The Tangled World Lines of History








Needless to say, we have come a long way in the history of our species. We have evolved far beyond the mundane meanderings of our ape ancestors. We have formed fellowships among each other and the foundations of knowledge-bases so fundamental in the development of an ever-progressive species and so complex in their intertwining influences that there is perhaps no other course which could have brought us even close to the pinnacle of human achievement that we inhabit and enjoy today. The tangled mesh of world lines we have carved into space-time is truly incredible: we've travelled across and around the planet; over unforgiving landmasses by our own rugged feet; over unpredictably disastrous oceans by  the confidence of unproven ships and navigation skills; also over it, by the wings of mechanical creations countless swore would never prove to be fruitful endeavors; and even far above it, by the rocket thrusts of engines so powerful they consume the fuel equivalent of thousands of automobiles per second.

Sometimes I wonder, as I go about my daily routine, how many coincidences must have taken place to allow for such an incredibly diverse and productive world to exist all around us? And then I wonder was anything ever really a coincidence after all, or merely the inevitable consequence of an emerging superior intelligence given our specific circumstances, or even simply divine planning? No matter which way, coincidence or circumstance or prophecy, a lot has taken place during our (relatively) long history, and the interweaving threads of influence, no matter which way you look at them, paint a powerfully profound, thought-provoking picture about where we've been thus far, where we're all located at this very moment, and where we've any possibility to end up in the foreseeable and distant futures.

There is a wonderfully beautiful passage from one of my most cherished books of all time, Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson, in which after describing how much escape velocity an object needs to be freed from (and to safely enter into) each of the gravity wells of Earth and Mars, he stresses the “tremendous force” required to shift such an “enormous inertia” and then goes on to say:

            “History too has an inertia. In the four dimensions of space-time, particles (or events) have directionality; mathematicians, trying to show this, draw what they call "world lines" on graphs. In human affairs, individual world lines form a thick tangle, curling out of the darkness of prehistory and stretching through time: a cable the size of Earth itself, spiraling round the sun on a long curved course. The cable of tangled world lines is history. Seeing where it has been it is clear where it is going--it is a matter of simple extrapolation. For what kind of D n [change (Delta) in velocity] would it take to escape history, to escape an inertia that powerful, and carve a new course?

            The hardest part is leaving Earth behind.”

I am so moved by this analogy—that the relentless flow of time, and the history that comes of it, are like an enormous, thick tangle of vines hurling around the Sun (which itself hurls around the galaxy, which is paving its own massive course through the Universe), of which every single individual human affair and the intertwining of every single life as it interacts with every other in every possible way is but an individual line among billions, and the entire mess is carving a deeper and deeper, ever-more complex course as it plows along. And to alter this course which is so ancient, so engraved in our long history and into our daily lives, requires a force not so much unlike that required to propel a spacecraft into the depths of space. This "force" may be exceedingly difficult to quantify, being an analogy, but the fundamental idea is there: how much cooperation, unification, overlapping of ideals and goals between nations, is needed before we as a species are ready and willing to carve this course away from everything we've ever known and strike out on a purpose unlike anything we've ever had the capacity to achieve before?

It is often said that history is doomed to repeat itself. The more pessimistic among us will point out catastrophic disasters, both natural and man-made, that they believe are inevitable consequences on a long enough time scale. Oppression, war, asteroid impacts, segregation, global warming and other environmental damages, and general abuse and cruelty are some of the more deeply troubling examples. But also inherent in such a repetition of history are the social and intellectual triumphs, no less significant in their influence on the course of history. Even if we have waged countless wars on our fellow humans over time, in no way admirable, then it follows that we have also stumbled upon countless discoveries and quality-of-life enhancing advancements over the same time span. It might be that it really comes down to which extreme holds the most impactful influence on our species as a whole. Which course has managed to carve out the deeper path?

Picturing the actual world lines that would be present on some sort of visual all-encompassing map, there would be a handful of lines among the billions upon billions that have ever had the chance to spread their influence which branch out from the rest…a very, very rare few. These are those individuals lucky enough to have ever risen above the blanketing atmosphere which encases all but the tiniest, most unimaginably miniscule fraction of the entire vast history of our species. These wildly fortunate people, however few they may be, have all experienced the luxury of gazing upon the Earth in all of its magnificent, distant glory: they have gazed upon the entirety of our planet as no other group of human beings in all of history has ever had the opportunity, and most of whom all along the way have perhaps never imagined was a feat even possible.

The overwhelming majority of these world lines would, of course, begin at their origin, and then rise up and circle in and among the rest, never actually leaving the planet’s orbit, and would hardly even appear to have risen at all. Pull back even a fraction of one light year from the planet and all of the intercontinental flights, and even the sum of all suborbital flights such as those to the International Space Station, would seem like the playful curiosities of a child first identifying with the tools with which he can shape the sand at his feet on the beach. On any scale grander than the surface and atmosphere of the Earth, we've hardly moved at all.

