For those of you who can count past ten, and are fundamentalists, I invite you to play a little game with me. (In the figures below, I have actually taken the most conservative estimate on dates and numbers.)
Imagine that one second represents a thousand years. We’re about to count, and count back in time. As you count, the years fly by in reverse order.
That’s all for now. One second. In the blink of an eye we’ve just skipped past every football match ever played, the landing on the moon, the first and second world wars, the invention of the aeroplane, the advent of guns, the renaissance; the germ theory of disease by Pasteur, the discovery of the circulatory system by Harvey, the skeletal structure by Galen. The works of Mozart, Beethoven, Handel, Bach. The beauty of masterpieces by Michelangelo, da Vinci, and Monet. The Dark Ages, the Crusades, the Black Death.
We’ve come a long way haven’t we?
Let’s look at things from a biological point of view. Count with me…
We’ve just gone back in the time to the wolf, when there was no breed of domestic dog currently alive today. Every single variety and nuance of canine has evolved from the same ancestor. Except, in the case of dogs, humans have played the role of selector, as oppose to nature.
In that same time, just 2 seconds, we journey back to the supposed time of Jesus. Perhaps there was a real man who started the myths (actually there were probably many at the time!), or perhaps there wasn’t. Here we have a small frightened cult that preached brotherhood and salvation for all convertees, in its infancy.
1…2…3…4…4 and a half…stop!
4 and-a-half seconds takes us back in time to about 2560 BC. At this point in our travels, we’ve just seen the last stone being laid at the Great Pyramid in Giza. What a magnificent site. Can you imagine seeing it before you? Feel the sand on your feet. Feel the baking sun beat down on the back of your neck. As you stand here, in the time machine of our thoughts, you contemplate that you won’t exist for another four and a half thousand years.
Count to 20.
We’ve travelled back to a time where no record of writing exists. There are no major cities, no civilised cultures. The human race is largely nomadic. Language is very primitive.
Now, to count back to the emergence of the human race itself, you would need to keep counting for only 3 minutes! Does that not fill you with a sense of awe? Here we are, the human race, and everything we have ever done in our entire history, can be converted into 3 minutes of counting, if we take one second as a thousand years!
Is that an unfair scale? Not when we consider that to see Homo Habilis, our earliest ancestor, we must count backwards in time, one second for every 1000 years, for about 33 minutes. (And some say there wasn’t enough time for evolution.)
But 33 minutes days is just to see our earliest ancestor. What about the Earth itself? You would have to keep counting, every second of every hour of every day of every year, for the next 52 days to arrive back in time when the earth was just forming.
And if you wanted to witness the Big Bang in the time machine of our minds, you would have to keep counting for around 180 days!
What work of fiction or product of myth can compare with the wondrous facts of our universe? Isn’t it humbling to see man’s place in the timescale of the cosmos as less than a molecule of a drop of water in the ocean?
Indeed, if the entire age of the universe was spread across one solar day, one year would take place in 0.00006 of a second (6 nanoseconds). Another way of looking at it is for every second 160,000 years would pass. The human race would have existed for just the last 1.6 seconds.
There are those who say that science is arrogant, or doesn’t have all the answers. Or cannot find answers to deeper human needs. These are the same people who might believe the earth is only a few thousands old, or believe that all of this was made especially for humans. How provincial! How parochial! How conceited! In fact, how rather dull!
What New Age belief or holy book comes close to the wonder of the real world? What ancient text, metaphysical rambling, or liturgy compares to studying creatures millions of times smaller than us, or stars billions of times larger? From the beauty and terror in nature to the everyday usefulness of clean water and mobile phones, look at what science has to offer.
And our 1.6 second ephemeral presence in the Day of the Universe should make us feel lucky that we can see our real place in the cosmos, and understand it. There is plenty of wonder to be had just around you in things that are real, than in all the mystery and contrivances of things that are not. Your infinitesimally short lifespan is a gift from the universe. I think the least we can do is know more about our Cosmological Mother.
If the history of the entire human race is 1.6 seconds on our Universal Day scale, your life is 0.0004 (that’s four ten-thousandths) of a second long. Doesn’t that make every single real second of your life precious? Doesn’t that make every 86,400 seconds (one day) worth living, because they’ll never come again?
I’d like to close with the words of Richard Dawkins, quoting from his book Unweaving the Rainbow:
“We are going to die. And that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly these unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.”
[ Updated 10th Feb 08 ]