Many IEET readers probably are familiar with the famous (and famously brilliant) “Powers of Ten” film created in 1977 by Charles and Ray Eames. What happens if we try a similar mental exercise with time instead of space?
The compelling Eames production takes the viewer exponentially outward from a picnic in Central Park—first one meter, then 10 meters, then 100 meters, and so on—to show humanity’s place in the universe, and then it reverses the process, going inward by powers of ten to look inside the human body and finally inside individual atoms. It’s a fascinating way to reevaluate our place in space.
But we can play the same kind of game with time.
Let’s try going back in time by powers of ten—beginning with 10 years, then 100 years, then 1000 years, etc.—and after that we’ll go forward. For simplicity, we’ll use the year 2000 as our starting point.
Ten years previous, which doesn’t seem like much, until you consider that this puts us before the invention of the World Wide Web and therefore before Web sites, before widespread use of email, and—GASP!—before Google.
One hundred years earlier than 2000, and now we’re back in the horse and buggy era, before the invention of the aeroplane, before radio, before TV, before plastics!
One thousand years back, and total human population is about 5% of what it is now. It’s the Middle Ages. Existence in many parts of the world is Hobbesian—poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
-104 8000 bce
Ten times further back, and we find the earliest glimmers of human civilization. Agriculture is beginning simultaneously—perhaps as a result of global climate changes—in the Fertile Crescent, in China, and in Mesoamerica.
-105 98,000 bce
It is perhaps around this time that human language first developed, and it is also thought to be around this time that Homo sapiens began to migrate out of Africa (the two events may be related).
-106 1 mya
One million years ago (mya). No modern humans yet, but several hominid species exist alongside one another in East Africa. One of them was your direct ancestor.
-107 10 mya
Again, ten times further back, and we’re in the Miocene era. Ramapithecus, our probable progenitor, is just evolving, likely from the Dryopithecus line. Giraffes, deer, and cattle are emerging too, along with seals and walruses. Many other animals already have roughly their present form.
-108 100 mya
The Cretaceous era, the time of the dinosaurs. Triceratops, Stegosaurus, Apatosaurus, and Tyrannosaurus Rex roam the land. Pterodactyls rule the sky. Continents are in different places than we know them, with North America still connected to Eurasia, South America just splitting apart from Africa, and India yet to ram into southern Asia.
-109 1 bya
One billion years ago, it’s the Precambrian, a shadowy time of which we know remarkably little. No land plants or animals yet exist, and, in fact, the first complex multicelled life forms are still perhaps 400 million years away. It’s a good time to be a bacteria.
-1010 10 bya
Moving back ten times further, and there is no Earth, no Sun, no Solar System. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, seems to have formed very early—along with the oldest galaxies in the universe—but our star and the planet we live on will not come into being for another five and a half billion years.
Time, as we know it, does not yet exist, nor does anything else. Our universe, which is the only one we know of, appeared approximately 13.7 billion years before the present. Hence, the phrase “100 billion years ago” has no real meaning.
Now let’s go the other way, starting in the year 2000 and moving forward, by powers of ten.
Only one year from now, so we can probably guess pretty closely what it will be like then. But here’s a good thought question: What would surprise a person from the year 2000 most about the year 2010?
End of our current century and start of the next. Should we expect as much change going forward 100 years as we saw when going back the same distance? Or perhaps much more?
Are you able to imagine, with any degree of confidence, what humans and human societies will be like a thousand years from now? I’m not.
Does the species Homo sapiens still exist? Have we changed beyond all recognition? Have we destroyed ourselves, or been wiped out by one of many possible existential threats?
Another ten times further into the future. At -105 human language was just emerging. What may emerge between now and a hundred millennia from now?
106 1 my
One million years forward. Earth still exists in its present form—unless, that is, posthumans have used technology to alter it beyond recognition.
107 10 my
Your guess is as good as mine.
108 100 my
Earth will still be here, presumably, although the continents will have drifted a bit.
109 1 by
By this time, the Sun will be about 10% brighter than today, meaning Earth is much warmer than now. Again, this is unless we or some other super-advanced intelligent civilization has taken control of our Solar System’s development.
1010 10 by
Oops, no more Earth, probably. The Sun has ballooned into a red giant and then shrunk again to a white dwarf. If Earth has not been swallowed up completely, it will likely be just a crispy cinder.
1011 100 by
The universe keeps expanding, galaxies racing ever farther apart, activity winding down.
1012 1 ty
Ditto. To say what might become of humans or any other form of intelligence at this point is pure speculation.
1013 10 ty
1014 100 ty
Assuming we live in an open universe, and unless someone or something intervenes, this is when the protracted “heat death” of the universe is expected to begin.
We’ve skipped past 25 powers of ten because it takes a loooong time for things to happen in this stage of the universe’s slow decline. By this time, though, planets, stars, and galaxies are no more, as all protons have decayed.
Skipping ahead another 60 exponents, this is the darkest of dark ages, when black holes—the only things remaining in the universe—begin to evaporate.