The surprising lesson I learned from a favorite scientific book
One night last week my daughter couldn’t sleep and wanted to talk, of all things, about climate change. She’s 11. The more I listened to her the more the conversation drifted to what John McPhee called “deep time”: geological time, the impressive sweep of the planet’s history. To relay the point I wanted to make to her I found my copy of A Short History of Nearly Everything, and then my favorite passage, in which Bill Bryson imagines Earth’s 4.5-billion-year reign compressed into a single day.
I told my daughter that on this imagined day the first single-cell organism would appear at 4 am, and then nothing would happen until 8:30 pm — five-sixths of the day: gone! — before sea plants would push up through the ocean floor. At 9:04 pm the first sea animals would begin to swim. Just before 10 pm plants would pop up on the land. Minutes after 10, the first land creatures would begin to eat those plants.
By 10:24 pm there would be forests, and seconds later annoying insects. Dinosaurs would thunder across Earth just before 11 pm. Dinosaurs would die out at 11:39. Mammals would take their place. Landmasses would collide, melt away, mountains would rise, ice ages would freeze everything and then the sun would thaw out almost everything, repeatedly.
At four seconds to midnight the first anatomically modern human would stand from its ape-like crouch and walk. At one second to midnight our forebears would outline their first drawing in a cave.
It placated my daughter, to see that the Earth had withstood so much and would probably withstand us, and whatever ruin we might yet bring. The planet will in fact probably dominate us. The history of Earth is the history of death: 99 percent of species die out.
The conversation, considering the eternal sweep of time, humbled me, as it does when I tell Bryson’s anecdote to any adult.
In the days since it’s also invigorated me. If our lives are so insignificant, if nothing is permanent — not our legacies or our cities or even the refuse of our lives and monuments, all of it ground to specks of dust — if we will all and everything we touch be subjected to “the abyss of endless time which swallows it,” as Marcus Aurelius wrote, then we might as well do what we want.
We might as well go for it. Live boldly. We might as well try, and if we fail we might as well remember that nobody will recall it, and nothing will mark our failure. (And when we succeed we should recall that no one will remember that either.) For me there is an odd freedom to thinking about my insignificance. It focuses me on what I — and only I — deem purposeful. If I’m not going to live for myself, write for myself, start new projects for myself because they intrigue me, if I’m not going to do work that brings me some measure of happiness, then I’m wasting what few moments are available to me.
When I think about deep time, I find courage and a strange peace.
Let me know if you do, too.