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.

Caves, Creationism and the Divine Wonder of Deep Time

The Mutiliation of Uranus by Saturn

Last week was my oldest daughter’s 5th birthday in my mind the next “big” birthday after the always special year one. I decided on a geology themed day one of whose components were her, me and my younger daughter who’s 3 taking a trip to a local limestone cave that holds walk through tours.

Given that we were visiting the cave on a weekday we had the privilege of getting a private tour: just me, the girls and our very friendly and helpful tour guide. I was really hoping the girls would get to see some bats, which I figured would be hibernating by now. Sadly, the bats were gone. In some places upwards of 90% of them had been killed by an epidemic with the understated name of “White Nose Syndrome” a biological catastrophe I hadn’t even been aware of and a crisis both for bats and farmers who depend on them for insect control and pollination.

For a local show-cave this was pretty amazing- lots of intricate stalactites and stalagmites, thin rock in the form of billowing ribbons a “living” growth moving so slowly it appears to be frozen in time. I found myself constantly wondering how long it took for these formations to take shape. “We tell people thousands of years” our guide told us. “We have no idea how old the earth is”. I thought to myself that I was almost certain that we had a pretty good idea of the age of the earth – 4.5 billion, but did not press- too interested in the caves features and exploring with the girls. I later realized I should have, it would have likely made our guide feel more at ease.

Towards the end of our tour we spotted a sea shell embedded in the low ceiling above us, and I picked up the girls one at a time so they could inspect it with their magnifying glass. I felt the kind of vertigo you feel when you come up against deep time. Here was the echo of a living thing from eons ago viewed by the living far far in its future.

Later I found myself thinking about our distance in time from the sea shell and the cave that surrounded it. How much time separated us and the shell? How old was the cave? How long had the things we had seen taken to form? Like any person who doesn’t know much about something does I went to our modern version of Delphi’s Oracle- Google.

When I Googled the very simple question: “how old are limestone caves?” a very curious thing happened. The very first link that popped up wasn’t Wikipedia or a geology site but The Institute for Creation Research.  That wasn’t the only link to creationist websites. Many, perhaps the majority, of articles written on the age of caves were by creationists, the ones that I read in seemingly scientific language, difficult for a non-scientist/non-geologist to parse. Creationists seem to be as interested in the age of caves as speleologist, and I couldn’t help but wonder, why?

Unless one goes looking or tries to remain conscious of it, there are very few places where human beings confront deep time- that is time far behind (or in front) of thousands of years by which we reckon human historical time.  The night sky is one of these places, though we have so turned the whole world into a sprawling Las Vegas that few of us can even see into the depths of night any more. Another place is natural history museums where prehistoric animals are preserved and put on display. Creationists have attempted to tackle the latter by designing their very own museums such as The Creation Museum replete with an alternative history of the universe where, among other things, dinosaurs once lived side-by-side with human beings like in The Flintstones.

Another place where a family such as my own might confront deep time is in canyons and caves. The Grand Canyon has a wonderful tour called The Trail of Time that gives some idea of the scale of geological time where tourists start at the top of the canyon in present time and move step by step and epoch by epoch to the point where the force of the Colorado River has revealed a surface 2 billion years old.

Caves are merely canyons under the ground and in both their structure and their slow growing features- stalactites and the like- give us a glimpse into the depths of geologic time. Creationists feel compelled to steel believers in a 5,000 year old earth against the kinds of doubts and questions that would be raised after a family walks through a cave. Hence all of the ink spilt arguing over how long it takes a stalagmite to grow five feet tall and look like a melting Santa Claus. What a shame.

It was no doubt the potential prickliness of his tourists that led our poor guide to present the age of the earth or the passage of time within the cave as open questions he could not address. After all, he didn’t know me from Adam and one slip of the word “million” from his mouth might have resulted in what should have been an exciting outing turning into a theological debate. As he said he was not, after all, a geologist and had merely found himself working in the cave after his father had passed away.

