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A Sunset Glimpse of Deep Time

A truncated schedule this week as I attend to a pressing project that needs all my attention. So no post today or Wednesday, but back Thursday with a look at the Alpha Centauri planet hunt and the still-unresolved question of Centauri Bb. For the short interval, I’ll leave you with this quote from Lee Billings on the nature of deep time and genuine perspective.

Deep time is something that even geologists and their generalist peers, the earth and planetary scientists, can never fully grow accustomed to. The sight of a fossilized form, perhaps the outline of a trilobite, a leaf, or a saurian footfall can still send a shiver through their bones, or excavate a trembling hollow in the chest that breath cannot fill. They can measure celestial motions and list Earth’s lithic annals, and they can map that arcane knowledge onto familiar scales, but the humblest do not pretend that minds summoned from and returned to dust in a century’s span can truly comprehend the solemn eons in their passage. Instead, they must in a way learn to stand outside of time, to become momentarily eternal. Their world acquires dual, overlapping dimensions— one ephemeral and obvious, the other enduring and hidden in plain view. A planet becomes a vast machine, or an organism, pursuing some impenetrable purpose through its continental collisions and volcanic outpourings. A man becomes a protein-sheathed splash of ocean raised from rock to breathe the sky, an eater of sun whose atoms were forged on an anvil of stars. Beholding the long evolutionary succession of Earthly empires that have come and gone, capped by a sliver of human existence that seems so easily shaved away, they perceive the breathtaking speed with which our species has stormed the world. Humanity’s ascent is a sudden explosion, kindled in some sapient spark of self-reflection, bursting forth from savannah and cave to blaze through the biosphere and scatter technological shrapnel across the planet, then the solar system, bound for parts unknown. From the giant leap of consciousness alongside some melting glacier, it proved only a small step to human footprints on the Moon. The modern era, luminous and fleeting, flashes like lightning above the dark, abyssal eons of the abiding Earth. Immersed in a culture unaware of its own transience, students of geologic time see all this and wonder whether the human race will somehow abide, too.

Lee Billings, from Five Billion Years of Solitude (2013), p. 145.


Image: The Cliff, Etretat, Sunset, by Claude Monet, a work that has always somehow transcended time for me and inspired thoughts on Billings’ ‘abiding Earth.’


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Etienne October 14, 2014, 15:30

    Magnifique petit moment de poésie cosmique ! This definitely made this day worth living, thank you!

  • Eric October 14, 2014, 15:32

    Beautiful! The mystery, the wonder, the awe-bordering-on-dread are well-encapsulated here by Billings.

  • Eniac October 14, 2014, 15:36

    Paul, that is a terrific passage, and painting. See you back Thursday!

  • swage October 15, 2014, 8:32

    Very lovecraftian :)

  • ljk October 15, 2014, 10:22

    In January of 2014, a research team at Texas State University led by astronomer Donald W. Olson used “forensic astronomy” to determine exactly when Monet painted the painting featured in this article.

    See here:


    Olson is the author of a book on the subject titled Celestial Sleuth: Using Astronomy to Solve Mysteries in Art, History and Literature (Series: Springer Praxis Books)

    The details here:


  • spaceman October 15, 2014, 10:41

    A great excerpt and a beautiful painting! This past summer I traveled around the Gaspe peninsula and saw another picturesque sea arch called “Perce Rock.”

  • Mark Phelps October 15, 2014, 11:44

    Hi Paul,
    Deep time considerations would be incomplete without a quote from Loren Eiseley, looking over the edge and casting into the dark….

    ;Loren Eiseley (1957) Little Men and Flying Saucers, in The Immense Journey.
    Random House, New York.

    “But nowhere in all space or on a thousand worlds will there be men to share our loneliness. There may be wisdom; there may be power; somewhere across space great instruments, handled by strange, manipulative organs, may stare vainly at our floating cloud wrack, their owners yearning as we yearn. Nevertheless, in the nature of life and in the principles of evolution we have had our answer. Of men elsewhere, and beyond, there will be none forever.” p. 162

    One of just many apropos reflections from a extraordinary scientist…!

