It is indisputable that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution, but...

...nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of Plate Tectonics.

12 February, 2010

Time and Place

Hesitantly, reluctantly, Helen slipped out of a slim, tight-waisted leotard and stood naked in the moonlight before me. Somewhere a clock chimed three. An owl hooted in the nearby copse. No wind stirred the casement window as she stood in the pale, translucent light on the Persian carpet. A minute passed – then another. Then another minute. Then - another minute passed. Then another minute passed and another. A further minute passed quickly followed by another minute when suddenly, a different minute passed followed by another different minute and another and yet another further different minute. A minute passed. I glanced at my watch. It was a minute past. This was it! A minute passed. After a moment, another minute passed. I waited a minute, while a minute passed quickly past and then a minute, which seemed to last an hour, but was only a minute, passed.

That was “A Minute Passed”. You can hear episode nine of “A Minute Passed” tomorrow night at a minute past.

Thanks to Monty Python for that little gem of an introduction.

Time is a funny thing. Time was, I wouldn't have bothered thinking about what time is.

Time is one of those sticky little nuisances of a problem about something that EVERYBODY knows what it is, but NOBODY has been able to define it. Go ahead and try. Define time without using the word, or a reasonable substitute for the word 'time'. I'll wait. I've got time.

Satisfied that you really can't do it?

Time is rather like life. Everyone knows what it IS, but try to define life while I am making you waste your TIME trying to define ... um... time.

All very cute - and unoriginal, I know. It's the kind of stuff I thought about seriously when I was twelve or so and it subsequently became part of the invisible, unexpressed substrate of my world view. So I am not going to discuss such trite nonsense. I want to discuss DEEP time. Not too deep. Not astronomical deep. Just geological deep. That'll be deep enough for most of us to drown in it.

I bunged in that little spot of humor from Monty Python above for a reason. What does it mean to say that time passed? Well... Cosmologists tell us something completely useless like, time moves in the direction of increasing entropy. Very true....and meaningless.

And what do they mean by time MOVES? That movement can't be the same as physical movement, because in that case something tangible changes its position in space - we are what moves.

But with time, you can stay still in space while you move through time. Well, do we really move THROUGH time - we move THROUGH air, or water but we move IN time.

We can move through space while moving in time. We can move in time while not moving through space. But what we can't do it is stay still in time either while moving or not moving through space.

So time doesn't move, and it doesn't stand still. We don't move through it, but we can't move without it, because it takes TIME to move from point X to point Y. We can measure it, but it has no length or mass. We measure mass in terms of the amount of matter at some point, and length is some distance that one can pace off or can hold between one's hands. But time is only marked by... the passage of time. It's as though we were to say that distance is marked by a change in distance. No. The concept of distance is not dependent on changing one's position. But the concept of time only makes sense in terms of time passing to mark the changes we observe happening to the world.

Whoa!!! All right. Time's up. That kind of silly philosophical musing can go on and on, wasting a lot of...?? hmmmm.., Nevermind that - on to the real discussion.

We do not live in a privileged time in Earth's history. There is nothing special about the conditions of the here and now. The positions of the land, sea level, polar ice, continental elevations, climate distributions, average temperatures, atmospheric gas percentages... None of them has an optimum position or setting. None of them is static. All of them have changed over geologic time, and not in any relationship to each other.

People tend to view the Earth as a static place - a place where the conditions of life SHOULDN'T change - at least not permanently. We think that the conditions of the here and now are ideal and that the conditions of the world have been somehow set up FOR US. Everyone falls into this trap - even people who would like to see civilization end and the world revert to a natural state (there are many of theses latter types, some in fairly influential positions). It is a trap known as the Anthropic Principle and even for irreligious people it is based on the same thinking as a literal reading of the creation story in the Middle-Eastern monotheistic bible(s); the world is here for us. The adherent to the anthropic principle does not think, we are here because the conditions of the Earth provided for our evolution; they think the conditions of Earth are ideal for us and are here for us.

The Anthropic Principle is founded on the propitious conditions which make life on Earth possible. Here they are. The Earth is just the right size that its gravity is strong enough to hold a gaseous atmosphere which includes water vapor; the composition and thickness of the atmosphere is such that the air pressure near the Earth's land/water surface provides for the existence of liquid water; the distance from the sun is far enough that the Earth is neither fried, nor frozen, but receives enough energy to warm the surface; the atmosphere's properties are such that it contains gases which trap some portion of re-radiated heat which maintains a temperature above freezing as the average temperature; the Earth is large enough that it's interior heat and the segregation of its materials result in an iron/nickel liquid outer core, which is the cause of the Earth's magnetic field, which is the only thing which deflects harmful radiation away from the planet's surface. Without that magnetic deflection there would be too much radiation for life to survive - or to have gotten started in the first place.

There are a few others but they are not important to the point made here. There is an extraordinary combination of circumstances which have combined to make the Earth habitable to any life at all. It is not unnatural, therefore, for many people to conclude that the combination is just too coincidental to have happened by chance, and that the existence of life and humans in particular was the ultimate end-goal of the entire history of the universe. These include religious people who think that the universe was created just for humans to be at the pinnacle, and non-religious people who conclude that evolution has had a definite direction toward one end - us.

