Friday, July 2, 2010

Just a booger on the fingernail of the Universe

That's us. Actually we're much smaller.

I was following along with my friend Wood's Astronomy class and learned some really cool stuff. Everywhere you look on the internet, it is mentioned how difficult it is to grasp the age of the Universe and Earth. Big numbers don't explain the concept very clearly. So this example (also, found everywhere on the internet) was kind of stunning.

If you compressed the timeline of the Universe into a calendar year, meaning the Big Bang is January 1st and present day is midnight, December 31st, here's what it would work out to...

  • January 1st - The Big Bang (the Universe begins to form)
  • February - Our Milky Way Galaxy forms
  • August - Sun and planets form
  • September - Oldest known life (single-celled organisms) forms
  • November - we see the beginning of multi-cellular organisms
  • December 15 - Cambrian Explosion (burst of new life forms)
  • December 17 - Emergence of first vertebrates
  • December 18 - Early land plants
  • December 20 - First four-limbed animals
  • December 21 - Variety of insects begin to flourish
  • December 24 - First dinosaurs appear
  • December 25 - First mammalian animals appear
  • December 27 - First birds appear
  • December 29 - Dinosaurs wiped out by cataclysmic event
  • On December 31st, in the morning, is when any speck of human ancestry appears on Earth
  • 12/31 - 10:15a - Apes appear
  • 12/31 - 9:24p - First humans to walk upright
  • 12/31 - 10:48p - Homo erectus appears (shut up, Beavis)
  • 12/31 - 11:54p - Anatomically modern humans appear (that's SIX minutes before midnight, brothers and sisters)
  • 12/31 - 11:59:45p - Invention of writing
  • 12/31 - 11:59:50p - Pyramids built in Egypt
  • 12/31 - 11:59:59p - (1 second before midnight) Voyage of Christopher Columbus

It was only about 12,500 years ago that the very spot where I sit today (killing time during the slow part of the academic year) was only just beginning to thaw out from the last Ice Age.

The thought terrifies and amazes me all at the same time. We humans have done so much, it seems, in such a short time. My parents were watching black and white television and standing, umbilically connected to the rotary phone on the wall. My grandparents were driving early cars, and listening to radio programs at night. And yet, a look at geologic time shows just how small we we really are in the big picture.