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I was maybe six years old, driving somewhere at night with my dad,
and I took a little nap, and I woke up, and he said:
"Where did you go?"
And I said: "I... dunno."
And he said: "Well, what do you reckon sleep is for?"
And I said: "I... dunno."
And he said: "Sleep's kinda weird though, huh?"
And I said: "...Eeeh..."
And he said: "Sleep is a lot like dying, really, isn't it?"
And I said:
The Greek god of sleep is called Hypnos.
He has a brother called Thanatos, and he's the god of death.
This is gonna be a jolly 10 minutes!
Sleep makes no sense.
It leaves us completely defenseless for hours on end,
and it probably isn't even for saving energy, either.
Compared to just lying around awake, sleep will save you about a hundred calories,
or a banana of slightly above average... girth.
Humans need about eight hours sleep a night, but our animal friends vary wildly.
Koalas prefer 22 hours,
bunnies about nine,
elephants need just four,
and however badly your day is going,
I would like to invite you to just enjoy this picture of an elephant calf taking a nap for a moment.
There. That's better, isn't it?
No, me neither.
But whatever sleep is for, it's so essential that nature wired it into almost every half-intelligent organism on the planet.
For example, dolphins.
If they slept like us, they would drown, because they don't have gills, and they need oxygen.
So they sleep unihemispherically – that is, they float just below the water,
and one side of their brain sleeps while the other stays awake, then they swap over.
Human death rehearsal –
heh, excuse me, I mean, sleep –
is a bit more straightforward:
teeth, toilet, spot of hysterical crying – and it's off to the Land of Nod.
Stage 1: brainwaves slow down a bit.
Stage 2: your pulse will slow down, and you'll begin producing sleep spindles,
which are little bursts of brainwaves that...
Well, we don't know what they do exactly, but
they look a bit- they look a bit like that...
Stages 3 and 4 are the deepest levels of sleep.
Growth hormone is released, tissue is being repaired,
then stage 5:
Rapid Eye Movement, or REM stage.
Your brain kindly paralyzes your body, mostly;
the eyes roll about, the face twitches,
brainwaves go mental,
and this is where about 80% of dreams occur.
Anyway, the funny part about all this, of course, is when we're not dreaming while asleep –
where do we go?
It's just black, it's just oblivion – every night, over and over.
Because sleep is just death being shy.
If we got news that an asteroid was approaching, scheduled for arrival, say, 60 years from now,
and it was so gigantic it would wipe out our entire civilization,
we would probably go fucking nuclear.
Riots, war – maybe end the world before the asteroid even arrived.
And yet, there IS an asteroid, approaching slowly in the distance,
but it only gets one of us at a time,
and we practice for it every night.
And its name... is Death.
With an asteroid, the whole species will be gone in a few days, probably.
With death as it stands today, though,
maybe we take comfort in the fact that even though we'll be gone,
the world will still carry on without us.
But ignoring technology and politics, we do know a bit about the future we'll all miss out on.
And if it cheers you up, we can take a little tour of that future.
Just for fun, let's say sometime in the next few years you become a parent to two children,
and that the average human generation cycle is about 30 years.
Well, by the 2080s we're two generations down the line.
You are now a grandparent, and six humans have inherited your DNA.
If humans have made it to Mars, on November 10th, 2084,
the colonists will witness the transit of Earth from Mars –
the Earth resembling a black disc, passing across the Sun.
2110, another generation later,
and assuming humans have, on average, two children,
your children have grandchildren now, and you have 14 descendants.
It's quite possible they attended your funeral.
Don't worry, everyone got smashed in the pub afterwards, and said nice things about your hair.
The world population is probably around 11 billion humans, having jumped 4 billion in just a century.
The 2140s, another generation.
All things being equal, 30 humans now carry your genes.
2200 – another generation – and we're into the 23rd century.
Halley's Comet has just reached its perihelion;
you have 62 descendants.
The mid-2200s, now six generations –
that's 126 descendants of yours.
Leeloo and Korben Dallas will shortly be initiating a romantic relationship,
and by the end of this century, still at two children per generation,
you now have 2050 descendants.
We can no longer even speculate what culture and technology looks like, so...
Year 12,000 AD, 240 generations later.
If sex is even still in fashion, you now have at least several million descendants.
The star Antares has just gone supernova, probably,
and will be visible from the Earth even in daylight.
Year 52,000 AD, 1,500 generations of your progeny later,
and the Earth's rotation will have slowed enough, courtesy of the Moon,
that we'll need to add a leap second to preserve timekeeping.
Year 100,000 AD, 3,000 generations later.
You might recognize the constellations, but they'll be altered –
the handle of the Big Dipper getting a little relaxed at the back, for example.
250,000 AD, 7,500 generations later.
Loihi, currently a submarine volcano in 2019, will have risen out of the ocean and become a volcanic island.
2 million AD.
The Grand Canyon erodes to surround the Colorado River,
if there is, indeed, still a Colorado River left.
50 million AD.
Eurasia and Africa collide, forming an entirely new mountain range.
500 to 600 million AD.
It's possible Earth's continents have fused back into a single supercontinent.
A day on Earth has probably gained at least an hour.
Our moon is now so distant, solar eclipses never happen again.
One billion AD.
