Professor of Zoology, Geology,
Invertebrate Paleontology and Biology at New York
University and Harvard University
The topic of Sept. 10, 2001, sticks too close for any comfort, especially given the eeriness of two numerological coincidences. First, it happened to be my 60th birthday. I spent the day (in a meeting, but who’s complaining?) at Bellagio, an idyllic spot on Italy’s Lake Como. The payback arrives next afternoon, at the onset of five involuntary days in Halifax, as my plane to New York never arrived for obvious reasons. Wonderful people, lovely city; but I belonged home, one mile north of ground zero. For the second calculational oddity, my grandfather began the history of my family in America when he arrived at Ellis Island as a 13-year-old immigrant on Sept. 11, 1901.
What will be on Sept. 11, 2101? The topic strays far from my convictions, for I have written ad nauseam on how both Darwinian theory, and the vagaries of historical contingency in general, preclude any meaningful predictability for complex systems like human cities and societies. So a poor professional wordsmith can only respond to the question by telling a story-but a true tale about the paradoxes and limits of predictability, as recorded in our need to ask such utterly unanswerable questions. Thus do I offer my personal best:
One day, about 10 years ago, I posed this conventional “thought experiment” to my closest biological colleague (also the most brilliant man I have ever known), Dick Lewontin: If you could invent a time machine to visit any moment of the earth’s history, either in the past or future, where would you go? (You get only one choice, and your temporary visit does not impact history in your status as pure spectator.)
I offered the conventional and boring paleontological response: take me back to one of the most salient moments in the history of life (the midst of the Cambrian explosion, or the instant of impact for the large extraterrestrial body that struck the earth and triggered the last great mass extinction 65 million years ago).
Dick, on the other hand, answered in the opposite and far more interesting direction. He said: “No, Steve, I’d go the other way. I want the machine to set me down in New York City exactly 100 years from today. I will need only 15 seconds at the site. I just need to know whether it’s still there. All insight that I might obtain from the future, for guiding the rest of my life, flows directly from the answer to this question.”
I have no prediction for a response to Dick’s question. But I will assume, because we must, that our beloved city will still be there in some form, and that a large green lady, proudly intact and not dismembered as in the chilling last scene of Planet of the Apes (original version), will still be lifting her lamp beside the golden door.