Are We There Yet?The scene is probably familiar to you. I'm driving and my grandson is in his car seat in the back seat. We are going somewhere, it doesn't much matter where, and the length of the journey is about twenty minutes to half an hour. Sometimes it seems like a two minute journey can trigger the question, but that's just what it sometimes seems to me. The question: "Are we there yet?" My grandson is old enough to engage in intelligent conversation, at least enough to keep my interest -- it might be argued that I'm fairly distractable myself, but that's a different subject -- but he's also young. With the impatience of youth. After a few thousand of these trips (I've also been known to exaggerate), I decide to answer, "Eons! It's going to take eons, and eons to get there." I used a funny voice when I said it, and it became kind of a game. Then one day he asked me, "How long is an eon?" I didn't know. So he and I went on an exploration of the geological time scale: eon > era > period > epoch > age > millennium > century > decade > year > month > weekday > hour > minute > second. Shorter time periods than a second get boring; you just keep applying a metric modifier in front of the word second. Not interesting at all. You could argue that the same is true of those names between year and age, but at least you don't have the word year in each of those. It turns out that, other than a long, long time, there isn't a definition of how long an eon is. Unlike years and any term less than an age, eons are marked by geological events and so can be almost any length, including the time it feels like a car trip takes if you are sitting in a car seat in the back. When we both had memorized the order, the game changed slightly. He'd ask the question and I respond, "Eons!" he'd ask again, and I'd respond with "Eras!" and so on down the line, usually stopping before I got to "Decades!" because that was starting to get into the realm of possibility. Sometimes I'd start with "Years!" and go up. If I missed one of the terms in the sequence, he'd remind me and I'd have to start over again. It was fun, kept us amused and me from going crazy on those car trips longer than two minutes. The geological time scale came to mind recently. I've been reading this book called Otherlands. It's a fascinating book about the last five hundred million years of life on this planet. He paints a word picture of what life was like at archeological sites dating from various time periods. What life was like gets increasingly strange and increasingly fascinating as he goes further back in time. What I find interesting is how tenacious life is. There have been five major extinction events in the past. At each one, somewhere between 30% and 50% of all species disappeared. And yet life went on. It flourished. As the years and decades of my life have gone by, I've been generally hopeful. There have been bad times, but I usually can take a longer view and see beyond to a better future. The last few years have dented my optimistic view a little, but by and large I expect both life and the human species to be around a long while.. Otherlands and its depiction of the truly vast sweep of time helped me remember that. My grandson is older; getting ready to enter high school. He doesn't ask how long it's going to take when we drive; he's usually head down into a game on his tablet, but I'm pretty sure that he remembers at least some of the geological time scale. About six months after we had worked out the sequence, he got sick and had to stay in bed for a week. Somewhere in the middle of that week, I put together a chart of the whole scale, eons down to seconds, and sent it to him. I'm told he smiled.
10 Aug 2022
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