How to put a dent in the universe

Steve Jobs is supposed to have said(*) once:

We’re here to put a dent in the universe. Otherwise why else even be here?

By putting a dent, he was probably exhorting us to live a life of significance with a positive live-changing impact on the lives of the people in our universe: to leaves a legacy that can live on long after we have left. Okay. That sounds pretty good. But let’s see how difficult making such a dent can be.

If we think in terms of years, centuries or even a few thousands of years, we can very easily imagine what such a legacy may mean. From a lingering memory in future people’s minds, to a book, a statue, or a long-lasting new thing. But should we consider those remains an actual dent in the universe?

For example, if an industrial civilisation had existed on Earth many millions of years before our own era, what traces would it have left? Would they be detectable today? Could researchers find clear evidence of an ancient short-lived industrial civilisation long before our own? It turns out that leaving just a trace, not just in the universe, but here on Earth, can be pretty difficult if instead of centuries, we think of millions of years.

The interesting conclusion of a recent study(1) published in the Journal of Astrobiology is that the more sustainable a civilisation becomes, the smaller the signal it will leave for future generations. Therefore, if we truly worry about climate change, and were finally able to find lower-impact energy sources, our civilisation would leave a smaller or even negligible impact.

I do not intend to mean that Steve Jobs was an advocate of non-renewable energies or unsustainable practices. By no means. However, let’s face it: if you actually want to make a dent (in the universe), you’d better be a bit unsustainable.

(1) Schmidt, Gavin A., and Adam Frank. “The Silurian hypothesis: would it be possible to detect an industrial civilization in the geological record?.” International Journal of Astrobiology (2018): 1-9.

(*) As it happens, very likely he didn’t say that, but let assume he did it for the sake of the argument.


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