What time is it in the world?

It’s hard to imagine, but simultaneity is a thoroughly modern concept. Before the telegraph, long-distance messages were carried exclusively by hand. The time delay built into all forms of communication ensured that what happened in the city one day would be a historical account by the time it made it to the countryside. By effectively eliminating the transit time of information, the telegraph transformed human conception of time and invented a “now” that could be experienced across a state, a country — and the world.

The story of the telegraph is one focus of The Information, James Gleick’s tour of information theory circa 2010. The book traces its subject historically, then concludes with Gleick’s assessment of our data-inundated times as patrons of The Library of Babel. We meet many fascinating characters along the way, including the quixotic encyclopedia writers who sought to transcribe every fact in the known world; Charles Babbage, the designer or a machine whose sprawling mass of gears and levers presaged the computer, a century before transistors; and Claude Shannon, whose theoretical work at Bell Laboratories is the foundation of modern digital life. Gleick amiably translates complicated source material, like quantum computing, in understandable and engaging terms. If the book drags anywhere, it’s in the extended history of the telegraph. But then I got to the invention of simultaneity.

Earth scientists are exceptionally curious about the things that predate the present. Yet our field is being similarly revolutionized by awareness of the planet’s activities in near real-time.

For decades seismometers have listened to the pulse of the planet, capturing local tremors and teleseismic calamities. Since the 1980s, the Landsat satellites have been capturing the mother of all home movies: a record of Earth surface change replete with meandering rivers, advancing dunes, surging glaciers, flowing lava, and shrinking lakes:

Lake Urmia, Iran

(Here are more jaw-dropping time lapse movies via Google Earth Engine).

The uniformitarian mantra “the present is the key to the past” may limit one’s geological imagination — look no further than T-Rex and the Crater of Doom. Yet paradoxically, that dusty old tenet of pre-plate tectonics geology may hold more power today than it ever has. Our worldview has literally expanded to a view of the whole world, and now even an armchair geoscience buff can see the present unfold just about anywhere on Earth’s surface.

Considering this embarrassment of riches, the challenge of sifting through the data to reach the information is a formidable task. The development of information theory in the 1940’s came just in time for Watson and Crick’s discovery of DNA, and informed the analysts who ultimately cracked the genetic code. Circa 2016, there’s never been a better time to crack the code of Earth’s surface.