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One minute and seventeen seconds August 21, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Science.
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The following thought, from Bill Bryson’s book A Short History of Nearly Everything, is useful for regaining an appropriate perspective on the importance of humanity to the story of this planet:

If you imagine the 4,500 million years of Earth’s history compressed into a normal earthly day, then life begins very early, about 4 a.m., with the rise of the first simple, single-celled organisms, but then advances no further for the next sixteen hours. Not until almost eight-thirty in the evening, with the day five-sixths over, has the Earth anything to show the universe but a restless skin of microbes. Then, finally, the first sea plants appear, followed twenty minutes later by the first jellyfish and the enigmatic Ediacaran fauna… At 9.04 p.m. trilobites swim onto the scene, followed more or less immediately by the shapely creatures of the Burgess Shale. Just before 10 p.m. plants begin to pop up on the land. Soon after, with less than two hours left in the day, the first land creatures follow.

Thanks to ten minutes or so of balmy weather, by 10.24 the Earth is covered in the great carboniferous forests whose residues give us all our coal, and the first winged insects are evident. Dinosaurs plod onto the scene just before 11 p.m. and hold sway for about three-quarters of an hour. At twenty-one minutes to midnight they vanish and the age of mammals begins. Humans emerge one minute and seventeen seconds before midnight. The whole of our recorded history, on this scale, would be no more than a few seconds, a single human life barely an instant.

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