Thursday, May 2, 2013

Deep Time

Went walking today through the nearby woods. As I've been watching a Nova series on the evolution of life as shown in Australia, I started thinking about deep time. Actually, I started thinking about trees and green plants, as I was surrounded by them. And about an image from that TV show showing what the first land plants must have looked like 475 million years ago. The were like simple, tiny mosses and lichens. In the time since, they've become all the plants we see today. 

Reconstruction of Cooksonia

The earth – and solar system – are some 4.6 billion years old. The age of the universe, according to the latest information from the Planck satellite, is around 13.8 billion. The most simple forms of life on earth go back at least 2 billion years. The Ginko tree is 200 million years old. What do these numbers mean to us? We have become used to reading about hundreds of billions and even trillions of dollars so we feel comfortable, perhaps, with thinking of just a few billion here and there. But look at a forest and think about the time it took to make it what we see. Read anything about the latest discoveries of our DNA and how the supposedly “junk” part actually helps orchestrate a vast and complex dance of proteins that make us what we are. Or about the complexity of the human brain, only a million or so years old. How long did it take from the first stirrings of life – tiny bits even without cell walls – to everything alive we see? Each change taking countless generations of random mutation and natural selection. Stare down that long hallway home and that is deep time.

Go further back to that Big Bang of 13.8 billion years ago. At the first moment, everything was the same burst of energy. Light didn't escape into space for over 300,000 years. But within the tiniest part of one second, the Higgs Field manifested and gave form to the elementary particles of the universe. Over the next billions of years, the energy and matter of the universe cooled and condensed into atoms, molecules, stars, galaxies and us. If we define life as that which exists and changes, the universe has been alive since the beginning, evolving complexity and becoming so many things. Look down that hallway, to the light at the bedroom door and that is deep time.