The Sun is now ten percent more luminous, meaning our oceans have begun to evaporate.
Plant life is... unlikely.
Four billion AD.
The Milky Way, our galaxy, and our neighboring galaxy Andromeda collide, forming Milkomeda.
Ten billion AD.
The Sun is now 256 times its current size, and has almost certainly swallowed Mercury, Venus, and Earth.
One trillion AD.
It's possible the Big Crunch has now begun, the remains of the universe falling back in on herself.
Galactic clusters will begin to converge, stars will collide,
the resulting explosions illuminating the heavens nearby and distant.
Eventually, the black holes of the universe will collide with one another,
amassing into a single super-supermassive black hole consuming itself.
One quadrillion AD.
It's also possible no Big Crunch will occur, and the universe will continue to expand indefinitely.
In this scenario the main points of interest for the next almost infinite period of time will be the decay of nucleons –
that's protons and neutrons –
beginning an era in which only black holes exist in the universe,
and, assuming a new universe has not begun,
the current universe will achieve its final resting energy:
uninhabited, uninhabitable, barren –
perpetual, limitless dark,
with no recourse to the fecundity that once teemed within the boundaries of creation.
We all must have gone through that phase as a kid, when it hit us:
"Well, people die eventually,
and mom and dad are people,
and I'm a person, so...
Some of us, including your pompous narrator here, never recovered from that phase.
It is simply too much: to live as the only animal that knows its projects and loves and lifetimes are limited,
and when the animal is gone, after a while it'll be as though the animal never was at all.
And that is a notion too wide and spiky to fit inside the head.
The things we will miss after we're gone:
the parties, the births of humans we would come to love,
all the walks, all the hugs,
all the plucky steps into the dark our species will take yet.
Homo sapiens?
Yeah, right – homo nihilus, more like.
The only animal conscious of its approaching demise,
and conscious of the world's approaching demise, too.
I suspect you, like me, have run into these people in life,
who are terribly clever, and yet terribly broken.
Because they've looked into the abyss and concluded that on a long enough time scale,
and in a universe so wide and apparently indifferent, we have no ultimate significance,
and the point has dropped out of everything for them.
But there IS a middle way between denial – "I'm so fucking important, look at my bank balance", etc. –
and despair – "there's no point to anything if we all just go off into the dark", etc.
Because the world is just this fantastical as it is horrific,
and it's just as arbitrary to lose hope as it is to find it.
If everything was forever, would that really change so much?
80 years or a trillion – beer would still taste just as good, wasps would still be pricks –
Fuck you, wasps!
– and maybe tomorrow we'll kill aging, and death, and stay up infinitely past bedtime.
But as it stands today, we don't have the science yet.
And so, god-fearing or not, we have to find some way of making peace with the thing.
For you it might be religion, or some variant of spirituality – and, fair enough.
But I'll tell you what works for me personally, though.
When it's late, and I can't sleep, and the abyss starts whispering about how I'm gonna go into the dark one day,
I keep in mind that whether I like it or not, I am part of something bigger –
an experiment conducted across the entire planet,
conducted across all of history –
called "us".
Somewhere in the future, we are gone, and someone who loves us is remembering us.
Somewhere ahead of that, they are gone, and someone who loves them is remembering them.
The interminable rise and fall of generations.
How many of us have been and gone down here since we became Homo sapiens?
Billions, at the very least.
To have stubbed one's toe,
to have heard a new word and looked it up,
to have yelled at the GPS as though it's the GPS's fault you got lost,
to have watched another human blowing their nose or picking their teeth, or something equally disgusting, and quietly thought to oneself,
"Oh, fuck – I've fallen in love with you, haven't I..."
Just to have BEEN anything – what a weird honor!
If sleep is just death being shy, then waking up is atoms being miraculous.
The fact that for about 80 years atoms know they're even atoms at all,
courtesy of being humans.
Birth, death, the silly bit in between –
if none of it has any ultimate significance,
if, on a cosmic scale, none of it matters...
does that really fucking matter?
We won't last forever, but while we're here,
What a silly decision it would be to waste our day out in the cosmos –
that brief period of time when matter woke up,
on a world as interesting as this one,
with hair as excellent as yours,
with all the other talking carbon units around us
that we can hang out with, and be fond of, and talk shit to,
and keep the abyss well at bay.
And if all that wasn't enough, just in case...
In the words of Ursula K. Le Guin, a human who left us just last year:
"When I take you to the Valley, you'll see the blue hills on the left and the blue hills on the right,
the rainbow and the vineyards under the rainbow late in the rainy season,
and maybe you’ll say, 'There it is, that’s it!'
But I’ll say, 'A little farther.'
We’ll go on, I hope,
and you’ll see the roofs of the little towns and the hillsides yellow with wild oats,
a buzzard soaring and a woman singing by the shadows of a creek in the dry season,
and maybe you’ll say, 'Let’s stop here, this is it!'
But I’ll say, 'A little farther yet.'
And we’ll go on, and you’ll hear the quail calling on the mountain by the springs of the river,
and looking back you’ll see the river running downward through the wild hills behind, below,
and you’ll say, 'Isn’t that the Valley?'
And all I will be able to say
is 'Drink this water of the spring,
rest here awhile,
we have a long way yet to go,
and I can’t go without you.'”