    Best regards,


  • Mark Phelps October 15, 2014, 11:50

    HI Paul,

    Re my comment;
    here is some more in context from Eiseley,

    ‘Darwin saw clearly that the succession of life on this planet was not a formal pattern imposed from without, or moving exclusively in one di­rection. Whatever else life might be, it was adjustable and not fixed. It worked its way through difficult environments. It modified and then, if necessary, it modified again, along roads which would never be retraced. Every creature alive is the product of a unique history. The statistical probability of its precise reduplication on another planet is so small as to be meaningless. Life, even cellular life, may exist out yonder in the dark. But high or low in nature, it will not wear the shape of man. That shape is the evolutionary product of a strange, long wandering through the attics of the forest roof, and so great are the chances of failure, that nothing precisely and identically human is likely ever to come that way again.


    In a universe whose size is beyond human imagining, where our world floats like a dust mote in the void of night, men have grown inconceivably lonely. We scan the time scale and the mechanisms of life itself for portents and signs of the invisible. As the only thinking mammals on the planet – perhaps the only thinking animals in the entire sidereal universe – the burden of consciousness has grown heavy upon us. We watch the stars but the signs are uncertain. We uncover the bones of the past and seek for our origins. There is a path there, but it appears to wander. The vagaries of the road may have a meaning however; it is thus we torture ourselves.

    Lights come and go in the night sky. Men, troubled at last by the things they build, may toss in their sleep and dream bad dreams, or lie awake while the meteors whisper greenly overhead. But nowhere in all space or on a thousand worlds will there be men to share our loneliness. There may be wisdom; there may be power; somewhere across space great instruments, handled by strange, manipulative organs, may stare vainly at our floating cloud wrack, their owners yearning as we yearn. Nevertheless, in the nature of life and in the principles of evolution we have had our answer. Of men elsewhere, and beyond, there will be none forever.’

    Loren Eiseley

    I think the two preceding paragraphs frame the the first post.

    Best regards,


  • ljk October 15, 2014, 13:11
  • CharlesJQuarra October 15, 2014, 13:56
  • Christopher Phoenix October 16, 2014, 2:37

    Hey, Paul, if you have not seen this already I think you will want to take a look… in an article published just today in the Huffington Post titled “The Dismal Future of Interstellar Travel astronomer Sten Odenwald cast doubt on the idea that humans will ever physically explore beyond our Solar System, predicting that human society will be unwilling to pay for interstellar travel in a universe consistent with laws of physics we know.

    Mr. Odenwald’s already talked about interstellar space travel here at the Astronomy Cafe FAQ pages and in his book Return to the Astronomy Café. His earlier conclusions were fairly similar- overcoming the technological and biological challenges surrounding interstellar travel will be so expensive that current human civilization simply won’t want to pay for it.

    Considering our current slow pace in crewed space exploration, it is easy to share Sten’s disillusionment. I am not convinced, however, that his arguments will hold forever… over the centuries and millennia ahead, society will not remain the same as it is today and, unless we suffer a societal collapse or stagnate, our technology will continue to advance. Indeed, if we do set ourselves the goal of exploring and colonizing our entire solar system neighborhood, the space technology and infrastructure we develop will aid the cause to interstellar travel as well. We may not yet have the technology, resources, or patience to explore the stars, but barring total stagnation it doesn’t seem to unlikely that one day our descendents will.

    Similarly, time will bring more concrete and compelling reasons to want to mount interstellar missions. What happens if when we find the first truly Earth-like exoplanets, and we can point to the nearest star around which a habitable quasi-Earth orbits? The feeling will grow that somehow, someday we must reach there. Even just getting a small robot with a camera there.

