May 28 – Book ’em!

Today’s factismal: If the history of the Earth were written in a book with each page covering 1,000,000 years, then the book would be nearly ten times longer than Dan Brown’s “Inferno”.

One of the biggest problems in science is understanding how long the Universe and the Solar System have been around. Known as “deep time” to educators (because you have to dig deep to go back in time), the numbers used to describe the length of time are mind-boggling. The Earth and Solar System have been around for 4,600,000,000 years and the Universe has been around for nearly three times as long, some 13,000,000,000 years! But those numbers are so vast that most people simply cannot grasp them.

So, instead, we use analogies. One of my favorites is a book of Earth history, with each page covering a million years  (I am actually writing such a book, but each page is ten million years long {as is the writing process}). If we had such a book, it would have 4,600 pages or about the equivalent of ten Dan Brown novels. So to visualize the length of time that the Earth has been around, just go to the book store and pile ten copies of “Inferno” on top of each other.

A trilobite from the Houston Museum of Natural Science (My camera)

A trilobite from the Houston Museum of Natural Science
(My camera)

The first hundred pages on the bottom book tell of what happened to cause the nebula to collapse into the Solar System. In the next hundred pages, the planetismal Theia collides with the proto-Earth to form the Earth and Moon. Then there are 3,900 pages (nine books) of bits of land moving to and fro before the first multicellular organism arrives. Only in the last book do we get true animals with dinosaurs showing up half-way through before dying off sixty-five pages before the end – and man showing up on the very last page!

A bony fish from the Devonian, lurking in the Houston Museum of Natural Science (My camera)

A bony fish from the Devonian, lurking in the Houston Museum of Natural Science
(My camera)

But near the start of that last book is a chapter called “The Devonian”. Filled with giant fishes and ammonites in the water, huge ferns and amphibians on land, and insects the size of dinner plates in the air. Sadly, the proliferation of land plants probably reduced the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere so far that the Earth’s temperature fell and the globe entered a brief “icehouse” period, killing some 50% of all families of species in one of the Earth’s mass extinction events.

A Devonian ammonite (My camera)

A Devonian ammonite
(My camera)

Fortunately, when those critters died, they left behind fossils written into the book of the Earth. And that’s where you come in! Cornell University is sponsoring “Fossil Finders”, an on-line citizen science program focused on teachers and students in middle school. They want the students to help them identify and measure fossils using samples that are sent to the classroom. If you are a teacher and would like to participate in this during the next school year, then now is the time to get involved!

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