If Dinosaur Train was a documentary, would we know?
April 12, 2018 12:18 PM   Subscribe

What if dinosaurs had an advanced civilization? To be clear, they almost certainly didn't. But, if they did, would we know? The question is relevant to xenobiology, which aims to find traces of alien life, perhaps long after it is extinct. A new paper [pdf] suggests that synthetic molecules like plastic and potentially nuclear fallout, would be detectable in the geologic record, although it might be challenging to separate signals like climate change from other abrupt events. Others have argued that, over geologic times, even plastics will be gone. (except from the fascinating book A World Without Us) [prev.],
posted by blahblahblah (42 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
 
Wouldn't remnants of plastics, technology, and whatnot be preserved in tar too? Someone science me here.
posted by The_Vegetables at 12:24 PM on April 12, 2018 [1 favorite]


After all, Earthly life has existed for some 3.5 billion years.[1] Its story is a rise and fall of various species, success and failure. Against this timeline, human civilization is a peculiar footnote. Our history is recorded to about five thousand years ago, and evidence suggests that civilization—with permanent settlements and agriculture—may stretch back to the seventh millennium BCE or earlier (Jericho in Mesopotamia and the rice/millet farms of China).[2][3] By contrast, dinosaurs reigned supreme for 160 million years[4],

Ever since seeing that as a little kid I decided I'm going to take your knowledge of what happened back then with a grain of salt. That's just too long to know.
posted by bongo_x at 12:32 PM on April 12, 2018 [1 favorite]


I just reread one of my favorite nonfiction books - Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth - which is a combination of "here's what we know about the ancient Earth" and "here's how we found all that stuff out." And the tl:dr is, the fossil record is BRUTALLY incomplete compared to what actually happened. And unless you either know exactly where and how to look for something or else get incredibly lucky, you don't stand much chance of identifying what little did manage to get preserved.

And then, returning to this question, assuming that any intelligent civilization will definitely produce the same types of chemical products that we happen to produce strikes me as ridiculously anthrocentric.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:00 PM on April 12, 2018 [9 favorites]


It's both comforting and depressing to know that if humanity were to disappear tomorrow virtually every hint of our existence would be gone in less than a million years. Just as likely, it's virtually impossible to say with any certainty that ours is the first civilization to develop on this planet.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 1:12 PM on April 12, 2018 [7 favorites]


wrt Dinosaur Train: can we also Real Talk about how a) the paleontologist seems never to have encountered a human child before and b) Don the pteranodon looks alarmingly like Donald Trump Jr.?
posted by tftio at 1:20 PM on April 12, 2018 [4 favorites]


Everybody knows Dinosaur Train isn't a documentary - Dino Riders though... that happened.
posted by Nanukthedog at 1:26 PM on April 12, 2018 [1 favorite]


The paradox of searching for proof of a long-lived society is that the longer it exists, the harder it will be to find: "There is an interesting paradox in considering the Anthropogenic footprint on a geological timescale. The longer human civilization lasts, the larger the signal one would expect in the record. However, the longer a civilization lasts, the more sustainable its practices would need to have become in order to survive. The more sustainable a society (e.g. in energy generation, manufacturing, or agriculture) the smaller the footprint on the rest of the planet. But the smaller the footprint, the less of a signal will be embedded in the geological record."
posted by Doktor Zed at 1:27 PM on April 12, 2018 [14 favorites]


And then, returning to this question, assuming that any intelligent civilization will definitely produce the same types of chemical products that we happen to produce strikes me as ridiculously anthrocentric.

Not as much as you may think. Physics and chemistry aren't any different now than it was a billion years ago. A technologically advanced civilization (even at the advancement level of iron age people) would leave significant evidence in scenarios such as moving material from one place to another, create metallic alloys, and shape the natural environment via domesticated plants and/or animals. Unless you posit any previous intelligent civilization were entirely hunter-gatherer level, traces would survive in their location for a very, very long time.
posted by tclark at 1:32 PM on April 12, 2018 [4 favorites]


There are about 50 million km of oil wells and mines on Earth (enough to reach to Mars). Each of these will almost certainly form a technofossil when sediments fill them in, and those sediments lithify. Since many of these are in geologically very stable areas (e.g., Canadian Shield, Western Australia) these technofossils will last indefinitely - I would suggest, many on the order of 500 million years. They may become warped, broken, sectioned, faulted -- but their anthropogenic origins will be unmistakeable.

