

Technological civilization does not seem to be a gift to life on the planet on which it emerges, so much as it is a curse and danger, until, that is, the star upon which life depends itself becomes a danger or through stellar- death no longer produces the energy necessary for life. Billings thinks we have about 500 million years before the sun heats up so much the earth loses all its water. Life on earth will likely only survive the warming sun if we or our descendants do, whether we literally tow the planet to a more distant orbit or settle earthly life elsewhere, but in the mean time the biosphere will absorb our hammer blows and shake itself free of us entirely if we can not control our destructive appetites.

Over the very, very long term the chain of life that began on earth almost four billion years ago will only continue if we manage to escape our solar system entirely, but for now, the quest to find other living planets is less a  matter of finding a new home than it is about putting the finishing touches on the principle of Copernican Mediocrity, the idea that there is nothing especially privileged about earth, and, above all, ourselves.

And yet, the more we learn about the universe the more it seems that the principle of Copernican Mediocrity will itself need to be amended.  In the words of Billings’ fellow writer and planet hunter Caleb Scharf  the earth is likely “special but not significant”. Our beloved sun burns hotter than most stars, our gas giants larger are farther from our parent star, our stabilizing moon unlikely. How much these rarity factors play in the development of life, advanced life and technological civilization is anybody’s guess, and answering this question one of the main motivations behind the study of exoplanets and the search for evidence of technological civilization beyond earth. Yet, Billings wants to remind us that even existing at all is a very low probability event.

Only “the slimmest fraction of interstellar material is something so sophisticated as a hydrogen atom. To simply be any piece of ordinary matter- a molecule, a wisp of gas, a rock, a star, a person- appears to be an impressive and statistically unlikely accomplishment.” (88) Astrophysicists ideas of the future of the universe seem to undermine Copernican mediocrity as well for, if their models are right, the universe will spend most of its infinite history not only without stars and galaxies and people, but without even stable atoms.  Billings again laments:

Perhaps its just a failure of imagination to see no hope for life in such a bleak, dismal future. Or, maybe, the predicted evolution of the universe is a portent against Copernican mediocrity, a sign that the bright age of bountiful galaxies, shining stars, unfolding only a cosmic moment after the dawn of all things, is in fact rather special. (89)

I think this failure of imagination stems from something of a lack of gratitude on the part of human beings, and is based on a misunderstanding that for something to be meaningful it needs to last “forever.” The glass, for me, is more than half-full, for, even given the dismal views of astrophysicists on the universe’s future there is still as much as 100 billion years left for life to play out on its stage. And life and intelligence in this universe will likely not be the last.

Billings himself capture the latter point. The most prominent theory of how the Big Bang occurred, the “inflationary model” predicts an infinity of universes- the multiverse. Echoing Giordano Bruno, he writes:

Infinity being ,well, infinite, it would follow that the multiverse would host infinitudes of living beings on a limitless number of other worlds. (91)

I care much less that the larger infinity of these universes are lifeless than that an infinity of living worlds will exist as well.

As Billings points out, this expanded canvass of time and decentering on ourselves is a return to the philosophy of Democritus which has come down to us especially from Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things the point being one of the ways to avoid anxiety and pressure in our day-to-day would is to remember how small we and our problems are in the context of the big picture.

Still, one is tempted to ask what this vastly expanded canvass both in time past and future and in the potential number of sentient feeling beings means for the individual human life?

In a recent interview in The Atlantic, author Jennifer Percy describes how she was drawn away from physics and towards fiction because fiction allowed her to think through questions about human existence that science could not. Here father had looked to the view of human beings as insignificant with glee in a way she could not.

He flees from what messy realm of human existence, what he calls “dysfunctional reality” or “people problems.” When you imagine that we’re just bodies on a rock, small concerns become insignificant. He keeps an image above his desk, taken by the Hubble space telescope, that from a distance looks like an image of stars—but if you look more closely, they are not stars, they are whole galaxies. My dad sees that, imagining the tiny earth inside one of these galaxies—and suddenly, the rough day, the troubles at work, they disappear.

The kind of diminishment of the individual human life that Percy’s father found comforting, she instead found terrifying and almost nihilistic. Upon encountering fiction such as Lawrence Sargent Hall’s The Ledge, Percy realized fiction:

It helped me formulate questions about how the immensity and cruelty of the universe coexists with ordinary love, the everyday circumstances of human beings. The story leaves us with an image of this fisherman caught man pitilessly between these two worlds. It posed a question that became an obsession, and that followed me into my writing: what happens to your character when nature and humanity brutally encounter one another?

Trying to think and feel our way through this tension of knowing that we and our concerns are so small, but our feelings are so big, is perhaps the best we can do. Escaping the tedium and stress of the day through the contemplation of the depth of time and space is, no doubt a good thing, but it would be tragic to use such immensities as a means of creating space between human hearts or no longer finding the world that exists between and around us to be one of exquisite beauty and immeasurable value- a world that is uniquely ours to wonder at and care for.


8 comments on “The Earth’s Inexplicable Solitude

  1. […] from the exponential growth upon which this spreading prosperity rests being tapped out and proving a short-lived phenomenon- it is, after all only two centuries old. Should rising powers such as China and India along with peoples elsewhere come to the conclusion […]

  2. Je terminerai de jeter un coup d’oeil à
    tout ça dans la semaine

  3. […] future. I don’t believe in either sort of determinism we are not fated to destroy ourselves, but the silence of the universe shouldn’t fill us with confidence that we are fated to save ourselves either. Our future is in our […]

  4. […] de Neufville points out, and as I myself have argued before, the silence of the universe gives us reason to be pessimistic about the long term survivability of […]

  5. […] built around the fantasy of permanent escape would not last long in its confrontation with reality. Fermi paradox, […]

  6. […] written about before, and as brought to my attention by the science writer Lee Billings in his book Five Billion Years of Solitude, there is a good and little discussed case from physics for thinking we might be closer to the end […]

  7. […] first problem here is that any suggestion that moral progress (or even technological progress) is or is not perpetual remains mere speculation- it’s not really an answerable question. The […]

  8. […] a lonely corner of an otherwise ordinary galaxy, would then seem to be a blatant violation of the Copernican principle and place us back onto the center stage of the moral narrative of the universe- if it has […]

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