There is no arrow of time in the laws of physics, but for us time moves in only one direction. And our sense of time is dramatically different from that encompassed by the geological or evolutionary timescale.
The entire history of our civilization covers barely 10,000 years, from the development of agriculture to the domestication of animals to the invention of writing to the printing press and the computer.
Now, a group of scientists and engineers, thanks to funding from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, is building in a cave in Texas a clock designed to tick off the next 10,000 years of time, to endure into what for the Earth is the next heartbeat but for us is the unimaginable future.
David Kushner’s “Engineering the 10,000-Year Clock,” published by Spectrum, chronicles the efforts both to construct the clock and to ensure, as far as possible, that it will still be counting off time — by our measurement and on our scale — in the year 12011.
Kushner’s article tells us who’s building the clock, how it’s made, and what kinds of engineering problems have had to be overcome. We learn that this will be the world’s largest clock, and that its design owes as much to aesthetic concerns as it does to mechanical practicalities.
What Kushner’s article doesn’t do is to consider the philosophical and psychological issues that a project like this raises.
When I was a high school senior, our class put together a “time capsule,” a microcosm of our short time as the leaders of the local teenage pack. A yearbook, a message to the future, and all sorts of other ephemera (I seem to remember a cheerleader’s pompom and other sports memorabilia) were placed into a metal box, which was then “buried” under one of the paving stones in the walkway to the school’s front steps. If it was a 50-year capsule (I can’t remember; it might have been 100 years), it is due to be opened in June of 2014 — impossibly, only 2-1/2 years from now!
Compare that span of time — to me, it’s literally an adult lifetime — to the intended life of the 10,000-year clock. The clock is hoped to last 200 times longer, something like 400 generations. How many of us know our family histories back further than four or five generations? Not many. How many people who lived 400 generations ago are known to us today? Not any, or at most, a handful of legendary desert kings, gone in all but name.
I’m a fan of old movies, really old movies, and the older I get the more often I find myself thinking, while watching Duck Soup or It Happened One Night or Metropolis, “Everyone on this screen is dead.” And, with the possible exception of a babe in arms on the edge of the shot, it’s true. The thought feels less morbid to me than it does simply incomprehensible. I know it’s true, but I can’t really grasp it.
How can we live with such energy, such passion, with such a sense of self-importance, and then just disappear? How does one reconcile the unavoidable reality of eternal unimportance with the undeniable intensity of living?
Many people, almost all of us, say some philosophers, run as far and as fast as we can from such thoughts, seeking consolation in religious superstition (especially doctrines of personal immortality), or family sentimentality (at least, my “name” will live on), or adherence to one or another nobler cause (something to live and, in war, die for), or a more immediate absorption with busyness and activity.
There’s a wonderful moment in Camus’s L’Étranger when Meursault sits in a café and watches the woman at the next table. She has pulled out of her purse and arranged neatly on the table the exact coins to pay for her coffee. As she drinks, she goes through the weekly radio guide, circling all of the programs to which she plans to listen. Meursault is greatly amused at the woman’s belief that if she just plans her life carefully enough, she will be free of unpleasant surprises and random twists. She has the illusion that she is in control, that she can anticipate and manage the future.
In one way or another, while we may tune to quite different channels, we all circle the programs in our radio guides. And we have no more security or control than did the woman in the Algiers café.
I’m with everybody else on this front. I’m certainly not claiming any superiority of sensibility, clarity, intellect, or emotion. Like everyone else, even while I completely accept intellectually the short and inconsequential span of time I’ll have, I look for something that will give at least temporary meaning to life — if not Life Itself, then My Life.
As many writers have in one way or another noted, existential heroism is a young person’s game. If I ever had the psychic energy for it, I surely don’t now.
What really prompts this ramble is not the 10,000-year clock but the death this week of a longtime acquaintance whom I respected greatly. He was a passionate, fearless, and tireless advocate of social justice and human equality. Now that he’s died, one wonders what the point was. What did he accomplish? What can any of us accomplish?
“Quite a lot” is the answer to both questions.
Some things are true, not despite, but rather because of our universally-shared mortality. Live a short time or live a long time, we’re all in the same boat. Since none of the abstract reasons for causing or tolerating suffering and deprivation matter in the long run, it makes sense to foster safety and sufficiency for all while we’re here. If this one, short life is all we get, there’s no reason to make it worse, and every reason to make it better — for all of us.
As lifeboats go, the Earth is a large one, but a lifeboat is all it is. And those people who most recognize our shared situation in life are the people who work hardest to make the most difference. Not because God wishes it, or because our country demands it, or because of any other of the fleeting notions with which we encumber our humanity.
Because, like it or not, wish it or not, we’re all in this together.