Additionally, there are about 1.5kg of human debris per km^2 on the deep ocean floor. Fossil casts will form around many of these. The plastic or aluminum may be gone but the cast will remain.
posted by Rumple at 1:34 PM on April 12, 2018 [14 favorites]


I totally forgot to include the link to The Earth After Us, about what evidence we will leave in geology. The short answer is, over 100-500 million years or so, much of the earths surface gets recycled.
posted by blahblahblah at 1:45 PM on April 12, 2018


Except the parts of it that don't. Like the Canadian Shield, some of which has been around for a couple of giga-years. If one was to make a dedicated search for ancient high technology civilizations, that would be a good place to start.
posted by seanmpuckett at 1:53 PM on April 12, 2018




> Wouldn't remnants of plastics, technology, and whatnot be preserved in tar too? Someone science me here.

Whilst yes it's extremely likely that plastic would be preserved in some way, it's also probable that at some point a microbe will evolve to eat it. There's similar organic compounds (shellac, for example) which are already broken down by existing bacteria. That said, some plastics (notably, weirdly, plastic coffins) are pretty much indestructible.

The World Without Us is a great book and I highly recommend it - a brief summary of what will last: Glass ; Ceramics ; Plastics (with the caveat above) ; Mt Rushmore (the statues carved out of hard granite will be recognisable for several million years) ; CO2 spike in ice cores ; Stainless steel. What's unlikely to survive is buildings and generally evidence of our civilisation - that'll be gone in a few thousand.

One question I need to bug someone into answering is 'If Dinosaurs had a space program, would the evidence still be in orbit today?'
posted by BigCalm at 2:02 PM on April 12, 2018 [4 favorites]


If Dinosaurs had a space program, would the evidence still be in orbit today?

If it was in an Earth/Moon Lagrange point, maybe. Certainly possible if it's orbiting the Sun itself, even more so in an Earth/Sun Lagrange point. Or a very long period comet-like body. But there are a lot of meteors flooping around out there too that would eventually give it a kick to who knows where after a hundred million years. So if there is something it's almost certainly not where they left it OR it's some kind of amazing device that can stay running for that amount of time.

I'd think more likely there'd be evidence on the surface of the Moon which is relatively stable, though it might be under a few meters of dust.
posted by seanmpuckett at 2:29 PM on April 12, 2018 [4 favorites]


What if dinosaurs had a glorious psychic civilization, powered by the energies of the Black Moon? What then, smart science-guys?
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:47 PM on April 12, 2018 [25 favorites]


The L4/L5 points for planet-sun systems often have natural objects like asteroids or dust, but there doesn't seem to be even dust in the Earth-moon L4/L5, which suggests that they are not long term stable.
posted by Pyry at 2:51 PM on April 12, 2018 [3 favorites]


So if you wanted to leave a geologically durable record behind, you'd want to etch enormous stainless steel plates?
posted by inconstant at 3:03 PM on April 12, 2018


So if you wanted to leave a geologically durable record behind, you'd want to etch enormous stainless steel plates?

Or inconel. Gold would be too valuable to leave behind on earth but would work in space.
posted by Brian B. at 3:18 PM on April 12, 2018 [1 favorite]


> So if you wanted to leave a geologically durable record behind, you'd want to etch enormous stainless steel plates?

Actually, bronze was in the book too - that should work as well. Note that in particularly acidic environments (e.g. peat bogs) it's likely neither stainless steel nor bronze would survive for long.
posted by BigCalm at 3:24 PM on April 12, 2018


Pyry: "The L4/L5 points for planet-sun systems often have natural objects like asteroids or dust, but there doesn't seem to be even dust in the Earth-moon L4/L5, which suggests that they are not long term stable."

