Thursday, September 05, 2019

Deep Time

The September 2019 issue of the SMITHSONIAN magazine contains two articles I found especially interesting.

"The Homecoming": An ancient skeleton of an Australian aborigine is returned to his people for ceremonial reburial. This individual, known as Mungo Man, lived about 40,000 years ago, one of the oldest specimens of Homo sapiens found outside of Africa. Previously, conventional wisdom maintained that the aborigines had migrated to Australia at most 20,000 years ago. Current estimates place the arrival of human inhabitants between 47,000 and 65,000 years ago. By contrast, the earliest known Egyptian pyramid is less than 5000 years old.

"Saturn's Surprise": The water ice that makes up the rings of Saturn is raining down onto the planet, so that the rings will eventually cease to exist. They may disappear in "only" 100 million years—eons compared to the length of time anatomically modern human beings have existed, about 200,000 years, but a minute fraction of the estimated 4.5-billion-year life of the solar system.

Yet another SMITHSONIAN article delving into relative antiquity, "The New Treasures of Pompeii," reports the latest investigations of a Roman city destroyed by a volcanic eruption less than 2000 years ago, in 79 A.D. That's nothing compared to the age of Mungo Man but a long time in the perception of most Americans, for whom the 400-year-old Jamestown settlement seems ancient.

Both the article on Mungo Man and the one on Saturn highlight the vast expanses of time (contrasted with a single human life, anyway) covered by the history of our species and the unimaginably longer history of our solar system, not to mention the universe as a whole.

How would an immortal alien, or even one with a lifespan measured in millions of years, regard us? Would we be able to communicate with such an entity at all? Mark Twain, in a passage included in the posthumous collection LETTERS FROM THE EARTH, sardonically compares the lifespan of the human race in the context of the history of the cosmos to the thin layer of paint atop the Eiffel Tower, with the tower representing the age of the universe. Twain asks how we can believe ourselves to be the pinnacle of creation. That's like believing the entire tower was built for the sake of the skin of paint on the top. Maybe an incredibly long-lived species would see us that way. On the other hand, maybe a million-year-old intellect would view tiny, ephemeral creatures with compassion.

The immortal, cosmic, transdimensional entity in Stephen King's IT (the second half of the film adaptation comes out this week) finds human beings interesting enough to torture and feed on. Let's hope that if similar entities exist and we eventually meet them, they will have matured beyond a sadistic appetite for the fear and pain of lesser beings.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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