But in that tiny, microscopic minority of history resides so much of our crowning achievements as a technological civilization: Twenty-four of these lines, lines so faint they would barely even be discernable out of the glare of the countless rest of them, would veer off from the rest to encircle the Moon. And twelve of these would actually touch it and create a physical bond between the two worlds.

Twelve people, out of all the billions and billions and billions who have ever lived, have ever stepped onto another world. And as epic and as glorious as this is, even they did not free themselves from our deep gravity well. They did not leave Earth behind. In the grand scheme of it all, the Moon is really as entrenched in the deep well of Earth’s course as the rest of us humans. It really was “one small step for man,” despite its incredible “giant leap for mankind.”

I can’t help but take this idea further in my mind. I imagine that this course that we are carving, year after year, revolution after revolution, gets just a little bit deeper each time. Not a literal gravity well of course, this time, but a metaphorical one—a gravity well of habit, of motivation and, perhaps most importantly, of willpower. We might just grow so accustomed to waging wars and battling politics that the crowning achievements will gradually falter. It will get more and more difficult to gather the excitement and the incentive to explore like we had in so much abundance during the Apollo era. If things hadn’t changed so drastically, there is no doubt that we (humans, not machines) could have been on Mars by now. We could have escaped the gravity well, and truly left Earth behind.

And even yet we still can.

You would only have to travel a portion of the way to Mars to be able to look out the window of your spacecraft and see both the Earth and the Moon in their eternal majestic dance around each other, raw and unfiltered and perfect. At such a distance, and with but a single outstretched palm, you could eclipse the entirety of human history, every single life that has ever flourished, every single thought that has ever inspired, every single emotion that has ever connected, every single action that has ever influenced, every single river that was ever crossed. All of it would fit within your grasp, as if you could crush it with a single motion or sweep it away onto a greater path.

I hope one of the astronauts of Apollo 8 had the thought to do this when they became the first humans to orbit the Moon. At that time, of course, they had became the most distant humans to have ever looked back upon our cradle of civilization. Since that day we have not further branched our world lines in any substantial way, although we went back several times afterward. We strengthened them, these oh-so-fragile lines, but have not furthered them since. There are still only twelve world lines on the map which enter another gravity well., and even so it's a gravity well within a gravity well. We have not yet left Earth behind.

But some day we will. Some day we will be on Mars, or on Europa, or on Titan, or even at Alpha Centauri, and our influence will be spread so much farther. Each time we travel a significant distance out into the cosmos the explorers will be able to, in essence, cradle human history in their palm with a mere outstretched hand. They will have travelled so far away from this tangled mess of human history that has never before branched away to such distant places that with just a glance they will be able to gaze upon the sight which holds everything that we have ever experienced. And the next more-distant travelers will be able to do the same thing, and the next…

The off-world permanent human settlements that Robinson was really hinting at would finally be freed of this immense well that our tangle of world lines has been carving through space-time all these years from our lone position here on Earth. Humanity would no longer be utterly at the mercy of any number of global catastrophes that might befall us: be it global warming, nuclear war, a massive solar flare, man-made disaster, or an Armageddon-scale meteor strike (or any other number of extinction-bringers). Humanity is utterly exposed in this one lonely location in space. The odds may be minute, but it’s not unfeasible. These brave explorers, however—they could start fresh and establish new territories, new pursuits, and build off the vast examples of successes and failures that are evidenced in our long, troubled history. They could finally do it right this time, and provide our fragile species the means to further advance beyond the limited confines of a single, vulnerable world. History has so much to teach us. At the very least we could have the shot to form a more stable, independent and efficient foundation for those pursuits which are much better suited to be sought after in the absence of so much confusion and conflict on the ground.

And once there, basking in the glory of an utterly new and uninhabited world, the men and women who made the journey can look up and, to quote now Carl Sagan from his excellent book Pale Blue Dot:

            “They will gaze up and strain to find the blue dot in their skies. They will love it no less for its obscurity and fragility. They will marvel at how vulnerable the repository of all our potential once was, how perilous our infancy, how humble our beginnings, how many rivers we had to cross before we found our way.”

We will, at long last, truly be branching out from this thick cable of tangled world lines of history to begin to encompass all that is out there for us to grasp, and to explore, and to understand, and to inhabit. We will be that much further along in our efforts to fully realize our unique potential. There will always be problems here on Earth, and those problems will always be best dealt with here at home. Maybe even helped along by some discoveries made out there where the persistence of turmoil does not hinder so much. And there will always be curiosities beyond our limited grasp here, out in the vast frontiers of space, and those curiosities will always be best sought after in the starlit blackness. The best is yet to come, with all things considered, and all things pursued. And it will be marvelous beyond our current comprehension, and far beyond the hope of meaningful words.

Posted by Eli Stanley | at 5:42 PM

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