The universe we live in is vast, in both space and time, so vast as to be beyond human comprehension. Mathematicians have devised a way in which the large numbers involved can be manipulated, the “exponent”1, but it can mislead us into thinking we comprehend more than we really do. It can blind us to the true difference between two numbers whose exponents differ by only one unit. Thus, if my bank balance grows from $102 to $103, I am richer by $900, but if it grows from $106 to $107, I have gained $9 million.
Books on geology and palaeontology usually display the Earth’s history as a vertical column, with the formation at the bottom and “now” at the top. To be at all useful, this column must be exponential, ie 4.5x109yr BP at the base, rising in equal steps, 108, 107, 106, etc to the present. A linear scale would have the whole of “civilised” human life as a minute fraction of a millimetre, the thickness of a small bacterium.
To emphasise the true relationship between the age of the Earth and the scale of human existence, Mr Bill Taylor has devised an ingenious and impressive work, “The Time Line”, or “Genesis Aotearoa” as the Royal Society of New Zealand, the funder of the project, call it. Take a piece of cord, and suppose each millimetre of its length to represent one thousand years. To represent the age of the Earth will need over four and a half kilometres of cord. This lengthy piece of rope hangs in the Cotton lecture theatre of the Victoria University of Wellington, arranged in vertical bits to fit the height of the room, and placed tightly together like a loom warped up for weaving.
The birth of the Earth starts in the back top corner, stage right, and time marches to the front, around the podium, and “now is about half way down next to the door, back stage left.” The development of different life forms is illustrated by objects hung on the rope in the appropriate places. At the end of this rope, the terminal half centimetre contains all of human history; a length about equal to the height of a person covers the time Homo sapiens has existed.
In contemplating this imaginative and instructive creation, I was struck by the large areas of it, corresponding to millions of years, which carried no objects indicating the appearance of something new. A reminder of Gould and Eldridge’s “Punctuated Equilibrium”?
See Bill Taylor’s comments on the installation here.
1We count the number of zeroes following 1, and write that as a superscript after ten, eg 10,000,000 = 107.