Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Tick-Tock of the Doomsday Clock, part 3

With my mother in the early stages of senile dementia, I'm reminded of the Doomsday Clock's minute hand – too near midnight for comfort, but flicking back and forth when the future looks better or worse. She starts having falls at night and suddenly it's three minutes to midnight. The next morning, I see a red-tailed hawk perched in the tall, bare sweet gum tree over the house. I call my mother to come look, and she marvels with me at the big raptor with its terracotta-colored tail feathers. My mother's parenting style over the years can be described as woefully inadequate. But she did instill in me a sense of wonder about nature.

The next day my mother clearly remembers seeing the hawk. The minute hand of her personal doom has backed up a bit, or so I imagine. I'm aware that senile dementia progresses inexorably. At some point my mother may not have a future in a meaningful sense, even if she's still alive.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' Doomsday Clock, on the other hand, is designed to be a galvanizing warning. The journal hopes that if the warning is heeded, the minute hand will never touch midnight: nuclear war won't happen.

While the realization of my mother's condition was sinking in over Christmas of 2006, I happened to be reading Our Final Hour by Martin Rees, the renowned cosmologist and Astronomer Royal in Great Britain. He subtitled his book A Scientist's Warning: How Terror, Error and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind's Future in This Century – on Earth and Beyond. Rees thinks we were lucky to get through the Twentieth Century without a fallout-flavored world war. But our luck may be about to run out. "If our solar system's entire lifecycle, from its birth in a cosmic cloud to its death-throes in the Sun's terminal flare, were to be viewed 'fast forward' in a single year, then all recorded history would be less than a minute in early June. The twentieth century would flash past in a third of a second. The next fraction of a second, in this depiction, will be 'critical': in the twenty-first century, humanity is more at risk than ever before from misapplication of science."

The British edition of Our Final Hour is titled Our Final Century. Did a Marketing Department decide that America's event horizon is so short that "century" wouldn't grab the American attention? Could be.

Rees covers a lot of doomsday ground, includes asteroid impacts. Asteroids coming our way are inevitable, but disastrous impacts may be preventable with space monitoring and deflection technology. Rees even mentions extremely unlikely world-rending outcomes of as-yet-unknown new physics. He advises scientific caution with regard to events of very low probability but utterly catastrophic consequences. The most probable dooms are those that stem from "bioterror and bioerror." Outcomes range from civilization collapsing to the top of the Earth's ecosystem shearing off, leaving the bacteria to start over.

Through the book, Rees builds a case that human technological adventurism has higher stakes than we imagine, for this reason: we do not know if there is intelligence anywhere else in the universe. If we manage to destroy ourselves, perhaps this universe will forever cease to wonder at itself.

It's distressing to imagine no one out there, and intelligence on Earth winking out.

Usually I don't share Rees' cosmic concern. I tend to think that intelligence exists elsewhere in the universe. My guess is that intelligent races arise, live and die on a regular basis the same as stars do. Or if intelligence doesn't occur throughout the stars, it could happen sequentially here. Who says we are the only, last, much less best intelligence on Earth? When we fade away, or manage to make a more drastic exit, and somebody else evolves into the role of tool-using intelligent life, I bet it'll be squirrels. Or creatures evolved from ravens, crows and jay birds, and then the dinosaurs will once more rule the Earth.

My science fiction happens in that kind of universe. In my novel Hurricane Moon, there's an old world that has birthed a succession of intelligences ranging from sapient bipeds, to intelligent birds, to sentient plants. In other words, when I'm in a SF-nal mindset, I don't think it's a cosmic tragedy that the human species has a finite life expectancy.

Yet the day my mother and I saw the red-tailed hawk, I think I better understood what Martin Rees hopes to get across. It was such a significant coincidence: the hawk in the sweet gum tree, right over the roof of the house, where we've never seen a hawk before, on a bad day for my mother, in the last meaningful fraction of her life, when I was there to call her to come see it. Traditional peoples believe in totems and spirit-animals. So do I, just for different reasons. The red-tailed hawk is our traveling companion on Earth and a fellow creature with whom we share a great deal of DNA. Hawk kind is older than hominid kind and abler in flight – every glider pilot I know yearns to soar like a hawk, and would be thrilled just to soar in the same thermal with one.

The hawk in the sweet gum tree was our hawk, because we are the hawk's relatives. Any time you lose a relative you lose a part of yourself. Within the realm of the possible, you do what you can for the welfare of your relatives. You avoid doing them harm. And a cavalier attitude toward the ruin of a relative is just unconscionable. Being responsible for our relatives – including parents and hawks, people and trees – is complicated, hard, and human: something we need to do because we are the natural world being aware of itself in dread and wonder.

No comments: