It was the longest time, and the shortest time… it was Deep Time

There is a concept in the natural sciences that, perhaps more than any other, changes the way you see the world, changes the way you think, the way you act towards people, the planetary environment and even life itself. These changes are uncomfortable for some people and they wish to avoid it, remain ignorant of it, or in some extreme cases demolish it…

…what is this concept? If you are thinking Climate Change, Nuclear Physics, or even Relativity, you might be right, especially with the first two, but the concept I am thinking of is one far more basic, one that you may have accepted for years or take for granted without being awoken to its power. This “thing” that I am talking about is known as Deep Time, or (in a more earth specific frame of reference) Geologic Time, it must be said that I do prefer the former term, because it is somewhat less detached and provokes an emotional response, however as the scientific world requires objectivity, it is rarely seen in scientific literature.

Deep Time is a time scale like any other, it contains units of time smaller than itself such as Eons, Eras and Ages, although it does not hold any specific length of time and due to the nature of time is constantly becoming longer… unless you are a physicist in which case your rules can be made to say anything… much like statistics. When you first encounter deep time it is a bit like coming across references to the Googol (a 1 with 100 zeros); you are mind-boggled, lost, confused or amazed and (at least in my case) profoundly intrigued with questions like “how long does it last?” “what does this mean for the significance of man?” or “so when does it start… and what happens at the end?” coming to me before settling down to just accepting the concept and moving on to the job at hand – wondering at the contents of a national geographic article I have long since forgotten.

It has been said by one of National Geographic’s photographers that “When people shift their thinking into and work in Deep Time, something changes inside them; you can see it in their eyes.” (or words to that effect, as I cannot find the article). This rather profound note was accompanied by a photograph of palaeontologist Robert “Bob” Bakker standing over a fossil in the dark, and it is about the only thing I remember from the entire article, but it has stayed with me for the last six or seven years, and it is something to which I can fully ascribe, because as I said in the introductory paragraph it changes your entire attitude to the world around you.

When you start to think in terms of millions, even billions of years, things that take a years to a lifetime in the human time reference become completely ephemeral and you wouldn’t even notice them (something that Dr Jeff Goldstein of Blog on the Universe (BOTU) has demonstrated rather well in his blog [accessed: 12/12/09]) whilst processes that are barely measurable on human timescales such as coastal erosion, plate tectonics, the expansion and contraction of glaciers and desertification become processes as fluid as the motion of the waves and tides, whilst still longer term processes become more easy to comprehend such as the stellar life cycle and the precession of the equinoxes. In fact; just thinking about what this would look like from an external vantage point if you were to speed time up is awe inspiring, you would be able to watch the earth as though it were a living organism, Gaia theory would be so powerful in that moment that you might even continue to consider the earth as such even after you were brought back to the human time reference.

This is how I view the earth, and everything on it, as a living, breathing, symbiotic set of organisms, and as such I am an environmentalist, because although I know that the earth itself, and indeed life itself will survive the coming catastrophes, to think of this symbiotic organism being made so dreadfully sick by the actions of a single species leads only one comparison to mind – Humans are like a cancer – and obviously this is disturbing to me. This isn’t the only effect of an awakening to deep time, another that I have experienced is that it makes you understand just how insignificant one human being is, you might consider yourself pretty insignificant already if you know the vastness of the universe, but add in the epic vastness of time, and you are left with the knowledge that you are about as ephemeral, as will-o-the-wisp, as transient as the changing shapes in the clouds floating over you. Does this make my existance futile, meaningless and devoid of purpose? of course not, but it does give you a deeper connection to everything else in the known universe, I can create a meaning for myself on a human timescale, I don’t need one on this deep time concept, I’m too short lived for it, it’d be like giving a purpose to candy over and above pleasure… it’s gone too soon.

I’m going to bring in another Dr Who reference now, my second in three posts, but I can’t help it, it’s just too fitting when describing waking up to the power of Deep Time:

 “He stood in front of the Untempered Schism. It’s a gap in the fabric of reality through which could be seen the whole of the vortex. We stand there, eight years old, staring at the raw power of Time and Space, just a child. Some would be inspired. Some would run away. And some would go mad.”

– The Tenth Doctor (D. Tenant), Doctor Who, “The Sound of Drums”

I have yet to meet anyone I would consider to have gone mad because of their discovery of deep time, though I would imagine they’re really great people to know. I have however met both those who are inspired by it, people who take this understanding of time and apply it to their physics, biology, earth sciences and activism, and I’ve met those who run away (such as Young Earth Creationists), so pending my discovery of some mad “Deep Timers” I’m going to stick with this as an analogy.

So there you are, Deep Time… I hope you enjoy the idea and run with it… I certainly intend to!

Ben Brooks

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