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Category: Writing

Redwoods and Hard Drives

Redwood National Forest - Big Tree
So, a few weeks ago I got a chance to visit Northern California and Southern Oregon.  Some of the most beautiful country I’ve seen.  In my week-and-a-half of hiking, mineral baths, good beer, grass-fed beef, and other great endeavors I got a chance to visit the Redwood National Park and the state parks along the Northern Pacific Coast of California where the great trees reside.  A redwood tree can live to be 2,000 years old, if permitted to do so.  Redwoods are almost impervious to fire, because of their mass, so a whole forest would never go up in flames as easily as the other pine and fir-covered lands that make up Northern California.  These groves had to have been thousands of years old.

The famous library of Alexandria, Egypt was a great collection of knowledge.  The ancients gathered thought throughout the lands of Alexander’s conquests and eventually it became the first research institute.  Theories, ideas, and concepts were tested and developed.  One of these thinkers, Aristarchus of Samos had a curious idea that the Earth traveled around the Sun as documented by Archimedes.  Of course we do not have access to Aristarchus’ original scrolls.  Several times the library was consumed in flames and much of the knowledge generated by the greatest thinkers of the ancient world was lost.  It wasn’t until about a thousand or more years later that Copernicus came to this same conclusion; the redwoods kept growing.

Lately I’ve been daydreaming about the trees or contemplating something Carl Sagan said on a Cosmos episode and every once in a while I think about where we are today.  I think about hard drives and the fact that the Library of Congress is archiving our Twitter feeds.  Not to say that all the best and brightest use Twitter, but it is an example of where we are today.  It is a snapshot of our collective history.   The World Wide Web, in which Twitter inhabits, is too.  That and a repository of knowledge.  The trees are touching the sky.

I see a lot of push away from the static (and flammable) printed page to the dynamic world of the digital media.  Information is readily available but easily changes with the click of a mouse button.  Take Wikipedia for example as a constantly-evolving database of information. But alas, the internet is a large array of interconnected computers and all this knowledge, all this history, is stored on devices that require a flow of electrical current to perform.  The redwoods require water and sunlight.

Say that the human population was wiped out by disease, war, disaster and famine (you know, the typical stuff) and some alien race happened upon our planet.  A curious race that is in to planetary archeology.  Go along with me here.  How readily available would our hard drives be to these visitors?  Would they have the technology to decode our zeros and ones.  They would probably still see the trees (unless we removed them all).

Hammurabi’s code was written in stone that we have unearthed.  In the distant future will our digital world be as easily extracted?  Will our systems sustain our own disasters?  I think in many ways that our ideas are as fragile as those that sat in the library of Alexandria.  Our knowledge is fleeting, as are we; only nature perpetuates.


The Science of Miracles


“Thermo-dynamic miracles… events with odds against so astronomical they’re effectively impossible, like oxygen spontaneously becoming gold. I long to observe such a thing.  And yet, in each human coupling, a thousand million sperm vie for a single egg. Multiply those odds by countless generations, against the odds of your ancestors being alive; meeting; siring this precise son; that exact daughter… Until your mother loves a man she has every reason to hate, and of that union, of the thousand million children competing for fertilization, it was you, only you, that emerged. To distill so specific a form from that chaos of improbability, like turning air to gold… that is the crowning unlikelihood. The thermo-dynamic miracle.”Dr. Manhattan, “Watchman”

I just saw an excellent documentary about the city-state of Athens titled: The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization.  It covers the invention of democracy and the people that helped pave the way towards this road.  What I find incredible is that the idea of democracy was not created in the Fertile Crescent or the Nile River Valley where thought had a good chance to flourish, but in a terrain as rugged and unyielding as Greece.  What’s even more interesting is how it came about.

Athens was ruled by an aristocratic class of Greeks that was constantly vying for power.  With the help of Spartan forces, Isagoras gained power and attempted to keep it by banishing those that were a threat to his rule.  Then, by a strange turn of events, the Athenian commoners rise up and successfully retake their city.  The exiles that Isagoras had banished were asked to return and help restore rule back to Athens.  The aristocrat Cleisthenes, who had been deposed by Isagoras, modified the system of government so that decisions were made by districts of Athens rather than the original aristocratic families.  He helped create a government for the people.

The small city-state of Athens goes on to defeat Xerxes and the mighty Persian Empire, fighting for their freedom.  Eventually they become a strong naval power, a place of trade and a harbor for ideas.  Little do these ancient people know how far into the future that their ideas have persevered.

This gets me to thinking how fragile our timeline can be in the shaping of our lives.  If the people of Athens had never risen up or were defeated by Isagoras the idea of democracy may not have even entered our mindset.  How miraculous it is that we live in the society that we do and how lucky (or blessed) we are by the events of the past that have brought about this present.

There is a story in my family about my great-grandmother missing the Titanic and coming over on the Carpathia.  I have seen documentation of her being aboard the Carpathia, but nothing to prove she had a ticket to board the Titanic.  Supposedly, she was in an arranged marriage to a Polish man in the United States that had paid for her trip.  After missing the boat in one of the world’s most tragic events, she arrived to find her fiancee “too old”.   She ended up marrying a Ukrainian miner with the last name, Holodnick (Golodnyuk).

As Dr. Manhattan said, “…a thousand million sperm vie for a single egg. Multiply those odds by countless generations, against the odds of your ancestors being alive; meeting; siring this precise son; that exact daughter…” It’s incredible that you or I even exist right now to experience each other’s company and this world that we inhabit.  One slight change in the timeline, such as your mother falling in love with another man could mean someone else existing.  What if your mother never existed in the first place?

Scientists are working on it, but have yet to discover the exact conditions in which human life was created.  Although the universe is large, what is the probability that complex life forms exactly like ourselves would come to being over millions of years?   What is the probability they would be living in a free society?  What is the probability that they would have the same personalities or that they would even perceive such things the same?  The fact that we exist on this planet is a miracle in itself.

Some days I find myself seeing everything as tasteless and mundane.  I get impatient when things don’t work out the way I wish they would.  I forget how much of a blessing it is that I’m even here.  We should cherish the moments that we have on earth and be thankful that we’re taking part in this experience we call life.  We should be grateful for the country that we live and the freedoms that we have.  One shift in the timeline and we might never have had such a great opportunity and there’s always a chance we could lose it.

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