Reading those sorts of stories, you’d think all this stuff is really only a few years away. Well, I hate to say it, but that’s bullshit. It’s revisionist futurism that pretends humans can’t massively fuck up, that the world never steps in to spoil the best-laid plans. Throughout history, countless aspirations of heartbreaking beauty and staggering genius have been torpedoed by all-too-human foibles or by simple bad luck, and that’s not going to change. Maybe we will build super-intelligent machines or travel to the stars someday, but even then we’ll still have to do the dirty laundry.
In some sense, all that credulous coverage is great, because many of these things are almost certainly within our reach, and it’s important to communicate such wild possibilities to the public. But that coverage can also be terribly damaging, because it usually glosses over the hellish complexity and difficulty of the scientific research and technological engineering and wonky public policy wrangling that is required to do these grand, big, bold things. Most of all, it treats these things as guaranteed successes and foregone conclusions rather than as vulnerable and flawed human endeavors. It leads the public to expect amazing breakthroughs without any actual major investment and hard work, and the end result is a backlash of mass disillusionment and apathy when the jetpacks and robo-butlers and teleporters don’t suddenly materialize.
I think the public is actually eager to support the search for other Earth-like planets. It’s high time for us to find other Earths and study them for signs of life. The problem is, all the breathless reporting seems to have given most people mistaken assumptions that the search is much further along than it really is, and that its continuance is assured.
Tell me about the title of this book, Five Billion Years of Solitude. My understanding is that it’s a reference to the lifespan of complex life on Earth, which began after the planet cooled and formed oceans 4 billion years ago, and which will end a billion years from now, when conditions here become too extreme for complex life. Are readers meant to interpret that as a prediction about our species’ destiny? Do you think we are bound to be alone for all of that time, or is it just a warning as to what could happen if we proceed along our current path?
It’s an admonishment that, though we may in a sense have all the time in the world, that’s not actually forever. We may in fact have a rather slim window of opportunity in which we can hope to secure our long-term, enduring future.
Looking to the past, we know from dating various meteorites that the Earth and the rest of our solar system formed about 4.5 billion years ago. We don’t really know when exactly life got started, but it’s quite possible that at least one terrestrial biosphere, more primitive and ancient than our own, arose in the Earth’s first few hundred million years of existence, only to perish in a spate of planet-sterilizing asteroid or comet impacts that seems to have occurred between 4.1 and 3.8 billion years ago. Our planet’s record of sedimentary rock begins after these great impacts tapered off, and it’s in those nearly 4-billion-year-old sedimentary rocks that we find the earliest hints of the biosphere that grew into the one we all remain a part of today. Conversely, we don’t find abundant evidence of complex, multicellular life until approximately 550 million years ago.