Randal Munroe writes funny books and has a website about all kinds of ‘What If’ scenarios. One of the questions in his book is about what the earth will look like in – say – 1 million years. In all fairness, it is then questionable whether there will be human life on earth. Surely that puts everything into perspective. We may have left behind a sedimentary layer of plastics, and nothing else of us humans can be observed. Perhaps there is still a remnant on the moon – or is there a crater somewhere with a fossil?

We are a ripple in the galactic cycle of stars – stardust. The elements of our carbon-based bodies once started in a random star. I sometimes get quiet about that. With all our devices and information flows – what impact do we have? We are actually only about 4,200 years into writing – and rewriting – our history. And we just think we can move mountains (or dig them down) and have some control. Be able to archive something. Influence the weather. Make computers faster. Instruct AI.

Anyone ever stood on the edge of an extinct volcano? Well, then you know we can’t do much against natural disasters. We do have some influence. For instance, Iceland was completely cleared by the Danish Vikings. And 6,000 years ago, humans had some impact on the climate when they started farming. And even now there is a glitch due to a complex of factors that we – quite frankly – don’t fully understand.

But what is 6,000 years if you delve into how long a galactic year lasts (a lap of our sun around the centre of the Milky Way): roughly 230 million Earth years, at a speed of 230 kilometres per second. Visualise that and you get a spiral of an orbiting solar system, where we then circle a sun in turn, with Earth circling its axis. There is also a law in that, as the Milankovitch cycles describe. In cycles of 21,000, 40,000, 100,000and 400,000 years – although the evidence is still tricky.

Chaos and lawfulness: both go side by side. The German Sophus Helle researches the poems of the Sumerian priestess Enheduana, who lived 4,200 years ago, the first author whose name we can determine. She wrote: ‘The nature of the universe is neither single nor predictable, since the universe is ruled by a goddess who is herself deeply divided and constantly changeable.’ The Sumerians already knew it – change is a law.

Wouter Bronsgeest
(president KNVI)