Frivolous Monsters

Two Books That Changed The Way I Think – Number 02

I’ve already described how Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene left me less compassionate, but a second book that recently changed the way I view life, the universe, and everything is Jan Zalasiewicz’s The Earth After US – What Legacy Will Human’s Leave in the Rocks which was recommended to me by a friend who works for the British Geological Survey and thought I would find it interesting.

From the start, the time-line of planet Earth had me captivated and did a good job at putting the whole Human race thing in perspective: how we think we’re so smart because we can recall the past two-thousand years and in that time have invented the Biro and the Curly Wurly, but then the dinosaurs were around for 100 million years-plus…

The Dinosaurs couldn’t do this. Not even any of the good ones like the Diplodocus!

It did seem to put all of our local disasters in a bit context and made our existence seem all a teensy bit pointless. It did quite depress me.

I was quite interested how someone who I presumed was writing a dry academic piece was bold enough to come at it from the point of view of a visiting alien who visits earth in the future and tries to make of us what we can by what we’ve left behind in the rocks. That’s left behind because we’re all dead by then.

Sorry, I should have said this blog post CONTAINS SPOILERS about the future, or at least to have warned you to look away now if you didn’t want to know the result.

I imagine this approach might have cheapened the book in some academic eyes, but what can you do?

For a serious science book my eyebrows were raised quite early on as Doctor Who got a mention. You can imagine. However it was a negative reaction on two fronts:

  • First as it was referred to in the lazy media way of “Dr. Who” which is the best way to annoy a DW fan. You may think it’s a little thing, but…

  • Secondly the author used the mention to do the series down saying that, unlike on the TV programme, visiting alien archaeologists unfortunately won’t come across our million year old dusty skeletons sat about in a cave.

Now, as a scientist, I’m use to backing things up with references. And I didn’t see one for this glib comment. I imagine I have greater recall to the series than the author, and I can’t think of a single instance that they might be thinking of. There are almost fifty years of it to choose from. For a start it is the death of any drama to set it somewhere where the locals are long, long dead.

Now I have wondered for a long time how our burying people in the earth will have an effect on their preservation and I was interested to know how these deeply buried things and people get to become fossil and rock: It turns out that the answer is they generally don’t. Apparently it’s hard to capture a fossil and I think I saw in the news recently the discovery of the only fossilised chimpanzee.

And for those animal that get preserved where they fall, before travelling on the continental “escalators” before being trapped in the rock as fossils… Well even then when rock is exposed again it gets weathered by the elements for as mountains push up, the wind and rain wears them back down again. I have to say that the understanding of “escalators” on the time-frame is hard to comprehend, but then I can’t even remember what I did last week, and it seems startling as to how everything does sort-of get re-cycled.

Every so often it just hits you with an amazing fact or way of describing things (America is moving away at the growth of a fingernail speed, etc), and there was one bit where they threw in about the ability to recognise chalk as one of the five medieval tests to tell the sane from the insane. Interesting, but then it rattled on without mentioning what the other four were.

It mentions how certain elements are running out on planet Earth! All that helium we release floats up to the edge of the atmosphere and then keeps going off into space. You do know we need that for MRI machines don’t you? Those balloons should be banned! And on tales from the Solar System it turns out that the Moon is actually the safest place for us to store artefacts for posterity, and the planet Venus turns itself inside out, from time to time, and is due to do so again any time soon.

My own poor-quality photo of Venus taken with a camera.

I found the book depressing because, and we’re back in the realms of Doctor Who here, when the series was brought back by Russell T Davies in 2005 a big theme of it was with mankind as pioneers, making their way out into the stars and becoming a significant presence, and this is something I have grown up believing that for us to survive we need to “get out there” and strive for a future. So to hear that not only are we not going to have one, but we’ll be mostly forgotten does fly contrary to this somewhat.

To illustrate the scope of Russell T Davies’ optimism the first story, off present day Earth, was set in the year five-billion on a space station orbiting the Earth full of rich alien dignitaries who were there to watch the sun finally expand and see the planet burn. We made it to the end of the life of the planet. And it had a great line right at the start where the Doctor looks down upon the Earth and explains that this really is the end:

You lot. You spend all your time thinking about dying. Like you’re gonna get killed by eggs or beef or global warming or asteroids. But you never take time to imagine the impossible. That maybe you survive.

There was a reference towards the end of the book to Zaphod Beeblebrox, the sometimes two-headed sometimes Galactic President from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, who was referenced as one of these possible visiting aliens who would struggle to make much of us, but I was already drawing comparisons to him and his story.

There’s a part, in the second novel, where he’s kidnapped and thrown inside a box, the ultimate torture device, called the Total Perspective Vortex where a computer uses a piece of fairy cake to extrapolate the whole of the universe, since:

…every piece of matter in the Universe is in someway affected by every other piece of matter in the Universe, it is in theory possible to extrapolate the whole of creation – every Galaxy, every sun, every planet, their orbits, their composition, and their economic and social history from, say, one small piece of fairy cake.

By extrapolating the interactions upon different atoms of cake... Again my own picture... and cake.

And… Well I’ll just carry on quoting:

When you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little mark, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says, “You are here.”

And that drives people instantly insane by their insignificance. To me, and this is probably my best compliment I can pay, this is what this book reminded me of. I felt like I was shown the history of the world (past and present) and the tiny part on which we stand and out general insignificance. I told you it depressed me.

And, in case you wondered, much to the surprise of the person who shoved Zaphod Beeblebrox and his super-ego into the Total Perspective Vortex, he did re-emerge, becoming the only person to survive it. When he was asked what he saw in there he replied that it did indeed show him himself in relation to the universe and it just confirmed what he already believed: That he was a really great guy! He then proceeded to eat the fairy cake.

So you see Richard Dawkins may have left me feeling like a pre-programmed meat robot, but Jan Zalasiewicz left me feeling tiny on the scale of history and a grease stain soon to be removed without a trace. I would probably benefit from giving the book a second reading, but not for a good while as I think I need something a little bit more life-affirming.

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4 thoughts on “Two Books That Changed The Way I Think – Number 02

  1. Any post that can be illustrated with a Curly Wurly gets a thumbs up from me.

  2. You’re really not exciting me towards reading either of these books. You have, however, made me greatly interested in Curly Wurlys. I should also confess that while I’m a huge Douglas Adams/Hitchhikers fan, I’ve never seen a single episode of Dr Who. Should I?

    • I’m wondering now if Curly Wurlies haven’t made it to America… The stuff you think is international (or probably American to start with!) and find out it might not be the case.

      The short DW answer is yes… Probably. There’s one proper story written by Douglas Adams in the seventies called ‘The City of Death’ which was filmed in Paris and was (I think still is) the highest viewed story, although this is partly down to a rival channel going on strike. Ironically, his other story ‘Shada’ was not completed due to another strike which stopped them filming at Cambridge University. This now exists in various forms and as it was unscreened on TV some of the story made it into the Dirk Gently novels.

      I have found a lot of Americans on here who seem to love British drama. The likes of Downton Abbey, Luther, Doctor Who, Being Human, Sherlock, The Hour. I’m thrilled by that. But I do understand it’s not for everyone. So if you’re into Sci-Fi and drama and want to give it a go I suggest you should start with the new series – which was a clean start – with the first episode ‘Rose’ from 2005.

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