Teacher: How old is the galaxy? Student: Which model?
How old is old?
The Apple iPhone 3G is indisputably old. The 80s are ancient history. Flared pants (le pantalon patte d'éléphant) are both old and weird. I am now old according to my insensitive children. Life before computers is unthinkably ancient, while meaningful existence before the mobile telephone is just plainly unthinkable.
What about existence itself?
Be careful how you phrase the question.
Don’t ask: How old is the galaxy? Most people would reply Which model? or About five years old.
Our Milky Way galaxy in school books represented our unfathomably large surrounds and deep time which somehow led to the creation of many other planets and stars, and the launch of an updated mammal model HS (Homo sapiens) found on planet Earth. Today’s better known galaxy can be hand-held and is symbolic of our mass optimism that science and technology will relentlessly improve and offer a bright future, somewhat like an orange sunrise.
Our concept of old is quite young.
In 1654 Archbishop James Ussher of the Church of Ireland decided after a careful reading of the Bible that the Earth was created at six in the evening on Sunday 22rd October 4004 BC. That would make us about 6010 years old. Since the Archbishop’s pinpoint prediction we’ve been adding zeroes with the fervour of a Facebook buying a WhatsApp.
Scientists now believe Homo sapiens (Latin for wise man), also known as FMM (fully modern man), appeared about 250,000 years ago.
Our forefathers and mothers only arrived in Europe about 30,000 years ago. We are a grain in the sands of time compared with the first dinosaurs and flowers which appeared about 235 million years ago.
Is that old? Well, yes and no.
Last week scientists in Australia announced they had discovered the oldest known piece of the earth.
The bright blue Zircon crystal was found on a sheep station in Western Australia among a sample of younger pebbles and sand most of which were dated a mere three billion years old. The core of the hardy zircon antique, which measures only twice the diameter of a hair, has now been twice dated. How old? Wait for it... 4,400,000,000 years old or 4.4 billion years old (give or take about 6 million years or so).
That’s not long after it is believed the moon was created when a planet the size of Mars crashed into the young hot and volatile earth.
For our species weaned on minutes, hours, days, months and new androids every few months, the concept of deep time is extremely difficult to comprehend. How can we empathise with the life of a planet when our concept of time is paper thin? Most people find watching television more entertaining than watching rocks.
Four thousand generations ago our ancestors began to spread from Africa. In deep time this represents only a few seconds in the 24 hour life of our planet. The rapacious mammal model HS was launched only yesterday on the cosmic market.
So, wise fellow Homo sapiens: Be patient. The new galaxy is coming. It’s been coming since the Big Bang about 13.7 billion years ago.