A recent article in New Scientist, exulting (as I must confess I also do) in the Pluto fly-past, enquired 'where we go to next'. The author replied to his own question by suggesting a visit to Alpha Centauri, our nearest neighbouring star, which is a mere four light-years away. Acknowledging that a space-craft constructed in accordance with our current technology would take a rather long time to get there, he nevertheless enthusiastically urged such a project on the grounds that it would be tremendously exciting for our descendants, in 100,000 years, to be getting the pictures (and other data) back.
I think this sort of sweet and child-like simplicity really marks out the instinctive differences between those like me, bred to cynicism in the humanities, and what I will call the naive journalism-end of Science writing. (I put it like this because, during my teaching career, I had colleagues, published scientists, who were men and women of very broad interests and formidable intelligence, whom I have no desire to patronise or insult.) For me, litteris humanioribus nutritus, nothing is more obvious than that the interests and assumptions and intellectual fashions of our species vary hugely from year to year, generation to generation, century to century, millennium to millennium. My own very shallow forays into intellectual history have included the 1930s, the 1840s, the 1630s, the 1490s, the Classical Roman World, the Classical Greek World. Many readers will recall that a very able mind, Mgr Ronald Knox, described with erudition and brilliance the mutating preoccupations in a fictional Oxford Senior Common Room by eaves-dropping its after-dinner conversations at fifty year intervals from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries (Let Dons Delight).
Of course, I may be wrong, and I grant you the liberty to be quite certain that I am. But I have to say that nothing strikes me as more totally, mind-blowingly, improbable than the idea that, in 100,000 years, our human descendants, assuming that we have any, will be possessed of anything remotely similar to the interests of early twenty-first century astronomers. Anyone who can believe that (I feel inclined to say) will believe anything.
After all, my own ridiculously limited and bungling attempts to gain some sort of entry into the minds of earlier societies range over less that three thousand years.
And I know how little I have really got inside their heads.
And 100,000 years is a lot more than 3,000.
To be continued.