Dawn Creatures: How Radioactivity Unlocked Deep Time

In September 1928, these new responsibilities to the deep future of humanity were articulated with foresight by geologist Thomas Chrowder Chamberlin, two months before his death.

When a reporter interviewed him in his Chicago study, Chamberlin smirked and said he was “a believer in a great opportunity” for mankind.

Chamberlin pointed out that humanity had only just discovered the “enormous energies” locked in atoms. “So I think we’re really only at the beginning of things, that we’re just starting to learn to think.” Our species is like a child, he continued. “From the point of view of the Earth, I am in favor of a great future”.

More than most, he had already thought about the ethical implications of a ballooning future. During a 60-year career, he had pioneered theories on climate change: by proposing, in 1899, that CO2 causes global warming. He even suggested that human activities are altering Earth’s future climate. It requires an “altruistic goal”, regulating current “action” to safeguard “generations that could live tens of thousands of years away.”

And in June 1898 – a month before Icy Curie introduced the term radioactivity – Chamberlin argued that our ignorance of subatomic processes means that we should be wary of Kelvin’s estimates of a meager future.

When advances in nuclear physics quickly proved him right about his optimistic predictions for Earth’s prospects, he began to insist that the expanding future demands increased responsibility.

In 1903 he argued, for these reasons, that the best deeds are those which – accumulating over time – snowball into “great things” in the “long ages” to come.

The “prolonged influence” of altruistic actions, spreading across eons, amplifies their positive “contribution”. But, at the same time, the same is true for the “subsequent” impact of the damaging actions. Caution therefore requires being attentive to our use of Earth’s finite “resources”, he wisely suggested.

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