From Stellar Dust To Digital Devices

The interconnected lineage of life from primordial times to the present.

Remedios Varo, "Star Maker," 1958

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

Karen Bakker, the author of “The Sounds of Life” and a participant in the Berggruen Institute’s Planetary and Future Humans programs, passed away recently at the height of her creative life. Her last essay for Noema was titled “The Sounds Of Invisible Worlds,” which followed upon her celebrated TED presentation on whether AI translation might enable an Orca to give a TED talk.

Her poem below, which we publish in memoriam and courtesy of MIT Press, is indicative of her unique vision that traced the interconnected lineage of life on Earth from primordial times to the digital device on which you are reading this. It will be included in her posthumous volume, “Gaia’s Web.”

As Claire Isabel Webb, director of the institute’s Future Humans program, writes: 

Karen’s gentle brilliance emanated from her work to others, enriching her community’s writing, conversations and intellectual lives. In an exchange last May, Karen told me that ‘collective intelligence ranges from the cellular to the planetary. It is human and non-human, biological, geological.’ Karen contributed in the grandest way to our shared, planetary sapience, a never-ending project of knowledge creation that is not humans’ alone. 

The themes in her parable below — the magic of being alive on Earth, our connection to nature and planetary deep time more awesome than humans’ own sliver of life — are bittersweet now that her life has ended. Karen was made of a special kind of stardust.

Parable Of Tree And Stone

Long before dinosaurs roamed our planet, in a time called the Carboniferous, a tree was born. A seed fell to Earth, rooted in swampy soil, grew over a hundred feet tall and a hundred years long. When the tree died, its body became home to cockroaches as big as house cats, and dragonflies with wings as wide as hawks. Bacteria fed on the rotting wood, and mosses grew. Covered by Earth’s blanket, the tree’s body sunk deep, compressing into coal, a slow-motion burial. Millenia later, the coal was unearthed, heated, deprived of oxygen, splintered into plastic pellets, liquified and poured into molds, and polished into small black jewels. Tree, reborn: the keys on my computer.

The stone is even older than the tree.

In Precambrian time a volcano rift opened, and lava flowed from Earth’s core. Cooled by rain, the lava sunk deep, compressing into stone. Millennia later, the stone was lifted from a mine shaft, crushed and bathed in caustic fluid, liquefied and poured into molds, and polished to a shine as sharp as a knife. Stone, recast: the casing for my computer, cradle for the keys.

In deep time, trees and stones are descended from stars.

Tree once drank sunlight and mixed it with air, storing energy for future generations. Stone was forged in the furnace of a long-ago star which — with the cosmic clap of a supernova — dispersed itself as stellar dust, the raw ingredient of our planet. These are the ancestors of our digital devices:

Mother Tree, Father Stone, Grandmother Star, Grandfather Time.

Our computers, then, are made of stardust and tree flesh. Their memories live on machines whose breath warms the sky. Our digital devices are ecological, our ecologies are growing digital.