"Cosmos" Week 9: The Past is a Different Planet
There’s an old description of the Earth that I’ve always loved that gets at just how tiny we really are in the universe, putting it into a scale and metaphor that feels tangible where the billions and billions slur out of comprehensibility.
We’re used to thinking of the landscape as vast, what with towering mountains and plunging valleys. A mountain is infinitely big in a relative sense, for small values of infinity, but it’s an infinity we can wrap our minds around. And even in the eyes of the modern and technically hip, there’s a logic to their height. The highest mountains in the world reach right up to the point where airliners tend to cruise. So we get this sense of both vastness, and yet a smallness that we can appreciate, a notion that the world is both massive and masterable.
And yet if the earth were shrunk to the size of a pool ball, it would be far smoother than those impossibly slick balls that glide on felt. We’d need a special factory of OCD to build pools balls as smooth as the Earth is. Even something as distant as the space station, whipping along a couple hundred miles above our heads? If Earth were a pool ball, that distance would be as thin as the varnish that makes the billiard balls shine.
Everything we know firsthand, all of our little comprehensible infinities, amount not even to a layer of slime on a rock.
That’s the point of this week’s Cosmos, touching base with mass extinctions, from asteroids and volcanoes, showing us in quick motion just how the world changes over time. The past, as Tyson repeats throughout, is a different planet.
It changes beneath our feet at such minuscule rates that the first maps we scratched on tablets five thousand years ago are still as accurate as they were when first carved. But, the really gorgeous thing that Tyson gets at is the series of small coincidences that lead to us being here at this time: of a perfect storm of small climate shifts and big-brained monkeys in the right place at the right time, and then someone picks up a club and it’s a geologic blink until we’re popping off rockets.
And yet, those small shifts could crush us just as easily, annihilating everything we’ve built with as little a hiccup as when the dinosaurs got wiped by an asteroid or when the giant insects of a planet before them vanished when Siberian volcanoes started a chain reaction. What happened before will happen again.
This is probably the episode that will get the most vehement response from the very people’s influence the series is devoted to arguing against. Tyson notes that we are changing the face of the world with a magnitude not seen except in the event of mass extinctions. We are not immune to our own folly, and the earth will not mourn us. We are laughably insignificant and small, without even the hint of the power needed to destroy this immensity of a planet, or even to wipe out life itself. But we are capable of destroying ourselves, a fate made all the more tragic by the fact that we are the only species that will be able to watch and understand our extinction as it happens.
We’ll close with Stephenson, because it feels appropriate:
“Like every other creature on the face of the earth, Godfrey was, by birthright, a stupendous badass, albeit in the somewhat narrow technical sense that he could trace his ancestry back up a long line of slightly less highly evolved stupendous badasses to that first self-replicating gizmo—which, given the number and variety of its descendants, might justifiably be described as the most stupendous badass of all time. Everyone and everything that wasn’t a stupendous badass was dead.”
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.