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Time

At the Museum of Science today, found myself thinking in astonishment once more:

Multicellular life as we know it has only existed during the Phanerozoic eon, about the last half-billion years.

Which is only one-ninth of the age of the Earth.

Which is expected to remain habitable for at least another 500 million years.

Which means there’s time enough for the whole process–from the trilobites right up to us–to happen again.

One of the hardest things to express of the beauty of the Unprecedented Era is its ephemerality. Every phase can happen because conditions are Just So, and those conditions will never be that way again. The Seventies, just to use one example, are a combination of economic (the end of the great wave of mid-20th century economic growth), cultural/demographic (the afterglow of the Sixties, the autumn of those who remembered World War II, the maturity-but-still-youngness of the postwar generation), technological (the introduction of personal computers) political (the fading, but not faded, of Mass Man) elements. A certain permutation, made in the instant, year by year, month by month, hour by hour, never to be seen again.

And the same can be said for every decade since the 18th century. They are all birds: you see one for a moment, try to pin a name on it, but it flutters and is gone. You can only reconstruct it from memory, but whatever memory will never equal that empirical instant.

I’m going to tell you about a moment. A matter of several minutes in my life.

This moment occurred in the late June of one of my high school years, either 1989 or 1990. School was not a comfortable place for me. I was a definite nerd. While I had my small group of friends, the larger student body had no use for me. My grades were decent, but I didn’t particularly enjoy academics, preferring my own intellectual pursuits. But school was out. I was savoring the liberation of summer, and it was June: the plenty of summer—not the nervous waning days of August, but the fat of summer, the overflowing cup of summer.

This moment occurred at our family cottage in New Hampshire, on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee. That locale has always been where I have felt happiest, since my first visit at the age of three weeks. My family had just arrived. It was night—the trip took a while. It was warm. We had put away our luggage. Mom was making up the beds.

The moment began when someone—I’m not sure who—snapped on the old GE portable radio kept at the cottage so we could listen to broadcast of Red Sox games. There was no Red Sox game. The radio played Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Crystal Blue Persuasion.”

Time changed for me.

I knew the song. VH1 had a show, hosted by Peter Noone, “My Generation,” on which I had seen a video. Not one of the emblematic songs of the Sixties, but I knew it anyway. Even at that age, I had a seeking interest in the Sixties. Heck, I once wrote an entire blog about it. The question of the Sixties grabbed me from an early age, for reasons I still don’t entirely understand.

With the opening notes of the song, time changed. I was still in the main room of the cottage, but it wasn’t the Eighties or Nineties anymore. Which isn’t to say it was the Sixties, either. I was overwhelmed with the sense that the room in which I was sitting had been there, much the same, twenty years before. Time was one. There was no distinction between that year and my own. “Crystal Blue Persuasion” is a trancey, languid song. That had something to do with it. All I knew was that as long as it played, the moment, that unified moment, continued. I was free and safe and connected. It was a variant of ecstatic experience.

Then the song ended. The sensation ended with it. I returned to the present. The rest of my family didn’t even know anything had happened.

Over a quarter-century later, I still remember the moment. A moment in most ways wholly unremarkable, yet one of the most intense moments ever given me in my entire life. Did I live in the Sixties? No, but I got to touch them for about four minutes once.

Sometime in the late Seventies, a certain stream of photons flowed through a window in Barryville, NY. In the flow danced tiny bits of dust. I, at age four or five, stared transfixed at the beam. Did the beam create the dust or just illuminate it? I hoped the former, even though I suspect I was wrong.

Years later, I had an epiphany. According to Einstein’s theory of special relativity, time is experienced according to how we sense light. Therefore LIGHT==TIME. Excited, I sped to an astrophysicist friend and asked if my idea was accurate.

Nope! My friend informed me that light plays very little role in how physicists think about the phenomenon of time.

(This is why you always want to ask someone with expertise, folks)

The thing is that you can go the other way: since, according to Einstein, light is so plastic, physics had to proceed to more reliable ways of describing time (and time gets more complicated and much less assured as you discover more about it.)

Yet there is some relationship. LIGHT==TIME was off. But I am told that if I were to somehow teleport to a point far enough away from earth, I could see that moment captured in my memory fleeing out to distant stars. When we look into the night sky, we see the distant past. Light is a form of time travel.

I still remember that beam of light, defining the dust motes within it. Light and memory and time, all interwoven. Beams of light everywhere and always, in 1978, in 1928, in 1028, in -1028, ten thousand years before that moment, ten million years before that moment, ten hundred million years before that moment. Light may not define time, but it defines the moment.

This morning in conversation arose the Waste Isolation Pilot Program dilemma. Given that this lethal radioactive material has to remain isolated for ten thousand years, how do you create a nonverbal warning sharp enough and strong enough to convince the humans of ten centuries hence not to disturb it for any reason?

Ten thousand years is longer than the earliest aspects of agricultural civilization. We have not a single symbol or concept in common with the humans of that era. How can we communicate across such a vast gap? Many greatly ingenious and talented people have made proposals. Eventually one will be chosen.

And we will never know what happens.

It’s ten thousand years in the future. There is no plausible chance that we or anyone with anything in common with us will last to see how this endeavor plays out. It’s not even a question of “history will tell,” because by that point history won’t be history.

We can spin as many scenarios as we like, with as much detail and variety as we want. But we will never receive an answer. It is beyond us. The wall is impenetrable, and always will be.

Go back to 8000 BCE. Agriculture is just beginning to come together. There are are maybe 5 million human beings. Sumeria, Egypt, Harappa, the Olmecs, the Xia dynasty–all these belong to the distant future. 10000 years ago. The utter beginnings of human civilization.

Now take that and multiply–everything, from the most distant reaches of what we might call history to our own day-ONE HUNDRED TIMES OVER

And you get a million years. 1/65th of the way to the end of the Age of Dinosaurs. Which lasted 186 million years.

We are less than a blip. We are a blip on a blip. And anything you or I might recognize as something we were accustomed to is a blip on that blip, a microblip.