Sunday, 3 January 2010

Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle

Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time by Stephen Jay Gould: A Review

This is a fascinating book, dealing with the way in which metaphor and myth about time entered into the interpretation of the age of the earth, and the geological transformations over time.

The key to modern geology was a move from the dominance of the idea of time as a cycle, coming round again and again, to that of an arrow, irreversible, one way.
Yet the early pioneers, such as Hutton, used the cyclical theory of the world machine, mountains raised, folded, eroded etc, to get a grasp on the idea of deep time, that time was needed for geological cycles.

Lyell took deep time as the dominant feature, within which some kind of geological cycles might occur, but only in form, not as exact repetition.

Deep time, one of the central ideas in this book, is still so alien to our way of thinking that we shy away from it. The idea of deep time is simple, but difficult to grasp. It is the knowledge that human kind's existence forms only a minute fraction of the history of this planet. Millions of years passed with no life, and the emergence of life, without mankind existing. Yet we still see the past from a very anthropocentric perspective, the dinosaurs (who lived millions of years more than mankind) pass in a flash, and we see ourselves and our culture at the end (and almost summit) of history, as if history led up to the emergence of intelligence and that is important.

Mark Twain, quoted in the book, gives a salutary and sarcastic critique of this:

"Man has been here 32,000 years. That it took a hundred million years to prepare the world for him is proof that that is what it was done for. I suppose it is. I dunno. If the Eiffel tower were now representing the world's age, the skin of paint on the pinnacle-knob at its summit would represent man's share of that age; & anybody would perceive that that skin was what the tower was built for. I reckon they would. I dunno."

This is a challenge to personal cosmologies, to come to terms with the short duration of humans, and yet find a meaning in the world.

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