1 THE COSMIC CALENDAR
What seest thou else
In the dark backward and abysm of time?
THE WORLD is very old, and human beings are very young. Significant
events in our personal lives are measured in years or less; our
lifetimes in decades; our family genealogies in centuries; and all
of recorded history in millennia. But we have been preceded by an
awesome vista of time, extending for prodigious periods into the
past, about which we know little - both because there are no written
records and because we have real difficulty in grasping the
immensity of the intervals involved.
Yet we are able to date events in the remote past. Geological
stratification and radioactive dating provide information on
archaeological, paleontological and geological events; and
astrophysical theory provides data on the ages of planetary
surfaces, stars, and the Milky Way Galaxy, as well as an estimate of
the time that has elapsed since that extraordinary event called the
Big Bang - an explosion that involved all of the matter and energy in
the present universe. The Big Bang may be the beginning of the
universe, or it may be a discontinuity in which information about
the earlier history of the universe was destroyed. But it is
certainly the earliest event about which we have any record.
The most instructive way I know to express this cosmic
chronology is to imagine the fifteen-billion-year lifetime of the
universe (or at least its present incarnation since the Big Bang)
compressed into the span of a single year. Then every billion
years of Earth history would correspond to about twenty - four
days of our cosmic year, and one second of that year to 475
real revolutions of the Earth about the sun. On pages 14
through 16 I present the cosmic chronology in three forms: a
list of some representative pre - December dates; a calendar for
the month of December; and a closer look at the late evening of
New Year’s Eve.
On this scale, the events of our history
books - even books that make significant efforts to deprovincialize the present
- are so compressed that it is
necessary to give a second - by - second recounting of the last
seconds of the cosmic year. Even then, we find events listed as
contemporary that we have been taught to consider as widely
separated in time. In the history of life, an equally rich tapestry
must have been woven in other periods - for example, between
10:02 and 10:03 on the morning of April 6th or September 16th. But
we have detailed records only for the very end of the cosmic year.
The chronology corresponds to the best evidence now
available. But some of it is rather shaky. No one would be
astounded if, for example, it turns out that plants colonized the
land in the Ordovician rather than the Silurian Period; or that
segmented worms appeared earlier in the Precambrian Period
than indicated. Also, in the chronology of the last ten seconds
of the cosmic year, it was obviously impossible for me to
include all significant events; I hope I may be excused for not
having explicitly mentioned advances in art, music and literature or
the historically significant American, French, Russian and Chinese
PRE - DECEMBER DATES
Big Bang ~January 1
Origin of the Milky Way Galaxy ~May 1
Origin of the solar system ~September 9
Formation of the Earth ~September 14
Origin of life on Earth ~ September 25
Formation of the oldest rocks known on Earth ~October 2
Date of oldest fossils (bacteria and blue
- green algae}
Invention of sex (by microorganisms)~ November 1
Oldest fossil photosynthetic plants ~November 12
Eukaryotes (first cells with nuclei) flourish ~November 15
Origin of Proconsul and Ramapithecus, probable ancestors of apes and
men ~ 1:30 P.M.
First humans ~ 10:30 P.M.
Widespread use of stone tools ~11:00 P.M.
Domestication of fire by Peking man ~11:46 P.M.
Beginning of most recent glacial period ~11:56 P.M.
Seafarers settle Australia 11:58*.M.
Extensive cave painting in Europe ~11:59 P.M.
Invention of agriculture ~11:59:20 P.M.
Neolithic civilization; first cities ~11:59:35 P.M.
in Sumer, Ebla and Egypt; development of astronomy~11:59:50 P.M.
Invention of the alphabet; Akkadian Empire ~11:59:51P.M.
urabic legal codes in Babylon; Middle Kingdom in Egypt ~11:59:52
nze metallurgy; Mycenaean culture; Trojan War; Olmec culture:
invention of the compass ~11:59:53 P.M.
Iron metallurgy; First Assyrian Empire; Kingdom of Israel; founding
of Carthage by Phoenicia ~11:59:54 P.M.
Asokan India; Ch’in Dynasty
China; Periclean Athens; birth of Buddha ~11:59:55 P.M.
Euclidean geometry; Archimedean physics; Ptolemaic astronomy; Roman
Empire; birth of Christ ~11:59:56 P.M.
Zero and decimals invented in
Indian arithmetic; Rome falls;
Moslem conquests - ~11:59:57 P.M.
Mayan civilization; Sung Dynasty China; Byzantine empire;
Mongol invasion; Crusades ~11:59:58 P.M.
Renaissance in Europe;
voyages of discovery from Europe and from Ming Dynasty China;
emergence of the experimental method in science ~11:59:59 P.M.
Widespread development of science and technology; emergence of a
global culture; acquisition of the means for self - destruction of the
human species; The first steps in spacecraft planetary exploration
and of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. ~ Now: first
second of New Year’s Day.
The construction of such tables and calendars is inevitably
humbling. It is disconcerting to find that in such a cosmic year
the Earth does not condense out of interstellar matter until
early September; dinosaurs emerge on Christmas Eve; flowers
arise on December 28th; and men and women originate at 10:30
P.M. on New Year’s Eve. All of recorded history occupies the last
ten seconds of December 31; and the time from the waning of the
Middle Ages to the present occupies little more than one second.
because I have arranged it that way, the first cosmic year has just
ended. And despite the insignificance of the instant we have so far
occupied in cosmic time, it is clear that what happens on and near
Earth at the beginning of the second cosmic year will depend very
much on the scientific wisdom and the distinctly human sensitivity
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