That attitude is what allows two extreme environmental views:

1). The Earth was created for us - in this view, people take the typically biblical slant. If the Earth was created FOR us, we dominate and have the right to exploit other organisms and natural resources without care or management. If we are the pinnacle, everything else is here for our use;

2). The Earth is the place where the pinnacle of evolution was destined to occur. As a result, the Earth is ideally suited for us as it is. In consequence it can not be changed and any actions of humans as a result of our industrial civilization which might change the current conditions of the Earth must be stopped and reversed.

The former position, adopted by many industrialists and the attitude of many ultra-conservatives is untenable because it is one of uncontrolled rapine. It is the attitude that resulted in the pollution we knew back in the 1960s - people who complain about pollution today obviously do not remember the 1960s, or they were not paying attention.

The latter position, one of many ultra-liberals, is equally untenable because it eschews modern life-sustaining necessities in favor of "saving the Earth" (see Status Quo, an earlier post below). These people don't care about the standard of life of existing industrial nations, or raising the standard of living of developing nations, or of saving lives by modern farming or pest control methods. They care only about the status quo of the Earth's systems.

Both positions are equally deplorable and both stem from the SAME misconception of the Earth: that it doesn't change over time. Ah! Here we are. Finally back at the topic du jour.

The actual condition is that over its 4.6 BILLION year history, the Earth has NEVER been the same from one day to the next - NEVER!!! It changes. It's systems change, life on Earth changes - daily and hourly (an apropos quote as I am writing this on Darwin's birthday), climate changes, the continents change, the oceans change - every aspect of every system changes.  This is the reason that sexual reproduction is successful - the genetic variety generated by sexual reproduction provides the variations to ensure each lineage survives the ever-changing Earth.

The degree of change is so vast that the Earth of 10 million years ago would be virtually unrecognizable to us today, and 10 million years before that, equally as unrecognizable from the previous iteration, and so on, and so on...back to the Earth's beginning. (Click on image for larger view) I mean that literally - the locations and shapes of the continents have changed so drastically that we literally would not recognize a map of the Earth over the time spans mentioned above.

One reason for the failure of people to recognize the changes over time, is the inability of those same people to grasp the vastness of geologic time.

IT IS IMMENSE. (Notice, I have to resort to an adjective which implies SIZE because we don't have an adequate time-based word - long, really long, REALLY LONG - nope).

The ultra-religious people of category one above don't recognize the length of time because to them the Earth is only about 10,000 years old because some biblical scholar said so. The rest of the people don't recognize the enormity of time because it is almost beyond the imagination. There are so few good analogies to help the non-geologist grasp this concept of deep time which is critical to getting over the anthropic principle. I think I have one, however - a little thought experiment.

Pretend you begin an experiment to count to one billion (Just 1,000,000,000, not 4.6 billion) saying one number per second. Of course, you couldn't actually SAY each number once you reached over a million or so - it takes too long to say the word for one number per second - but let's pretend. Now that is SECONDS, not years, in which the age of the Earth is counted.

There are 86,400 seconds per day - that's 31,556,736 seconds per year. At that rate, it would take you 32.7 YEARS to count to ONE BILLION at one number per second. Now multiply that by 4.6 to see how long you would be counting - 150 years to count to 4.6 billion at one number per second.

Now remember that each second = 1 year of Earth history - a ratio of 1:31,556,736, and you get an idea of the vast TIME over which the Earth has been changing, second by second, system by system. Daily and hourly, millenium by millenium, aeon by aeon (click on the image for a larger view).

There is no such thing as the proper setting for anything on Earth. No matter how you slice it and dice it, there just ain't no equivalent to a 98.6 for ANY system on Earth. There is no normal shape and size and location of continents, no pre-ordained optimum temperature, no proper level for the oceans. They all JUST ARE what they are at any given TIME.

And the thing that has made humans SO successful as a species and what makes us THE ecological dominant, is our ability to adapt to EVERY change, over both space and TIME. Other species are so locked into their evolutionary niche they become extinct if (as in WHEN) conditions change. WE are not locked into ANY ecological niche. We can and do adapt - in space and over time.

The Earth has UNDENIABLY changed and is UNDENIABLY changing NOW. There is nothing unusual about it. With this little bit of background, we can see it is a waste of time (remember the topic?) to convince people that the Earth is changing - it simply IS changing. We have been regaled with a strident message that Earth's climate is changing and we are the cause. Many people have been persuaded that such is true only because there has been a back-story - the other half of the latter day apocalyptic message of impending doom. The back story, a la Al Gore (See Caution: Mountebank at Work, below) is that until humans began visiting devastation on the Earth, everything was static, there had been no change, it was an idyllic world, a world ideally suited to us - in short, an anthropically principled world which WE have bunged up.

The environmental guilt trip inflicted on us over the past decade has only been possible by NOT revealing to non-geologists that the Earth has a history of change and that the current change is not only within the norm, but less extreme than many past changes which occurred in our absence as a species. We DO contribute to the change of most of Earth's systems. Humans have become a geologic agent. But we are not the only agent and we can not shoulder all of the blame for ongoing changes - perhaps not even much of it. Especially as regards the climate system. The back story, quite plainly, was made up, because the people who told it - nay, shouted it with clarion voice and threats of brimstone damnation, know (and knew then) that the Earth and its systems have never been static.

In the end, we can not understand place in the absence of the knowledge of time. We can not understand time in the absence of the knowledge of the collective changes to place. The Earth is four-dimensional. To try to understand it in the two-dimensional portrait of the sound bite and propaganda documentary is ... a waste of TIME.
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