Wednesday, November 12, 2014


As I write, the Philae probe is attempting to land on Comet 67P, a two-mile-wide chunk of ice and rock that is presently 300 million miles away from Earth. Tom sends the picture above, of a etched nickel disk carried by the probe, an archive of human languages that you can read about here. It is not the only such disk. There are many copies -- "Rosetta stones" -- to be distributed as widely as possible in space and time as messages to the future that hold keys to the past.

As I write, I am sitting in my usual chair in the college library, surrounded by books and journals, mostly in English, but a substantial number of other languages too. And even as I write, this paper trove is slowly being replaced by the digital cloud. The paper periodical section of the library has been vastly reduced; no longer, for instance, can I browse, as was my wont, the crisp, colorful pages of Architectural Record; I'm now directed to the web. I hardly ever see students cruising the lonely stacks; they are huddled over their laptops. It is not hard to imagine a library without books; some college and university libraries have already gone that way.

The Rosetta disks, like the one carried by Philae, will be more permanent than paper, more enduring than the digital cloud. What documents of our time will we want creatures of future millennia to read? I have just finished reading Richard Flanagan's Booker-prize-winning novel The Narrow Road To the Deep North, a book that plunges one into deep despair about man's inhumanity to man, then lifts one's spirit with the embrace of love, courage and redemption. Yes, let it be that -- the awfulness and the glory.

I think of a stanza from William Carlos Williams' "A Sort of Song":
Let the snake wait under
his weed
and the writing
be of words, slow and quick, sharp
to strike, quiet to wait,