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Our place in time

October 27, 2011

There’s no particular reason we would have a native ability to visualize timescales longer than our lifetimes; our ancestors wouldn’t have gained any reproductive advantage from it.  But for whatever reason we wound up with oversize brains and the unwieldy things got us to wondering where it all came from and when.  And during the bronze age certain legends were set in cultural stone, which persist today.

But some people just weren’t satisfied with legends; they started taking measurements and excluding what they could falsify or whatever was un-falsifiable in principle.  And they calculated and compared and invented whole new ways to conceptualize what they learned.  What they discovered contradicted the toddler’s instinct that they are the center of the universe, and that’s where the trouble began.

Once my parents were visiting the proprietor of an antique shop in New England.  He said; “You want something old?  Pick up a rock; that’s old.”  And in fact science has revealed just how old, and the resulting figure beggars our evolved imagination.

On the scale of human lives, rocks are solid; permanent.  Well mostly.  Photography is one of the tools we have for visualizing change in our physical world, and Dana Hunter has a great post about eroding coastlines: And that, kids, is why you shouldn’t build on a bluff.  Take a look at the video she’s posted, and at her photographs comparing coastal-then with coastal-now.  Then consider that the Himalayas, just a scant 50 million years ago, didn’t exist… and that the summit of Everest, more than five miles up, is made of marine limestone.

I’ll just say that again: marine limestone, five miles up.  Continental plates moving a few inches a year pushed the sea floor up above the Earth’s livable atmosphere.  To even visit that frozen, windy place is a daring feat only a few ever attempt.

Yet there are people who look at this staggering fact and wonder; “How can I fit it into my bronze-age flood myth?”  And they get right to work putting stickers in high-school biology textbooks to undermine the teaching of evolution.

Earth’s biosphere is hardly a coat of lacquer on a classroom globe.  Earth itself is a tiny fraction of the volume of a sphere defined by the orbit of the moon.  You get into huge negative exponents comparing it to a sphere defined by the orbit of Neptune, and the distance from our system to the nearest star… well it’s just too much.  And then you start getting into some really big distances.

And we’re so important that our species has only existed at all during the latest five hundredths of one percent of our dust-mote’s existence.

It isn’t a pretty thing to look upon our own insignificance, but as long as life is so fleeting, must we really use it up trying to believe that our place in space and time is somehow the focal point of it all?  Why miss out on knowing that in all that space and time, we’re here? And the joy there is to find in the life we actually have.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. iota
    October 27, 2011 at 10:26 | #1

    Beautifully written!

  2. Karen
    October 28, 2011 at 02:46 | #2

    Well said!

  3. Chas, PE SE
    October 28, 2011 at 08:36 | #3

    Blow a soap bubble. Now imagine it scaled up until it is 8,000 miles across. All the life we know about in the entire Universe is enclosed in just the soap part.

    Now imagine the bubble popping.

    We should probably take good care of it.

  4. October 29, 2011 at 05:37 | #4

    When I first saw this one, I knew I’d be putting in in Los Links. But I was wrong. I read it, and knew it needed a post of its own. I wants as many eyeballs on it as possible.

    If I ever hear you tell me you’re not as good a writer as I am, if you so much as hint at it, I shall print this post out, come to Normal, and bonk you on the noggin with it. You prove with every post that you’re a fantastic writer: this is just the latest in a long line of evidence.

    • October 29, 2011 at 16:42 | #5

      Yea, what the chick in the cowboy hat said…

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