Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Time of our lives

Our planet is about 4.55 billion years old. Billion. That's four and a half thousand million, or 4,550,000,000. That's a really long time. We humans have only been around for a couple of hundred thousand years as we are now. We've really only been aware of these things for a relatively short time.

You've heard the metaphors before - if the history of the Earth were a 24hr period, etc. This site lets you work out your own metaphor. An easy one being that if the planet's history were laid out as a metre, recorded human history would be the last .002174mm. We just haven't been around that long. It seems like it to us, but we haven't. Until recently we were more concerned with where our next meal was coming from than the bigger questions - why we're here, how we got here. Where are we going? Who's that crouching behind the bushes? We're not geared up for thinking in geological time - we've not had any need to and it remains largely beyond our comprehension.

So. Why am I dribbling on about time and human insignificance again? Well - earthquakes have been in the news a great deal of late. Horribly tragic headlines from a number of countries. It seems to us, amidst the turmoil and disaster, that there have been an unusual number of big quakes in a short period of time, and the natural reaction is to look for a reason behind this. Is there a pattern? Where is it leading? We know a lot more about what causes earthquakes now, and roughly where they are more likely to occur. We can even have a stab at predicting events based on gaseous emissions, small tremors and so on, and seismologists are getting better at it. But as for discerning a pattern within a broader setting, that's just not possible. We view things from our own understanding of time. Geological time is another thing altogether, and current seismic happenings can only really be given their true context with proper hindsight. Not now, and not in the near future. Statistics based on so little information are next to meaningless, and there is no point scaring everyone with warnings of megaquakes, supervolcanoes, Godzilla attacks and so on. In the backs of our minds we know they can happen, but there's not much we can do about it. In a few billion years another galaxy will probably crash into ours, or the sun will turn into a red giant and eat us up. Gather ye roses.

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