As regular readers of my posts well known, I am far from being an anti-religious person. Religion to me is one of the more wondrous inventions and discoveries we human beings have come up with, but religion, understood in this creationist sense seems to me a very real diminishment not merely of the human intellect but of the idea of the divine itself.

I do not mean to diminish the lives of people who believe in such pseudo-science. One of the most hardworking and courageous persons I can think of was a man blinded by a mine in Vietnam. Once we were discussing what he would most like to see were his sight restored and he said without hesitation “The Creation Museum!”. I think this man’s religious faith was a well spring for his motivation and courage, and this, I believe is what religions are for- to provide strength for us to deal with the trials and tribulations of human life. Yet, I cannot help but think that the effort to black- hole- like suck in and crush our ideas of creation so that it fits within the scope of our personal lives isn’t just an assault on scientific truth but a suffocation of our idea of the divine itself.

The Genesis story certainly offers believers and non-believers alike deep reflection on what it means to be a moral creature, but much of this opportunity for reflection is lost when the story is turned into a science text book. Not only that, both creation and creator become smaller. How limited is the God of creationists whose work they constrict from billions into mere thousand of years and whose overwhelming complexity and wonder they reduce to a mere 788,280 human words!  With bitter irony creationists diminish the depth of the work God has supposedly made so that man can exalt himself to the center of the universe and become the primary character of the story of creation. In trying to diminish the scale and depth of the universe in space and time they are committing the sin of Milton’s Satan- that is pride.

The more we learn of the universe the deeper it becomes. Perhaps the most amazing projects in NASA’s history were two very recent one- Kepler and Hubble. Their effects on our understanding of our place in the universe are far more profound than the moon landings or anything else the agency has done.

Hubble’s first Deep Field image was taken over ten consecutive days in December of 1995. What it discovered in the words of Lance Wallace over at The Atlantic:

What researchers found when they focused the Hubble over those 10 days on that tiny speck of darkness, Mather said, shook their worlds. When the images were compiled, they showed not just thousands of stars, but thousands of galaxies. If a tiny speck of darkness in the night sky held that many galaxies, stars and—as scientists were beginning to realize—associated planets … the number of galaxies, stars, and planets the universe contained had to be breathtakingly larger than they’d previously imagined.

The sheer increased scale of the universe has led scientist to believe that it is near impossible that we are “alone” in the cosmos. The Kepler Mission has filled in the details with recent studies suggesting that there may be billions of earth like planets in the universe.   If we combine these two discoveries with the understanding of planet hunter Dimitar Sasselov, who thinks that not only are we at the very beginning of the prime period for life in the universe because it has taken this long for stars to produce the heavy elements that are life’s prerequisites, but that we also have a very long time perhaps as much as 100 billion years for this golden age of life to play out, we get an idea of just how prolific creation is and will be beside which a God who creates only one living planet and one intelligent species seems tragically sterile.

To return underground, caves were our first cathedrals- witness Lascaux. It is even possible that our idea of the Underworld as the land of the dead grew out of the bronze age temple complex of Alepotrypa inspiring the Greek idea of Hades that served as the seed through which the similar ideas of Sheol held by the Jews and revved up by Christians to the pinnacle of horror shows with the idea of Hell.

I like to think that this early understanding of the Underworld as the land of the dead and the use of caves as temples reflects an intuitive understanding of deep time. Walking into a cave is indeed, in a sense, entering the realm of the dead because it is like walking into the earth’s past. What is seen there is the movement of time across vast scales. The shell my daughter’s peered at with their magnifying glass, for instance, was the exoskeleton of a creature that lived perhaps some 400 million years ago in the Silurian Period when what is now Pennsylvania was located at the equator and the limestone that was the product of decay the shells inhabitant’s relatives began to form.

Recognition of this deep time diminishes nothing of the human scale and spiritual meaning of this moment taken to stop and stare at something exquisite peeking at us from the ceiling- quite the opposite. Though I might be guilty of overwinding,  it was a second or two 400 million years or perhaps one might say 13 billion years in the making- who couldn’t help thanking God for that?