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Book News

'Deep Time' fascinating, thought provoking, disturbing


'Deep Time'
by Gregory Benford

Avon, $20

Review by L.D. Meagher

March 25, 1999
Web posted at: 4:22 p.m. EST (2122 GMT)

(CNN) -- "Saturday Night Live" used to have a running gag called "Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey." The joke was that the pronouncements were anything but deep. Well, don't confuse "Deep Time" with that gag, because there's nothing shallow about Gregory Benford. He's an esteemed scientist and an accomplished author of science fiction. For his first book of non-fiction, he has been thinking deeply about the notion of time.

"Deep Time" examines how humans communicate ideas, not to their contemporaries, but to their distant descendants. It considers the strategies and the mechanisms such communications can employ to impart the maximum amount of information. It also assesses what messages we may be leaving inadvertently for posterity.

The issue may seem esoteric, but it arose under very pragmatic circumstances. Benford was consulted about the government project to bury radioactive waste in salt domes under the New Mexico desert. The stuff will be toxic for about 10,000 years. The problem is how to warn succeeding generations to stay away from it. The plan is to erect some sort of sign that would clearly mean "Keep Out!"

No large object constructed by humans has ever survived for ten millennia. The Pyramids of Egypt are only half that old, and not all of them survived. In those that did, the elaborate interior decorations were incomprehensible for centuries. Modern construction techniques might provide a way to erect something that could withstand the long passage of time, but how do we make it communicate?

"Languages evolve, just as in biology, by descent and divergence. We can read Shakespeare but need notes to fathom some of his archaic words. Without substantial help, Beowulf is beyond us. As a rule of thumb, basic vocabularies change about twenty percent in a thousand years. Even if a language survives (as most don't) for five thousand years, it will be vastly different."

Benford discusses the options available to the nuclear waste project as an introduction to the concept of deep time. Then he goes further. Much further.

The same issues arose when scientists proposed attaching some sort of message to the Cassini spacecraft, which will explore Saturn, its rings and moons. In this case, they were confronted by the possibility that it may take more than 10,000 years for someone to find the message. It may take a million. And whoever finds it may not be human, but an explorer from far, far away.

Benford again was consulted about the challenge. A small team came up with an ingenious solution: engrave the message on a small disc made out of diamond. It should last practically forever. The content of the message was carefully crafted so it should be understandable even to an explorer who has never visited Earth. Alas, internal NASA turmoil got in the way and the message was never attached to Cassini.

The experiences prompted Benford to expand his contemplation of deep time. He concluded that humans are sending messages into the far future, whether we know it or not. In the ways that we have treated the very planet we live on, we are telling our distant descendants a lot about ourselves. He examines how human intervention into the environment -- from hunting species to extinction, to altering the composition of our atmosphere -- is leaving a clear message, and probably not one we would choose to send. He offers suggestions for ways to change the content of the message, and perhaps improve the lot of our children in the process. He advocates some controversial projects, like establishing massive collections of frozen biological specimens to preserve a record of ecological diversity. Experts in the field have dismissed some of the proposals as impractical. He is not daunted, however. His ideas are not just proposed solutions to immediate problems. They are platforms for mounting a debate about issues that matter deeply.

"Deep Time" is fascinating, thought provoking, and occasionally disturbing. The most disquieting notion is one that is implied: all human endeavors could vanish without a trace unless we seriously consider ways to ensure that there are future generations of humanity, and find methods of passing along to them what we have learned.

L.D. Meagher is a senior writer at CNN Headline News. He has worked in broadcasting for 30 years.

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