The Earth Calendar ~ From Part I, Beginnings
...Susie Grossi's fish story, wandering down the convolutions of my mind in a stream of consciousness, sends me off on thoughts about time, in which the fish's long story, along with the story of all things, unwinds. Time is the one thing we take for granted yet don't really understand, any more than the fish understands the water from which it is never apart. Units of time, measurements of time, depictions of units and measures of time, we have aplenty. Just walk into any house in the United States and you will quickly find dozens. What you can’t see, you will hear. The microwave beeps, the dryer buzzes, the radio turns on at its appointed hour, someone’s watch goes off as a reminder to make a telephone call. You can find the exact minute of our measured day by looking at your watch, your cell phone, your computer, your laptop, your microwave and even one of those old-fashioned things, a clock. It is hard to believe that the first portable clocks that could be used to determine longitude were only invented in the 17th century. Up until then, only a location's latitude could be given. A determined Englishman named John Harrison* spent his entire adult 18th century life trying to invent an accurate time-piece that could operate aboard a ship and be used to pinpoint its longitude.
None of these brilliant gadgets give us a remote sense of what time really is, any more than a yardstick can tell us about distance or a day at the beach tell us about the nature of the sea. Time, in fact, is more like the sea than the digits on the microwave or the friendly faces on our wrist. It is a vast unfathomable medium through which we swim across the small distance of our lives. Or even the lives of our species. A clock cannot tell us about duration. We can get a birds-eye perspective of space from an airplane, a satellite or a spacecraft. But we can’t get a bird's-eye view of time, measured in hundreds of millions of years. Not the experience of it. Yet we are made of time. Not centuries. Not millennia. But long unwinding eons of time.
In his book The Dragons of Eden, Carl Sagan used one of our common measures of time—the calendar—to impress this point on his readers. The universe is around 15 billion years old, he notes in 1977. And based on the known calculations of that time (these estimates are constantly shifting and refining, but what is a few hundred million years difference to us?), the Earth is around 4.5 billion years old. To help us imagine this, he compressed the entire duration into the scale of a calendar year. The Big Bang, that colossal burst of fireworks, occurs on January 1st. Our local neighborhood, the Milky Way, doesn’t come into being until May 1st. The long hot summer is almost past before the solar system takes shape on September 9th, my nephew’s birthday. The Earth forms on September 14th.
I prefer to make a small change in Sagan’s calendar and use it as a metaphor for the Earth’s year, rather than a cosmic year. [See pp.??] Either scenario is humbling. In the Earth calendar, loosely based for numeric convenience on a 4.4 billion year lifespan, each day is 12,000,000 years, each week is 84,000,000 years, each month is around 372,000,000 years,. Sometime after lunch on the last day, human history as we know it comes into faint shape. We can actually take a nap and not miss much.
The first signs of life—what we would give our eye-teeth now to find on Mars or any other planet—comes forth on Earth some 4 billion years ago in February: organic carbon in small oval masses. Hooray! (You are not enthused? NASA would be popping champagne corks if the Mars Rover turned up the tiniest bit of this.) And just think, a billion years ago we have algae, bacteria, tubeworms, sponges and radiolarians. (I can see you are still not impressed.) How about jellyfish. Perhaps you have visited the Monterrey Aquarium and been mesmerized by their magical jellyfish world. If so, you have found a time telescope, a chronoscope, that can see far into the past. If you have not, drop everything and go now.
These are the fruit of the long, hot summer. July’s children. They have been in gestation for a billion years. That is one million millennia. A patient craftsman is at work.
THE EARTH CALENDAR PERIODS:
- 1 Year = 4.4 billion Earth years
- 1 Month = 372,000,000 Earth years
- 1 Week = 84,000,000 Earth years
- 1 Day = 12,000,000 Earth years
. . .