Thursday, February 11, 2016

Whatever Hope We Have

I posted this as a comment over at Daily Kos, where folks were talking about the confirmed identification of gravity waves from the merger of two infalling black holes.  Then I decided I liked it enough that I wanted it to be here as well.  Sorry for anyone who happens to be seeing it twice -- think of it as a sort of gravitational lensing, I guess.

Whatever Hope We Have

That was the title of a Maxwell Anderson essay back in the 1930s, just as the world was getting ready to slide into the Second Active Round of the 75 Years’ War.  His point was this: no civilization of human beings has lasted forever. Ours can’t be expected to either; we can hope it ends in something better blossoming from it, rather than in destruction and chaos, but we should face the fact that there will only be people like us on the Earth for a limited time.

In light of that, what will we be remembered for?

Whether we approve of it or not, and no matter how appalling we may think a civilization was, taken as a whole, whatever hope they (and we) have is to be remembered for our best. We remember High Medieval Europe more for the cathedrals and the poetry than for the Children’s Crusade; Athens more for Euclid, Pericles, Plato, and Euripides than for the slaves in the silver mines; the Abbasid Caliphate for its artists, poets, scholars, and scientists and its ideal of religious tolerance more than for its slave trade and conquests; China more for its early explorations than for its later suppression of them, and more for its seeking of wisdom than for its fossilization of tradition.  What will be our Notre Dame, our Taj Mahal, our Popul Vuh, when we are dust and the debunking historians of the successor civilization begin to describe us (as every successor civilization does of its predecessors) as “Yeah, but ….” ? **

I think the answer is, probably our science. We’re the ones who found out what sort of universe we actually have and where we are in it.

And just as most Medieval Europeans never built a cathedral, and the slaves in the silver mines under Athens didn’t write tragedies, and most peasants historically have had only the most limited idea of what the tax gatherer was taking the taxes away to do … most of us can’t really understand how the physicists got things down to four fundamental forces, and then to showing that the four are really one.  Nonetheless, in 5000 years, when they’re digging up the remnants of the Roadbuilder Civilization (as Jack McDevitt dubbed us in one excellent novel), we can hope to be remembered for Einstein and his intellectual descendants.

Or would you rather go into the great heap of history as the creators of Justin Bieber?


* This is very much the same perspective Carl Sandburg in Four Preludes On Playthings of the Wind, except Sandburg doesn't appear to see any hope at all.

** Iron Law: Civilizations begin in heroic myths from their own glorious bards, and end up in museum drawers as "Yeah, but."