Monday, 16 April 2018

silurian hypothesis

Angling from the perspective of an astrobiologist and attempting to give one possible solution to Fermi’s paradox, Atlantic correspondent Adam Frank was about to put to the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies that perhaps alien civilisations advance to the point where they’re either consumed by a climatic catastrophe of their own creation with it being exceedingly rare for a race to muddle through but his proposal was derailed mid-sentence with the rather arresting question why ought one presume that humankind is the Earth’s first advanced civilization.

I’ve wondered about this before and of course it’s the subject of speculative fiction, considering that all of our vaunted history just barely reaches back four thousand years—though from an evolutionary standpoint, we’ve had the mental facilities that we possess today for about sixty-thousand years already and have been anatomically the same for about three hundred thousand years, which all seem to barely register as a blip on a geological timescale. The director, with deference to a Dr Who race of intelligent and industrial reptilians that inhabited the Earth millions of years ago, posits a hypothetical precursor quite off the scale of practitioners of archaeology and a challenge for paleontologists and geologists. The article goes on to explore what traces our civilization might be depositing in the layers of the Earth that might be detectable by scientists tens of millions of years in the future, once our buildings are ground to dust and even our most problematic pollution has finally degraded. Would future scientists even recognise the mark in the strata as telltale? More than the search for a long extinct race of intelligent dinosaurs that were perhaps too clever for their own good, this thought experiment—with actual inference—importantly demonstrates to us in there here and now how we leave an imprint on our planet and what we might do to soften that impact so humans (and the environment that we share with other residents) might be around a bit longer.