    On the longest scale of all, space colonization will be the only way our distant descendants can survive. One day Earth will no longer support life, though whether anyone who is still around will be recognizably human cannot be known today.

    I look forward to your thoughts on all of this, Paul, as I’m sure Centauri Dreams will have some responses to Sten Odenwald’s arguments…

    On a related trajectory, Sten once suggested (in The Return to the Astronomy Café) that instead of launching crewed interstellar missions, we might use robotic interstellar probes to gain enough data about distant exoplanets to create virtual reality simulations of them for us all to enjoy, which can also be done here in our own solar system first. I’ve always found this idea rather interesting. Does anyone know if any study has gone into this- what would be the requirements for replicating back home, not just what an interstellar probe measures and sees with its cameras, but what a human would see, feel and perhaps even smell if they were to stand at the probe’s landing site?

  • Paul Gilster October 16, 2014, 6:55

    Thanks for the link, Christopher. Haven’t read it yet, as I’m in the midst of a long car trip, but will definitely read it in hopes of finding article material within. Look for something next week.

  • Christopher Phoenix October 16, 2014, 20:48

    I’m glad to hear that… there is plenty here to think about. As with Adam Frank’s earlier “Alone in the Void” op-ed, the difference between SF visions of future space travel and the real technical and societal challenges surrounding interstellar travel takes a prominent stage. So, to, does our difficulty in focusing on anything beyond short-term goals.

    Funnily enough, Sten Odenwald’s answers concerning interstellar in his book Return to the Astronomy Cafe were what first set me on the course to explore the feasibility of interstellar exploration in the framework of real physics… I was utterly fascinated by the idea that a place as distant as Alpha Centauri could become a real destination for future space missions, using engineering firmly based on real science. So when I saw Sten’s name next to the article title it made me sit up and take notice!

    His earlier prognosis, though, always seemed accurate- most adults just don’t see compelling reasons to spend massive quantities of time and money on deep space exploration when there are so many other near term things they consider more important (including wars…). Even the vaunted Apollo program was the equivalent to gorilla chest thumping- a noisy effort to prove our technological superiority over the Soviet Union.

    The question of how to fund and maintain interest in long-term efforts to explore the nearby stars needs to be explored as rigorously as the intricacies of propulsion systems and computer circuits. Eventually, researchers must propose plans for feasible interstellar exploration for consideration and funding. If we are to be understood, and taken seriously, public outreach and education must have already convinced the public that our schemes are serious and founded in real science- not Hollywood fantasy. Right now, we can only continue our current remote-sensing exoplanet hunt and keep supporting research into advanced propulsion, robotics, and human spaceflight.

    My feelings on this are somewhat more optimistic than Sten’s. He is right that we cannot launch an interstellar mission today, we don’t have the technology nor (probably) the political will. Or the patience. But that does not preclude it as a very long-term goal for space exploration, perhaps playing out centuries in the future. Nor does this future contradict a future of solar system exploration (almost certainly a prerequisite of interstellar exploration) or focusing our energies on becoming a sustainable society and protecting ecosystems here on our own Earth. In fact, a future of slow interstellar robotic exploration must assume that our society becomes stable enough to persist for the centuries required to hear back from our distant probes!

    Yet, many scientists take an “either-or” approach, either interstellar space travel is possible, or we must reconcile ourselves to remaining on Earth forever… or either we can build interstellar probes, or we must content ourselves with Mars… etc.

    Solving the technical problems we must solve to enable human interstellar travel (energy, life support, building stable societies in world ships, finding out how to grow enough food during the trip, etc.) would also contribute to solving similar problems here on Earth. We don’t even have to relegate all of the research to different departments. Think of how space has already aided us on Earth- satellites are on the fundamental tools of Earth science now.

    So, to the people who say we must give up “childish” fantasies of space exploration to focus on the challenges of the real world, I say this- why not take the middle path, and chart out a course for our world that builds a sustainable world for us here on Earth and gradually extends our presence into deep space over the millennium to come?