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(Done with Mirrors)

(Statistical blah blah blah)

Other Blogs I Read
Regularly Often

Athletics Nation

Andrew Sullivan
(Daily Dish)

Kevin Drum
(Political Animal)

(Obsidian Wings)

 Wednesday, November 18, 2009
To Ourselves and Our Posterity

By way of Megan McArdle, I come upon this article on Slate which discusses the difficult problem of how to label buried nuclear waste in such a way that our distant predecessors 12,000 years from now will not only be able to interpret the danger warnings but also believe them enough to heed them.

I suppose this is an interesting intellectual puzzle, but I can't get interested in it because with every sentence I read, all I can think of is, "Why on earth would I care about the health of people 12,000 years in the future??"

To tell the truth, I don't think there even will be any human beings at all 12,000 years from now. I'm not quite as gloomy as my philosophy professor friend who calmly and rationally predicts that some sort of ecological catastrophe will wipe out at least a tenth of the world's population within his lifetime, but I do think it more likely than not that our species will be extinguished some time before 10,000 years are up.

But that's not even the point. Even supposing people do exist 12,000 years from now, who are they to us? Possibly they are our great-to-the-360th grandchildren. But what the heck does that mean? Do you feel any connection whatsoever to your great-to-the-360th grandparents, who lived around the time when homo sapiens first discovered agriculture? Most of us can't even name our third cousins. Most of us don't even care about the health of villagers in Guatemala right now. Yet somehow I'm to believe we're going to spare no expense in assuring that 12,000 years from now Zogdor doesn't accidentally poison himself by digging up some old plutonium? (Assuming Zogdor even exists.) (And that he isn't a robot immune to poisoning anyway.) My mind boggles.

I wonder if this is another science fiction thing. I often find that the culture of science fiction warps people's thinking when considering risks and probabilities of unlikely events. (Or at least the thinking of literate, geeky types; ordinary people seem less afflicted by this.) Like when people fret about how we'll escape when the stars of the galactic core all go supernova, or how how it will affect our society when we colonize other solar systems. Uh, hello, even the nearest one is more than four light years away. That means it is, at minimum, a four-year trip. And that's assuming you travel at the speed of light, at which point, among other things, your mass becomes infinite. And yet, everyone seems so certain that somehow we are going to defy this fundamental law of nature because ... warp speed! wormholes! tachyon beams! I mean, that's what they do in all the books, right?

So maybe this is why people think handsome blonde Captain Joe Johnson is going to be exploring the ruins of Yucca Mountain 12,000 years from now. Because that's exactly what would happen in a movie.

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