Brannen argues that the reign of humans recently named the Anthropocene, will appear as nothing compared with the mountainous stacks of rock that make up the other epochs. “Humans are congratulating themselves,” Brannen observes, “on an unearned geological legacy before we’ve proved ourselves capable of escaping the next century with our lives. And, besides, most of our proudest creations—whole cities and manufactured landscapes—will be destroyed by the ceaseless destruction of tectonics and erosion…many of the synthetic markers proposed to delineate the Anthropocene will not survive the insults of deep time. Human history, though environmentally cataclysmic and sedimentologically interesting, is not usefully described in the terms of a geological epoch on par with a yawning span of time like the Early Cretaceous, an epoch that lasted 600,000 times longer than this newly minted one.”
Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb, recalling Carl Sagan’s elegiac ‘Pale Blue Dot’, says that “like corrections to irrationally exuberant stock markets, however, COVID-19 is a correction to human hubris. Nature is teaching all humans, rich and poor, to be humble. Although we thought we can manipulate nature at our will, here comes a primitive coronavirus with negligible information content relative to our brain, threatening to kill us and wreck our economy, causing as much damage from the side effects triggered by our societal reaction to it as from its direct medical impact.”
A careful student of the history of science, Loeb points out that our social distancing during COVID-19 recalls that Isaac Newton did his best scientific work developed calculus, optics and realized the nature of gravity while staying home with his parents at Woolsthorpe during the Great Plague of London in 1665–66, when Cambridge University closed down.
Beyond the ancient existential lessons in karma, however, observes Loeb, COVID-19 has sparked international scientific collaborations “demonstrating that science has no borders when it comes to promoting a better common future for our civilization. Just as the novel coronavirus can infect everyone, a successful vaccine can benefit everyone. Scientific triumphs are for all of us to share. Science is not a zero-sum, but rather an infinite-sum, game. Here’s hoping that in the wake of COVID-19, international scientific collaborations will lead to more goodwill among nations and better political collaboration across the globe in our future.”
If we survive the next century, Loeb warns trillions of dollars could be lost not just from pandemics but also from major solar flares or asteroid impacts and the monster threat lurking in plain sight behind COVID-19, the focus of the Paris Accords, global climate change.
On more cosmic timescales, loom the threat even bigger lessons in galactic humility — might occur, such as nearby supernova explosion or an Everest-sized asteroid impact.
Recalling Carl Sagan, Loeb concludes that our transient existence “has lasted for less than 10 one-billionths of cosmic history so far on a tiny rock we call Earth, surrounded by a vast lifeless space. We should be thankful for the fortuitous circumstances that allow us to exist, because they will surely go away one day, with or without COVID-19.”
Image credit top of page: Earth from the ISS