Deep Time: How Humanity Communicates Across Millennia, Gregory Benford

Bard Avon, 1999, 225 pages, C$26.00 hc, ISBN 0-380-97537-8

We human critters have a few deficiencies, and one of them is certainly our lack of capacity for long-term planning. Try as we might, our day-to-day combat through life almost invariably relates to the next meal, the next paycheck, the next project, the next summer vacations.

The problem is not as much with human individuals, but with the realization that no one else is making long-term planning either. Organized groups usually think too much in terms of upcoming elections, end-quarter results or continued sources of funding to be concerned about long-term perspectives. This is not exactly a bad thing (given the rate of technological and social change, most plans will crumble at long range anyway) but it can certainly become a problem in a few situations.

Deep Time, by noted scientist and SF author Gregory Benford, takes a look at a few concerns that will require more than our usual attention span. In the process, he raises some fundamental issues about the environment, technical progress, civilization lifespan and how even long-term science is conducted by short-term humans. The book is divided in four parts:

The first segment begins as Benford is asked to be part of a study team, mandated by the American Congress, to study ways of ensuring that nuclear waste sites will remain undisturbed for more than the 10,000 years required for their degradation to harmless levels. Putting “Dangerous stuff; keep out!” signs obviously won’t do, especially when we consider that 10,000 years is lengthier than the span of recorded human history. Benford’s team had to consider such cheery subjects as complete civilizational collapse, language drift, evolving digging technologies, relic hunters, etc… The team ended up proposing massive, eerie sculptural features, multiple-language messages with iconographic support and a host of other neat features. This is by far the most fascinating piece of the book.

The second quarter concerns the efforts of a group of scientists to compose an “ultimate” message-to-others to be carried on the Cassini space probe. Though most of us are familiar with the gold plaque loaded on the Voyager probes, this was meant to be an updated version of this effort. Unfortunately, even though an interesting message was developed, the effort was doomed and replaced by a politically-neutral DVD containing an utterly meaningless list of names…

[March 2009: I wrote this review in 1999 and, along the way, touched upon a conflict between Gregory Benford and Carolyn Porco described in the book’s “Vaults in Vacuum” chapter. In September 2002, Carolyn Porco wrote to me to explain that she disagreed with her characterization in Benford’s book and allowed me to post a few corrections. In March 2009, Gregory Benford wrote to me to explain that he disagreed with the corrections and suggested corrections of his own.

You know what? Life is too short, I respect both Benford and Porco (from afar) too much, and I’m too ignorant of the matters discussed to try to abitrate. All three of us have better things to do. So I have removed both the original content and the corrections (the most curious of you know where to go to find the archives), and would rather leave you with the smartest thing I’ve learned from this decade-long episode. In the (last) words of Carolyn Porco:

Next time, reserve judgement until you’ve met and spoken to the individuals involved.

The book become less interesting as Benford gets on a high environmental soapbox in the last half of the book. The third part still turns around a worthwhile idea, as Benford tells of his proposition to build a “Library of Life”, a repository of DNA from most of today’s species of plants and animals threatened by extinction. Though not a startlingly original project, Benford uses this as a springboard to other related subjects (conservationism, taxonomy, scientific politics, etc…).

But the fourth quarter grates as it veers off in a well-intentioned, but strikingly unoriginal rant about how humanity is already sending deep-time messages by environment degradation. Though Benford keeps things interesting with little-known facts, the impression left by this section is one of déjà-vu: Not exactly why one would pick up the book in the first place.

Additionally, Benford leaves out an important part of any deep time projection: The very real possibility of increased lifespans and of political stabilization. While this isn’t a flaw by itself, this omission does get a bit suspicious after the umpteenth time Benford talk about short human lives. Wouldn’t longevity undermine his thesis? Maybe…

Still, despite a rather heavy-handed environmentalist screed in the second half of the book, Benford keeps thing interesting, and Deep Time fulfills the goal of any decent non-fiction science vulgarization: Make us discover thing we didn’t know before. Or cared about.

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