Sunday, February 15, 2004

To Infinity, And Beyond!

Humans have such a short attention span. We also are cursed - and blessed - by a very limited sense of time. Our temporal horizons are typically some fraction of a human lifetime; some fraction of a human lifetime from about 2500 years ago. Which means something less than about 40 years.

Even though most people realize intellectually that they will live for some four score of years or more, our brains have not overcome the shorter time spans our ancestors lived. It's partly, I believe why teenagers can't imagine what it's like to be forty. It's why adults have a hard time saving for retirement. It's why governments have such a difficult time convincing citizens to think about the next generation, much less the seventh generation. It is, in a very fundamental way I think, why we have such a hard time solving so many problems. The future is just "too far away."

In particular, conservatives - especially during the last 40 to 50 years - seem to have a difficult time with the concept of the future. Their political, philosophical and often their religious frame of reference denies the classical action-reaction dialectic. So that we get a denial of the need to steward and protect the environment; the denial that we need to conserve non-renewable energy sources; the lack of interest in renewable sources. In other words, it seems that their temporal horizons are especially short and they are incapable - or, even worse, unwilling to see that their actions now have an impact later. But the particular brand of conservatism in vogue now is not the sole province of short-sightedness. We are all guilty.

So, besides a nice glass of Cabernet, what brought on this post? The discovery of what is perhaps the most distant object ever observed. A galaxy, visible only because of gravitational lensing, about 13 billion light years away. The big bang is currently dated at about 13.7 billion years ago, so the light from this small galaxy has been traveling outward since the universe was less than a billion years old.

The atoms that make up our bodies and our computers and everything around us had not even been created yet when this galaxy first coalesced. The stars in which our atoms were forged were still billions of years in the future.

Now that's a long horizon.

In truth, I'd be happy if we could just convince some of the people in this country to think about things 20 years in the future.

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