Or that the previous residents cleaned up after themselves!
posted by TypographicalError at 3:34 PM on April 12, 2018 [6 favorites]


Glass and ceramics are extremely durable, moreso than almost any other compound. Your broken beer bottle could outlast almost any other sign of our society.
posted by Rumple at 5:35 PM on April 12, 2018 [2 favorites]


'The Silurian Hypothesis'- I love the subtle Dr. Who joke/ reference the authors included there.
posted by LeRoienJaune at 7:34 PM on April 12, 2018


imagine if you willl, a world of dinosaurs with canned beverages, racing hurdy-gurdy across a vast swampish landscape in ion driven vechiles the size of a heavy cruiser.
posted by clavdivs at 8:31 PM on April 12, 2018 [2 favorites]


What would the dinosaur equivalent be of THIS PLACE IS NOT A PLACE OF HONOR?

Assuming that dinosaurs had nuclear reactors, and were at least marginally concerned for future generations, we should try to find dinosaur nuclear waste dumps by looking for symbols that dinosaurs would have found sinister and offputting, yet also an obvious and artificial "message" to future generations.

Something like this.

20mb PDF for those interested in the original report on the WIPP warnings
posted by chappell, ambrose at 8:39 PM on April 12, 2018 [2 favorites]


I'd think more likely there'd be evidence on the surface of the Moon which is relatively stable, though it might be under a few meters of dust.

On geological time scales, even the lunar surface is pretty hostile (micrometeorites that would fizzle away in Earth’s atmosphere land unimpeded there, to the consternation of anything in the way). As for a few metres down: Yeah, conceivably, but consider the challenges of searching compared to, wellanywhere on the earth’s surface.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:01 PM on April 12, 2018 [1 favorite]


It is just human chauvinism to think that there weren't civilized dinosaurs. Stone age equivalency would still be pretty amazing, and it would be very hard to recognize it after 65 million plus years. Civilized doesn't mean fossil fuels and a space program.

How can anyone think that a hundred years of seriously looking at the past could rule something like that out? If we aren't alone in the universe, I don't think we were alone in Earth history.
posted by BeeDo at 9:34 PM on April 12, 2018 [1 favorite]


The dinosaurs will return one day, to do motocross in double gravity.
posted by um at 9:56 PM on April 12, 2018 [3 favorites]


A while back I remember reading an article that was basically if man vanished now how long would it be before all the evidence of our existence went and the thing that would last the longest was the scars left by deep mining - like the South African gold mines. This would last through a lot of geological upheaval.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 1:41 AM on April 13, 2018 [2 favorites]


It's amazing that I have lived my 42 years on this Earth without ever asking if there was a vanished dinosaur civilization. Thanks, MetaFilter!
posted by Rock Steady at 4:38 AM on April 13, 2018 [4 favorites]


wrt Dinosaur Train: can we also Real Talk about how a) the paleontologist seems never to have encountered a human child before and b) Don the pteranodon looks alarmingly like Donald Trump Jr.?

...or why the hell the "point of fact" guy seems so pissed off all the time.
posted by inflatablekiwi at 6:55 AM on April 13, 2018 [1 favorite]


It is just human chauvinism to think that there weren't civilized dinosaurs.

This is some peak internet, right here. I hope the author is imagining some cross between David Icke's lizarardoids and the dinosaurs of Jane Yolen's How Do Dinosaurs ...? books lolling about on a flat earth.

Anyway, this thread needs more Was (Not Was).
posted by octobersurprise at 7:09 AM on April 13, 2018


The dinosaurs will return one day, to do motocross in double gravity.

i can't believe all the fake dinosaur fans in this thread do not understand this comment and the factual dinosaur lore it references
posted by poffin boffin at 7:11 AM on April 13, 2018 [1 favorite]


Nanukthedog: Everybody knows Dinosaur Train isn't a documentary - Dino Riders though... that happened.

