A kind of exercise to see the present as if from far off.
It's quite a revelation to discover that the Moon is getting further away from our planet by 3.5 centimetres per year. This news must have also come as a surprise to Italo Calvino if he decided to dedicate one of his first Cosmicomics short stories to it. Today, the distance of our satellite is still reasonable: around 380,000 kilometres, but in some millions of years… who knows? Once the Moon has escaped Earth's orbit it will move away indefinitely into space…
The distances in the universe are enormous, so great that they are difficult for the human mind to comprehend. If we were to travel the distance between the Earth and the Moon in our car, respecting the motorway speed limit of 130 kilometres per hour, it would take 2923 hours, that is 122 days, to reach our satellite. Quite a reasonable time, even if no motorway service station stops are planned. Whereas if were to decide to go to the closest planet, Venus, Earth's twin, the minimum distance between us being 40 million kilometres, at the same motorway speed the travel time would be 307,692 hours, around 35 years. Still do-able for a person, although it would require the commitment of a lifetime. The trip back is already more challenging. Mars, which is 55 million kilometres away, would require 48 years of navigation, and we'd need a massive dose of optimism to imagine we could get back within our lifetime. But if we were to decide to focus on the Sun, which is 150 million kilometres away, the trip seems impossible for a single human being, even in one direction only: 131 years.
What about a trip to Pluto, which is almost 4 billion, 200 million kilometres away? 3688 years is too long even for an entire civilization. This means that to reach the dwarf planet today, a car would have had to have set off at the start of the New Kingdom of Egypt, before Tutankhamen.
Not to mention heading towards other stars, other systems, or even other galaxies. If we imagine the Earth as a pea-sized sphere, Jupiter would be 300 metres away, and Pluto 2.5 kilometres. Proxima Centauri, the closest star, would be 16,000 kilometres away, which is approximately the distance between Italy and Australia. Or, in reality, around 40,000 billion kilometres. In short, 35 million years at our motorway speed. In space, though, we can't travel by car: the Voyager probe is travelling away from the solar system at a speed of 17 kilometres per second. But even at this rate it would take 74,600 years to reach the nearest star.
The time required to travel in space is long if compared with a single human life, but very short in relation to the history of the universe and even that of our Earth.
Four billion, 500 million years have gone by since this mass of fire started to coagulate and become a solid sphere. Since then many things have happened on the planet we live on, and scholars today only know about a tiny fraction of them. It has been a history of developments and catastrophes, evolutions and tragic ends, collisions with planets and asteroids, eruptions and glaciations. A history largely unknown, starting with the creation of life, which appeared around 3.5 billion years ago, and there is still doubt over whether it occurred autonomously or whether it was triggered by an external element – who knows, an asteroid or a comet – or desired by a god who had already envisaged a higher purpose. Life is strange, surprising, inexplicable in its constant yearning to reproduce itself and expand, but for a very long period of its history it developed in a monotonous fashion, in the form of unicellular beings.
It must have been a rather boring life for the cyanobacteria that formed the stromatolites, lithic conglomerates that invaded the waters of the planet for millions of years, digesting hydrogen and releasing oxygen, and thereby producing the Earth's atmosphere which we now breathe. All in all, only recently did life become somewhat more meaningful, so it seems worth living. Around 540 million years ago, in the Cambrian, there was a sudden explosion of various living forms, the emergence of aquatic animals whose physical constitution is the basis of those around today. However, it was still millions of years before giant animals were seen on the Earth, up to the era of the dinosaurs, which then became extinct, suddenly, only 65 million years ago.
And what about mankind? Just a speck of dust in the immensity of the cosmic movement.
When homo sapiens appeared in Africa around 200,000 years ago it had left behind a long chain of precursors: primates, hominids, Pithecanthropus, Australopithecus, whose genetic story started around 6 million years earlier. During this period these beings had learned to walk on two legs and to create tools out of stone (many were found in the ground at Olorgesailie, a sort of open-air factory that operated for over one million years), they had discovered love (like the two Australopithecus who, embracing each other, left footstep impressions of their flight across a lava field at Laetoli), they had learned compassion (as in the case of the female found at Lake Turkana who suffered from hypervitaminosis A, the deformation in her bones showing that she could not have survived so long without the help of her companions), and they had started to master fire (at least one million years ago, referring to the remains in Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa). Homo sapiens appeared in Africa only 200,000 years ago and slowly spread to all the continents at a speed of just over one kilometre per year. The last conflicts with Neanderthal man must have taken place 30,000 years ago and saw the latter succumb to (or mix with) our species. The conquest of the Americas is even more recent: only 12,000 years ago, during the last Würm glaciation, humans travelled across the Bering Straits on foot and expanded into the continent which was then discovered by Columbus around 11,500 years later. Agriculture emerged only 10,000 years ago, and just over 5,000 years humans abandoned stone and started to use bronze and metals.
In the meantime, 150 thousand years ago, humans started to use language, which was to be their great privilege: the capacity of symbolic abstraction. The remains of the first artistic signs in the Lascaux and Chauvet caves are only 30,000 years old. The history of the practice we are concerned with, namely art, is incredibly short!
If we compare the history of the Earth to a 24-hour day, life appeared towards 4.30 in the morning. Then, for the whole day there was not much change, only single cells capable of making identical reproductions of themselves, until around 20.30 when the first marine plant life appeared. Trilobites, three-lobed creatures that have only survived as fossils, only appeared after 21.00, immediately followed by the great Cambrian explosion. Dinosaurs showed up at around 23.00 and disappeared at 21 minutes to midnight. The human story, from the first hominid who came down from the trees, started just before one minute to midnight. While our history, our entire history, that is what we are at least somewhat aware of because it has been handed down, from Sumerian writing to the present-day, can be contained in three or four seconds. So it is curious to see this microscopic being, this ever-busy ant that we are, look up at the sky and attempt to drive itself into space, build satellites and missiles, travel to the Moon, Mars, Pluto and comets, and send messages to the boundaries of the universe in an attempt in turn to understand the secrets hidden in its depths. From a certain point of view we are nothing more than the terminal expression of the innate expanding energy that is inherent in life.
From this perspective we can observe the human story with a certain detachment. What we perceive today as a sense of the end is an infinitesimal moment in the enormous curve of time and space. It is not an upsetting catastrophe, nor a cosmic drama, but a simple change, a small wrinkle in the boundless dimension of the universe. An inevitable consequence of the laws of physics and chemistry. It is not the end of the world, it is only the end of “our” world.