Visions of Paradise

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Deep Time

I first stumbled across Greg Benford's Deep Time when I went online a few years ago and saw CNN advertising their review of Greg Benford's new nonfiction book. The review was quite enticing because it indicated that Deep Time is a thought-provoking, sense of wonder book. Since I have always enjoyed Greg’s fiction, I bought the book and read it very quickly. In brief, Deep Time is indeed both thought-provoking and wondrous, and I recommend it highly.

But I guess you want to know a bit more about it than that, huh?

The first section is actually the Introduction which discusses mankind's innate urge to send messages into the future announcing his presence and his achievements: Stonehenge, The Great Wall of China, the Sphinx, etc. Modern civilization offers us the capability of sending even more spectacular messages, such as the Empire State Building and the Golden Gate Bridge. But we've also taken to sending much smaller messages that lie buried for decades or centuries until their intended time of arrival: time capsules.

This sequés into Part One: Ten Thousand Years of Solitude which is concerned with a specific message that Benford was part of sending into the future: how do we warn future civilizations away from the buried nuclear waste that contemporary civilization has buried beneath the soil in such semi-desolate places as New Mexico? The U.S. government formed a committee of scientists to devise such a message, and Benford very carefully describes the discussions which the committee held and explains much of their reasoning. Such as what guarantee is there that future civilizations will understand any 20th century languages? (If history is any indication, and if the messages remain extant for two millenia, the answer to that question is probably no chance at all) What symbols should have universal resonance two millenia down the line? (This brings back the spectre of Stonehenge which might itself have been a deliberate message left to future generations by its builders, but whose message has been totally lost over the changing centuries) And how should the message be built? Most of the physical ideas discussed were rejected because of the temporal nature of the materials and their liability to falling prey to everything from acts of nature to forms of human destruction (such as warfare which has a nasty habit of popping up with disgusting regularity).

This was a very interesting chapter indeed, not to mention scary when you consider just what type of legacy 20th century humans are leaving buried beneath the soil for future generations.

Part Two: Vaults in Vacuum was not so dire, but equally fascinating. Benford was part of another committee-the man surely does keep busy!-related to the U.S. government's SETI program. This time he was one of a small group of scientists designing a message to be placed in a spacecraft intended to introduce humanity to distant aliens who might discover it. These restraints were considerably different than those involved in the nuclear waste message. Obviously no language message was possible, so other forms must suffice. Pictures? Mathematics? Audio messages, specifically music? As in the previous chapter, he describes the discussions among the committee members, as well as all the considerations which were not scientific at all. Costs factors. Space considerations in the spacecraft itself. Public relations concerns, some as a result of the public relations problems which accompanied the message placed in Voyager several decades earlier. These included political correctness concerns: pictures were rejected showing men bigger than women or not including sufficient numbers of minorities. And, most frustrating of all, political concerns, particularly the ego of the scientist spearheading the committee who sought to sabotage the work of the other committee members for the sake of her own personal aggrandizement.

These first three sections were the most fascinating parts of the book, perhaps because of their concern with interplay among scientists with common goals but considerable different means toward achieving them. Much of this was very frightening, especially Ten Thousand Years of Solitude, which left me with the creeping feeling that, considering the narrowmindedness which often dominated the prior two sections of the book, all the fears Benford discussed will indeed come true, and all his hopes seem like so much wistful thinking.

Part Three: The Library of Life is concerned with biodiversity and how humans are the only species ever whose existence has been responsible for the destruction of so many other species. Benford discusses in situ methods for saving species-specifically zoos and preserves, although maintaining natural locales for certain species is a more desirable, if less likely, option. Benford wisely decides it is not succeeding fast enough to save most currently endangered species, if it is succeeding at all. So he proposes an ex situ method: collecting DNA from as many plant and animal species as possible and saving it in "libraries" whose contents should overlap for the sake of safety through redundancy.

As in the previous sections, Benford discusses the pros and cons of his plan. Again they include cost factors, space factors, reliability of various storage techniques, and the need for maintaining the libraries after the generation which designs them passes on. He also comes up against scientists who disapprove of his plan for various reasons, some practical, some pigheaded, but Benford pushes onward, because this chapter is not a discussion of a past series of events, but a proposal that he feels very strongly about. I am no more a biologist than I am a physicist, so I had to accept much of what Benford said on trust alone, but his arguments certainly seemed convincing to this layman.

Part Four: Stewards of the Earth is even scarier, since in it Benford discusses global warming, its causes, its progress, and its likely effects. Briefly he discusses some of the opposition to global warming fears, mostly generated by energy companies which, in his words, launched a tobacco industry style disinformation campaign against the global warming findings. And the media is a culprit too since they are vulnerable to the binary model of disagreement, so that the skeptic position of warming gets equal exposure, despite being a tiny minority of the scientists working in the area. This does not mean they are wrong, but it does reveal a sobering truth: a small propaganda investment by the oil and coal lobby has bought them decades of delay.

But this is not exclusively a scare session, since Benford also has proposed solutions, although this time they are not necessarily his creation, but methods that seem to have been proposed by other scientists and, in some cases, even tested. Global warming is caused primarily by high levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, and there are several known ways of countering that increased level. They fall under the title of geoengineering, which is a fancy word which basically means altering the earth somehow. And what's the best way to lower CO2 levels? Plant more trees? Or perhaps seed the ocean with iron filings which causes plankton to grow, which has a side effect of increasing fish levels in the oceans, which Benford describes as a positive side effect.

Or perhaps scientists should bypass the CO2 itself and go right to the source by reflecting some of the solar rays which the increased CO2 absorbs. This can be done by several methods, including seeding the upper atmosphere with microscopic droplets of sulphuric acid, either by shooting it there via big naval guns which fired straight up can put a one-ton shell twenty kilometers high, where it would explode and spread the dust. Another possibility is that changing the fuel mixture in a jet engine to burn rich can leave a ribbon of fog behind for up to three months.

As in The Library of Life, Benford includes cost estimates for each of his proposals and, quite frankly, some of them seem amazingly logical to a non-scientist like me. Perhaps I would see more of a disadvantage in them if I were more politician and less idealist.


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