Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The End of the World

Another doomsday prediction has come and gone. The end of the world was supposed to occur last weekend and, obviously, we are all still here. This is not the first such prediction and it certainly is not the last. And although we don’t know exactly when it will happen, the world as we know it will absolutely come to an end at some point in the distant future - our science is advanced enough that this is not a mere possibility; the sun will eventually exhaust its supply of hydrogen and it will expand, obliterating the inner planets of the solar system. The time frame is inconceivably long, but it will happen. Furthermore, other cosmic and geographic calamities that are impossible to predict could spell our demise much sooner. It is, however, so highly unlikely that it will happen in my lifetime that it is beyond wise is to continue to plan for the future.

But even with what amounts to a virtual guarantee that the world is going to stick around for a while, I won’t be here to see it 50 years from now. Death is part of life and if I optimistically live into my late 90s, the end of my world will come in 2060, give or take a couple of years. And that is only if everything goes well; indeed, that end very nearly came to me ten years ago. The chances of the world being here for the next 50 years are much greater than mine. But it begs the question: If we all know that we are here for a limited (and, in the big picture, a relatively short) amount of time, why do we do so much work knowing that we will never see the outcome?

We see it in our personal lives as well as our communal existence. We plan for 100-year flood protection, construction plans that extend 25 years or more into the future, research projects that extend over many generations, and hopefully soon, space exploration that might span multiple generations. And those plans project action well beyond some of the designers' lifespans. On a personal level, these questions are perhaps more easily or intuitively answered in the name of creating security for our children and grandchildren. But despite all this, we all face our own personal doomsday someday...

While the amount of knowledge and technological development we have created in the past 150 or so years is unprecedented in scale compared to the total of human history up to the 19th century, it is also true that it did not come out of a vacuum. Great thinkers, scientists and tinkerers alike, laid the groundwork for the road we now travel. They are not here to revel in their genius, but they might have foreseen a world that would benefit from their insights. Driven in part by a quest for a better life and in part by an insatiable desire for knowledge, these now dead visionaries lit the way and each one of them surely knew that he or she would not live forever. Yet they made that contribution anyway. Why?

Obviously I cannot answer for them, but I can say why I do what I do. There is an ever-growing body of human knowledge. It began when we did and will continue for as long as our race does - maybe longer. I am not seeking insight so much because I will find the  answer as much as I am making a contribution to what that answer might be. And like so many perennial “big” questions, there can be no ultimate answer. I can surmise this, however; if we are to survive beyond the death of our world, thinking beyond our own existence is an absolute necessity. Taken a step further, this ability, which is uniquely ours, is the only hope that the rest of the animal kingdom has of surviving the eventual destruction of this world... and they do not even know it. That is what separates us and why our species has been able to climb to the top of the food chain in such a short amount of time. We have a responsibility to continue seeking beyond our own doomsday.

And while the prophets predict, I will continue to seek...