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Deep Time

Review by Mark L. Olson

Deep Time

by Gregory Benford

Avon, 1999, 225 pp., $20.00

This isn’t SF — or perhaps it could be called Applied SF.

A few years ago, Benford was recruited to be part of a Federal Department of Energy committee to devise really long-term strategy for marking radioactive waste storage sites. The first third of the book records their plans for marking storage sites, while later chunks of the book include a failed attempt to send a complex message to Titan aboard Cassini, and about a Library of Life, a plan to save comprehensive libraries of DNA.

The work on radioactive burial marking was most interesting. Benford’s committee considered how to mark things to last 100,000 years, and how messages which might be misinterpreted (it wouldn’t do for the message to attract some later civilization to dig just where we wanted them to avoid!) They even considered non-physical messages like myths.

I found the Titan message to be much less well thought out, particularly the black and white photo which was – somehow — supposed to be a better depiction of humanity than the famous outline drawing of a nude man and woman aboard Voyager. Because blockheads objected to nearly every aspect of the Voyager image — even that the woman was shorter than the man — the Titan disk attempted to defuse in advance every possible objection – people were seated, it included every race, a woman was the central figure, etc., etc. Every fool’s hot button was carefully attended to. And of course the resulting picture was so complex as to be uninterpretable without context. The rest of the message was a good attempt to send a message to another culture with which there is no continuity at all other than technology.