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Timescape: The Universal Moment



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from Forbes ASAP, Nov. 30, 1998


We exist within a mere tick of nature's clock, trapped within the narrow interval between an eye blink and the rare life span of the centenarian.

But beyond our reality, there are other timescapes. Out in the universe, time extends backward and forward to uncountable billions of years - and within the heart of an atom a trillion events occur in a single second.

As human beings we have always struggled to escape our prison of time through our inventions - from language to linear accelerators, history to the Hubble telescope. But even as we do, our inventions escape us, fleeing into their own private timescapes.

Electronics, that blur of activity on a computer motherboard or on the surface of a microprocessor, leaves us far behind, reaching down into the billionths of seconds and out into life spans of thousands of years, inhabiting worlds of time we can never know.

The Universal Moment

In the time it takes to read this sentence, uncountable events are occurring at the atomic level. For a moment compare these infinitesimal activities to the greatest duration of all, the existence of the universe. Between the two lies all known time.

Our own consciousness falls somewhere in the middle of this timescape. We can experience the passing of the seasons, the aging of our parents, our children growing up... But the brevity of our short life span deprives us of the ability to directly observe events that occur on a cosmic scale. While we can admire the beauty of the Appalachian Mountains, we will never have the ability to watch their formation.

Nevertheless, mankind has made a valiant effort to chart - if never to fully know - all the events of our physical world. Unlike any other creature, we possess imagination, the ability to vividly dream of this immense spectrum, and transcend our brief interval on earth.

13 billion years:   Age of the universe

12 billion years:   Milky Way has existed

4.6 billion years:   Sun has provided light to the planets

3.9 billion years:   Earth has existed in solid form

3.8 billion years:   Earth has sustained life

1.4 billion years:   Organisms with internal cell structures have existed

750 million years:   How often continents re-form

300 million years:   Time necessary to create Appalachian Mountain range

208 million years:   Species of birds have existed

115 million years:   Span of time dinosaurs roamed earth

100 million years:   How often extinction-causing meteorites collide with earth

55 million years:   Length of time it takes mountain ranges to erode to sea level

10 million years:   Lifetime of a star before it explodes into a supernova

3.6 million years:   How long it took hominids to evolve into Homo Sapiens

100,000 years:   Light travels across our galaxy

66,000 years:   Length of an average ice age

24,000 years:   The half-life of plutonium

10,000 years:   How long it took melting ice sheets to cause 80-meter rise in ocean level

2,500 years:   Average life span of a giant sequoia

248 years:   Pluto circles the sun

100 years:   Maximum life span of a palm tree

75 years:   Halley's Comet completes one orbit

11 years:   Sunspot cycle

6 years:   The moon moves a foot away from the earth\

21 months:   Gestation period of an elephant

5 months:   How often a solar eclipse occurs

4 months:   Human eyelash regeneration

80 days:   A humpback whale migrates from Alaska to Hawaii

70 days:   The Sahara Desert expands a mile south

30 days:   Life span of head lice

11 days:   The sun rotates once

12 hours:   Human skin cell regeneration

7 hours:   Interval between high and low ocean tides

30 minutes:   Newly fertilized frog egg divides

20 minutes:   E. coli bacteria divides

8 minutes:   Light from the sun reaches earth

4 minutes:   Earth rotates one degree on its axis

20 seconds:   A cloud recharges after a lightning flash

10 seconds:   Human population increases by 26 people

0.83 seconds:   The cycle of an average adult heartbeat

0.50 seconds:   Strike of a rattlesnake

0.13 seconds:   Light travels around the earth

0.10 seconds:   DNA polymerase incorporates one base into a DNA chain

0.031 seconds:   A human nerve cell transmits an impulse

0.015 seconds:   One wing beat of a hummingbird

0.003 seconds:   A housefly's wings beat one stroke

0.001 seconds:   Echolocation pulse of a bat when pursuing a flying insect

0.0004 seconds:   A fast-spinning pulsar rotates a single degree

0.000001 seconds:   One billion billion fissions occur in a nuclear reaction

0.0000000001 seconds:   Bacteria transfers energy to be used in photosynthesis

0.00000000003 seconds:   Light travels one centimeter

0.00000000000001 seconds:   Atomic vibration

0.00000000000000000000001 seconds:   Light travels across a proton

0.00000000000000000000000000000000000000000001 seconds:   The universe doubles in size during an inflationary phase



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