The planet we live on leads a charmed life. Though faced with innumerable threats to its existence, it has managed to survive a few billions year and so have we humans for more than three hundred thousand years. Yellowstone Park is an example of how we’re helped. It’s an actual still active volcano that refuses to erupt while we enjoy its splendor into the distant future. Nature doesn’t do our bidding, but it’s very cooperative.
Scientists and skilled every day researchers are trying to determine when the first human being walked the earth. They think they’re getting closer as the elusive date sems to be ever earlier, over three thousand years ago. What’s impressive, astonishing even, is how a particular species managed to survive over this vast period despite natural disasters – frequently occurring earthquakes and fiercely erupting volcanoes – and manmade ones – endless wars and now a nuclear danger. Yet here we are today in a new year with many of us in relative comfort and even happy. There’s a story to be told.
Threats to be sure, continue to exist, many in the most unlikely places. Appearances can be deceiving. Take Yellowstone Park, for example. This 2.2-million-acre wonder, spreading over draws some four million visitors each year to enjoy its splendid scenery of mountains, valleys, geysers and hot pools for an occasional if somewhat risky dip. Yet they may not know it, but they’re standing on a massive super volcano that sits above an enormous reservoir of molten rock that reaches twelve miles into the earth. It also happens to be still active. With some very acute sensitivity visitors might feel the hundreds of small earthquakes that occur each year.
These are precursors of a cataclysmic eruption that will some day occur. But don’t postpone your visit on account of that. The last eruption took place 600,000 year ago and the next may be ten thousand years in the future. Meanwhile just look out for traffic and bison jams on the narrow roads. What could be a distant nightmare is a current paradise for geologist Paul Doss, who says he can observe rocks three billion of years old and new ones being born.
“I’ve never been any place where geology is more evident or prettier.”
Yellowstone is typical of where we stand in the universe in the opinion of Bill Dyson in his book “A Short History of Nearly Everything.” Tragedy abounds, but we are spared. For instance, we are just the right distance from the nourishing sun. Much closer, earth would have boiled away. Much farther out, it would have frozen. Our moon, larger than those of other planets, provides a steady gravitation that keeps the earth spinning at the right speed and angle necessary for a long and successful life. We’re lucky that 4.4 billion years ago a huge celestial object smashed into earth, carving out a separate moon. Creative destruction, to be sure.
Timing is essential, writes Bryson. Anything can go wrong in billions of years. “It seems evident that if you wish to end up as a moderately advanced, thinking society, you need to be at the right end of a very long chain of outcomes involving reasonable periods of stability with an absence of real cataclysm.”
Privileged as we are, we don’t own the universe or are masters of it. Ultimately, it will decide our fate as we seek to learn more about it. In the meantime we can act appropriately within its bounds with a measure of humility and forbearance. No use tearing up what it has built over the ages. We’re not sure exactly when we arrived here. Any number is arbitrary. But we’ll give it a try. Maybe we’ll hit the jackpot. Happy 319, 642 New Year.