That Dino Riders commercial is single-handledly responsible for an entire generation pronouncing the name of the long-necked dinosaur as “dip-lo-dokus”.
posted by dr_dank at 7:19 AM on April 13, 2018


Assuming that dinosaurs had nuclear reactors...

Although, given the timing, it's more likely that the nuclear civilization belonged to trilobite ancestors.
posted by tobascodagama at 8:09 AM on April 13, 2018


So is everyone in this thread too young or too cool to remember Dinosaucers?
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:27 AM on April 13, 2018 [1 favorite]


Wouldn't remnants of plastics, technology, and whatnot be preserved in tar too? Someone science me here.--The_Vegetables

It is a very common but false belief that La Brea Tar Pits contained dinosaur remains. They haven't found anything in it older than 100,000 years ago and dinosaurs were many millions of years ago.
posted by eye of newt at 8:54 AM on April 13, 2018 [2 favorites]


Ever since seeing that as a little kid I decided I'm going to take your knowledge of what happened back then with a grain of salt. That's just too long to know.
posted by bongo_x


Science skepticism is so tiresome. We know a hell of a lot.
posted by agregoli at 9:03 AM on April 13, 2018 [3 favorites]


Science skepticism is so tiresome. We know a hell of a lot.

That is true. But two hundred years ago, well into the Enlightenment, they reckoned they knew a hell of a lot too. Fast forward a few decades and Richard Owen puts forth the idea that all the fossilized, occasionally giant, bones being found scattered all over the world belong to a distinct taxonomic group he proposes calling “dinosaurs.”

There is a distinction between science skepticism as propounded by anti-vaxxers and flat-earthers and the version belonging to those who say that there are aspects of our world we may still come to a better understanding of (this is in fact the default assumption of a scientific worldview).
posted by ricochet biscuit at 11:00 AM on April 13, 2018 [2 favorites]


The Altrusians were quite advanced, before they turned into the dreaded Sleestaks. It is known.
posted by homunculus at 11:41 AM on April 13, 2018 [1 favorite]


Science skepticism is so tiresome. We know a hell of a lot.

I have no idea where you got "science skepticism" from, but I am skeptical of anyone who thinks they have it figured out. I'm not a true believer and probably never will be. History is people thinking they have it mostly figured out except for some details to fill in.
posted by bongo_x at 12:26 PM on April 13, 2018


I love love love Dinosaur Train but not as much as I love Odd Squad! Now that I wish was an irl documentary.

These kids today have no idea how good they got it. It's not like watching the Merry Milkman Show, the local kids show in Boise, when I was little.

Which my kindergarten class was on -- we wore big red cardboard apples and we sang Oh, I wish I was an apple hanging in a tree... and my family went down to watch it on the black and white TV -- like there was anything else! -- in the lobby of the Bancroft Hotel.

Man, I tell these clueless millenials -- not anyone here, of course! -- that these times are like Watergate and the Cuban Missile Crisis combined and they gape openmouthed at me like I said something in liturgical Martian.

Now, talk about your traces of an alien civilization!
posted by y2karl at 5:37 PM on April 14, 2018 [1 favorite]


Dinosaur fact: troodons being corvids and tool users hunted in packs armed with spears

Dinosaur fact: At its peak the Troodon empire claimed the Triassic, Jurassic & Cretaceous through time tunnel technology

Dinosaur fact: The Troodon Empire was known to practice forced adoption of unrelated species as political enforcers

Dinosaur fact: The secret police of the Troodon Empire was known as The Claw, and Conductor is among its highest ranks.

Dinosaur fact: The state religion of the Troodon Empire included rites worshipping at a volcano known as Ol' Smoky

Dinosaur fact: Pteranodon slaves dropped dinosaurs from throughout Mesozoic into Ol' Smoky to propitiate those who built the time tunnels

Dinosaur fact: Some pteranadons served willingly, a secret held from their own families, ambassadors to eras with common fear of troodons

Dinosaur fact: Those cultures most fully under the thumb of the Troodon Empire often practiced a form of rishathra peculiar to dinosaurs

#dinotraintruth
posted by bigbigdog at 7:08 PM on April 14, 2018 [2 favorites]


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