Washington Evening Journal

Fairfield Ledger   Mt. Pleasant News
Neighbors Growing Together | Sep 24, 2018

Tracks and Tales: A Blink of an Eye

By Pam Holz

We like to think we matter.  And although it was disproven centuries ago, in the back of our minds, we still believe that, yes, the universe does revolve around us.  
Ask a group of children why an animal is camouflaged or why they move quietly.  At least one answer will be centered on humans, such as, so the animal can protect itself from people.  As if we are the only thing out there or are the biggest direct threat to the critter.  
Even as adults, we sometimes shove our way to center stage.  We think, we have to feed the little birdies or they will starve.  Or even, we need to stop feeding them in fall, otherwise they will forget to migrate south and die.  As if nature doesn’t have backup plans and we are solely responsible for our feathered friends’ welfare.  
While, yes, we have had a humongous impact on the quality of the environment.  While, yes, there are some serious concerns out there about our actions.  But.  In the great scheme of the universe, we are only a blip.  
Although I have no evidence either way, I would guess geologists tend not toward egotism.  (My professor in college, at least during class, didn’t even lean much toward personality.)  I think it would be difficult to study rocks and not be reminded constantly that our presence is a mere blink of an eye in time.   
Trying to understand the grand scale of geological time is an idea so wide and so broad, we find it difficult for it to fit within our brains.  We’re talking 4-1/2 billion years.  How long, really, is that?  The best we can do is to fall back onto metaphors.  
For this column’s sake, let’s use a calendar.  A year can feel like a relatively long time and we understand its length rather well.  So, Jan. 1, immediately after midnight, would be the beginning of the world.  Today would be December 31, midnight.  The entire history of the Earth, then, is divided up into the 12 months, all 365 days.  
When I teach a variant of this for fourth grade, students often suggest the dinosaurs come early on.  However, on our calendar, we don’t even have life for nearly three months!  On March 26, we find simple bacteria and a world that has just recently switched from a primary poisonous methane atmosphere to a more friendly oxygen one.  
Complex life, but still microscopic, doesn’t even come about till over half a year later:  Oct. 10.  This initiates an explosion of life, and eventually we don’t need to use microscopes to find evidence.  A little over a month later (roughly half a million years), on Nov. 27, animals begin crawling up onto the land.   
In two weeks’ time, most of them will disappear in the great Permian extinction, on Dec. 10.  Somewhere between 75 and 90 percent of all life on Earth goes extinct.  Why?  Currently, the scientists studying this, the largest mass extinction event, are unsure.  
However, a void is left and nature fills it with some of the largest creatures to ever walk the face of the Earth.  The next day, the dinosaurs take over.  For two entire weeks, the dinos rule, taking over land, sea and sky.  Two bad about that asteroid though, on Dec.25.  Earth readjusts once again, and soon, the first humans appear.  It is Dec.31.
Frustratingly, we don’t even show up early in the day.  Our presence is first noted at 7:12 p.m.  For hours, we grunt and throw rocks and such.  Just before midnight, we learn to write.  Recorded history begins 25 seconds after 11:59 p.m.  
That’s right.  The dinos ruled for two weeks and we haven’t even been writing about them till 30 seconds from the end of the year.
Kind of makes you feel small, doesn’t it?