Time Maps

| November 9, 2012 | 1 Comment

Sometimes you need to sit back and think: “I am insignificant.”

This isn’t meant to be nihilistic or to make you sad. The earth is 4.3 billion years old, and sometimes we forget this. But it isn’t our fault, we cannot envision time properly. Humans can wrap their heads around a decade, maybe even a century. But any longer, and it gets shaky. The problem is scale. You cannot get a sense of the shape of Europe by backpacking through it. A map is required. One in which thousands of miles are represented by a few inches. Even if you are backpacking, a map of Europe will be of no help. You need a map of the region, even the town you are walking through. Scale dictates the way in which we place ourselves in any greater context.

Time, like space, is immense when compared to the individual.
Why does no such map exist for time?

I propose using a song as our map through time. Richard Strauss’ Thus Sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30 is 1836 seconds long. If we think of the zero mark as representing 4.3 billion years ago and 1836th second as the year 2012, each second represents 2,342,047 years. Listen to the song and wait four minutes and fifty nine seconds. In these minutes, there is no life. The earth is cooling, the atmosphere changing. But nothing walks, slithers, or even glides over the surface of water. Yet, after all this time, against all odds, life arises in the form of a prokaryote. Three minutes later, the complex process of photosynthesis has begun. Yet, life is still unrecognizable. It will be another fifteen minutes before multicellularity.

So at what point in the song do humans appear?

At 0.0854 seconds before the end of the song, anatomically modern humans make their first appearance. Humanity occurs in such an infinitesimally small amount of time, it is almost below the threshold of human perception. Listen for the construction of the Great Pyramids, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, every war of every civilization ever. You will hear nothing.

Of course, this scale is unfair. I am asking you to go across town but giving you a world atlas.

Using the same song, let’s consider humans. If we set the zero mark at 200,000 years ago, the beginning of the song marks when anatomically modern humans first appear. Wait twenty seven minutes and fifty seven seconds and it is the Upper Paleolithic period. The famous cave paintings Lascaux are being created, humans are finally making their mark in the slightest way possible. With only two minutes and thirty eight seconds left, we still have no civilization. At twenty nine minutes and twenty two seconds, the Uruk civilization emerges from Mesopotamia. Two seconds before the song ends, America is founded. Two seconds. America, by no means old, still feels like a timeless institution. We have American values and sensibilities; we are decidedly exceptional. Yet, in the history of mankind, we have only just begun to make our mark.

Again, it is nearly impossible to situate yourself in this time frame. One second is a period of time which almost no human will live to see. I suppose this is the problem with the time map, there is just too much time. If you had a song for which each second equaled a year, the history of the planet would take over 136 years. It is discouraging; 4.3 billion years is simply beyond our comprehension. Luckily, the history of humanity is not. Using the same scale, the song of humanity is only 2 days, 7 hours, 33 minutes, and 20 seconds. I don’t have that time for that song, but someone does.

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Category: featured, Philosophy and Religion

Adam DiBattista

About the Author ()

Adam DiBattista (CAS '14) is extremely proud to say that he is an Italian from New Jersey. Don't bother asking him about Jersey Shore. From the time he was a child he knew that he wanted to be an archaeologist. He continues working on that dream as an archaeology major. He fancies himself a renaissance man and dabbles in many things. Perhaps extreme amateur would be a better term. In his spare time he can be found trying to play harmonica or top-roping at Fit-Rec. Adam has many obsessions: Woodcut illustration, Italian grindhouse films of the 1970s, and cryptography (just to name a few).

Comments (1)

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  1. tbratbo says:

    I find it astonishing. Not so much the time scale, because I think we’ve all seen this model in some form or other. But the implications you are able to draw out leave me almost speechless. I think because I actually listened to the music while I read. That was almost the most heartbreaking. To think that something so beautiful is so ephemeral. As a human species we love beauty, and we think of it as timeless- as crossing all barriers, both physical and metaphorical. But it is so very obvious that none of this will stand the test of time any more than we will, or any species has.

    I guess if we have any purpose in our limited time, it is not to make works that stand the test of time- impossible- but to aim to reach a new height within the context of, if we’re lucky, a single second.

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