The Wheel, and the Enormity of Time Edit

by J. Host, 11.12.03

"...Universe man, He's got a watch with a minute hand, Millennium hand and an eon hand....." From Particle Man, by They Might be Giants

One part of my spirituality is the recognition of the huge spans of time and space that we are embedded in. At first, we can only understand spans of time like those in our everyday experience. As we learn and grow, we can start to use tools to understand other spans of time, both shorter and longer than we are used to. Nested cycles, like those of the second, minute and hour hands, make it easy to see where we are in a longer span of time, such as a day. This can be extended to help us envision shorter spans of time by thinking of the number of the short spans needed to add up to a span of time we can imagine, like, say, a second. For instance, many atoms at room temperature vibrate about ten thousand times in the time it takes a radio wave to go though one cycle. It takes about a hundred million of those radio waves to add up to one beat of a hummingbird's wing, and about a hundred of those wingbeats are needed to add up to a full second.

If we were to extend this idea to longer time spans as well, and make a watch like Universe man's watch, it could have several more hands on it. It could have hands for the month, the year, our life span (about 80 years), longer cycles like the planet's wobble (26,000 years), and a really long one, such as the 220 million year cycle of the rotation of the sun around the black hole at the center of the galaxy.

I use some of these to remind myself my current place in time, and to keep history in proper chronological perspective. Acknowledging the traditional 8 Pagan holidays on the wheel of the year keeps the year from slipping by without notice, and occasionally noticing where I am on the wheel of life helps keep me from letting my life slip by without notice. Similarly, noticing where others are on the wheel of life (instead of just their age) reminds me of the rich lifespan stretching out before infants, as well as the wealth of experience in the minds of our wise elders.

For the longer time scales, thinking of all of these cycles on a wheel, like the wheel of the year, helps anchor me to this grand story that has been playing out since the formation of the earth. For instance, it has been about one fifth of one cycle of the earth's wobble since the construction of Stonehenge was started, and about one half of one of those cycles since my "native" American ancestors came to America from Asia. Or, about 80 wobble cycles since our primate ancestors began to resemble humans. That's less than 1% of one trip around the black hole. Going back about a quarter of a trip around the black hole gets us back to the extinction of most of the dinosaurs (those that didn't evolve into birds). The age of dinosaurs had just begun the last time our solar system was where it is now on it's orbit around the black hole. Our sun has made over 20 trips around the galaxy like this, and the universe existed for many billions of years before that.

I know that I'll be around for only another 50 or so rotations of the earth around the sun, less than 0.2 % of a wobble of the earth, and less than one millionth of a trip around the black hole. I can't complain about the brevity of that time, because at the same time, it is more than three times the average dog's lifespan, and over 1000 times as long as some insects live. In that time, the wonder of life, the glory of this universe, and the love of family and friends is more than enough to make me happy and grateful. Even a single wonderful moment can bring about this feeling - I hope that we've all experienced that. One experience like that happened to me when my 2 year old child fell asleep clinging to my chest. As I sat there looking down at the beautiful face, I realized that this feeling was so wonderful, that if I was told I would die the next day, my life would still have been a wonderful thing.

Time stretches on into the future as well as the past. What will the world look like in just 1000 years, about 4% of a wobble? There probably won't be a United States - few nations have survived nearly that long. What about the next time this wobble brings polaris back into it's place as the north star, in 26,000 years? Will there be nations and governments? Will there still be humans on earth in a million years (40 wobbles, or 1/200th of a trip around the black hole)? Even then, time will continue. It will be about another 30 or so trips around the black hole before the sun expands and destroys the earth, even longer than it has been since the earth formed.

Hold on, my brain is starting to hurt. Wouldn't it be easier to put all these cycles in a diagram (like the watch with an "eon" hand), so they can be seen instead of just imagined? For example, let's use right now, 8:15 PM on November 17, 2003.

Picture the concentric rings in your mind. The "hand" for the quickest cycles (such as the atomic vibrations) is just a blur. In the "1 Day" ring, the cycle is almost complete because it is evening, and the day will be done at midnight (that hand is at about 8 o'clock). Similarly, being November, the year is almost done (that hand is at about 11 o'clock). My life is (hopefully!) only about 40% finished (that hand is at about 5 o'clock), and the sun is also still a good ways off from it's end (that hand is at about 4 o'clock).

Experiencing my life, and seeing my life and the life of others go by is wonderful, sad, joyful, and amazing at the same time. Linking this to the immense scale of time that has passed, and the vast stretches of time that will follow fills me with awe as I wonder what exactly has been, and what will be. How many lives like my own have my ancestors experienced? How many lives will the children of tomorrow experience? This mountain of lives and stories is stunning. It also puts daily worries in their proper perspective, and helps me keep from sweating the small stuff. The saying is true - it's all small stuff.