The nature of deep time

“It is the autumn of humanity, and we are moments between raindrops.”


I like taking the long view.

Lee Billings has a nice quote from his book Five Billion Years of Solitude on the nature of deep time, which was brought to my attention by Lawrence Klaes of the Tau Zero Foundation via Paul Gilster’s A Sunset Glimpse of Deep Time post:

“Deep time is something that even geologists and their generalist peers, the earth and planetary scientists, can never fully grow accustomed to.

The sight of a fossilized form, perhaps the outline of a trilobite, a leaf, or a saurian footfall can still send a shiver through their bones, or excavate a trembling hollow in the chest that breath cannot fill. They can measure celestial motions and list Earth’s lithic annals, and they can map that arcane knowledge onto familiar scales, but the humblest do not pretend that minds summoned from and returned to dust in a century’s span can truly comprehend the solemn eons in their passage. Instead, they must in a way learn to stand outside of time, to become momentarily eternal. Their world acquires dual, overlapping dimensions— one ephemeral and obvious, the other enduring and hidden in plain view. A planet becomes a vast machine, or an organism, pursuing some impenetrable purpose through its continental collisions and volcanic outpourings. A man becomes a protein-sheathed splash of ocean raised from rock to breathe the sky, an eater of sun whose atoms were forged on an anvil of stars.

Beholding the long evolutionary succession of Earthly empires that have come and gone, capped by a sliver of human existence that seems so easily shaved away, they perceive the breathtaking speed with which our species has stormed the world. Humanity’s ascent is a sudden explosion, kindled in some sapient spark of self-reflection, bursting forth from savannah and cave to blaze through the biosphere and scatter technological shrapnel across the planet, then the solar system, bound for parts unknown. From the giant leap of consciousness alongside some melting glacier, it proved only a small step to human footprints on the Moon.

The modern era, luminous and fleeting, flashes like lightning above the dark, abyssal eons of the abiding Earth. Immersed in a culture unaware of its own transience, students of geologic time see all this and wonder whether the human race will somehow abide, too.”

I might quibble with the teleological flavor of his “planet as vast machine pursuing impenetrable purpose” phrasing as potentially misleading, but whoever manages to get to page 145 of Billings’ Solitude (where this quote derives) shouldn’t fall for that kind of sophomoric literalism anyway, so I digress. Anyway, it reminded me of computer scientist Kaj Sotala’s beautiful quote, which I reproduced at the start of the post above.

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