One time, when Carson was about 7 years old, he and I were reading The Magic School Bus and the Giant Germ. We always loved to read together, and this book series was one of our favorites. We were curled up on the couch together, baby Jolie was taking a nap. Seems like a nice, quiet time for a major life epiphany, doesn’t it?
The book said that microbes (germs, the oldest form of life on our planet) came to exist on our planet about 3.5 billion years ago. I stopped reading for a second and then repeated that little bit of information. Carson, sensing another ‘learning opportunity’, began to get restless.
Me: Carson, 3.5 billion is a really big number!
Carson: I know, Mom. Keep reading.
Me: But, really. I don’t think either of us can really understand how long ago that was!
Carson: Yes, Mom, please. Read.
Me: But, Carson! I’m serious! That’s just too big of a number to fully comprehend! And I think we need to in order to really understand this story!
Carson: (losing patience, now) Mom! (Stretch that over 3 syllables– Moooommmm!) You always do this! Let’s just read!!!!
Just to be clear, I do not always do that. Things just often remind me of important things to share while we are reading or watching movies. And because they are important, things need to be paused for me to share them. That’s why there are things like book marks and pause buttons. (Give me the remote, dammit!) It’s called ‘dispensing wisdom’ and my Mom Card is a license to do so whenever I need to.
And, also, he did NOT know that 3.5 billion was a really big number, because, honestly, even I really had no clue how big it was until we did the next thing which was (1) stop reading and (2) do some math. Once I stopped reading, I want to believe that we both did the math together. That’s how it goes in my memory. What probably actually happened was that Carson went off and played Steve the Crocodile Hunter while I did the math excitedly.
I got out the adding machine paper roll, a pencil, and a measuring tape. I was making a timeline of life on Earth. First, a billion is a thousand million. So our 3.5 billion looks like 3,500,000,000. Ok, fine. Nothing earth-shaking there. One little google search (or whatever we had back in 2001) shows that the entirety of the human race has been on the planet about 200,000 years. If our adding machine paper is 20 feet, and it represents the entirety of microbial existence on earth, then each foot is 175,000,000 (175 million) years and, dividing by 12, each inch is about 14,600,000 years. (I rounded the number, because we don’t have to be precise on this. We couldn’t be precise if we wanted to!)
By now, Steve the Crocodile Hunter has probably uttered ‘crikey’ at least 10 times and is ready to discover the ‘elusive and very dangerous Jolie, crying in her crib habitat’ because playing with your baby sister is immeasurably more exciting than watching your mom do math.
Dinosaurs (another internet search) existed from 230 – 65 million years ago. So, dividing 230,000,000 years by 14,600,000 years/inch, we see that dinosaurs begin at almost 16 inches from the end of our timeline (15.75 inches, if you want to be a little more precise) and live until 65,000,000 years divided by 14,600,000, about 4 ½ inches from the end. Then they died off from meteors or whatever, leaving us with fossils and many seemingly unending hours of Carson telling me every detail about each one of them.
Then when do humans come onto our timeline? The entirety of human existence, the whole shebang, cavemen and all … are you ready??? How much of our timeline will be colored in by human existence??? 1 tenth of one inch! Yes, just a little less than an eighth of an inch on our twenty- foot time line!!!
The timeline of Life on Earth looks like this: On the far left, at the edge, is the beginning of microbes. They live through-out the entire timeline. There is nothing else, just vast eons of time, for about 18 ½ feet. Then there is a space of time for dinosaurs, almost a foot, and then, at the very tiny edge of the right side, humanity. I know there are other forms of life, like plants and stuff. But these basics were enough to give the perspective I was looking for, the perspective that changed my life.
I got Carson back into the activity once dinosaurs were mentioned, he was pretty astonished and we were able to finish the book. I, however, have never been the same since. This activity, this knowledge, shifted my entire paradigm of life.
Each one of you will take away something from this, depending on your belief system, your experiences. This is what I took away:
- This life on this planet cannot be all there is. Our entire existence is just the blink of an eye compared to all life on Earth. There must be something else.
- Dinosaurs spent a thousand times longer on the planet than we have and they did not ruin it like we have in our tiny amount of time calling this place ‘home’.
- What I worry about today will be over in the blink of an eye.
- I love to do math.
Within that same week, Chuck (my kids’ dad) and I watched The Matrix. I had such a visceral reaction to that movie because of this Magic School Bus activity! I stopped the movie (yes, the Mom Card works on husbands, too), wide-eyed and freaked out because — Oh my god, Chuck!!!!! We are living IN THE MATRIX! Only, the ones in charge are the MICROBES!! WE ARE BEING FARMED BY MICROBES! WE ONLY EXIST FOR THEIR BENEFIT!!!!
Well, that’s something to think about, at least. At this very moment, microbes are feasting on us, replenishing us, growing things inside of us, helping us to reproduce more of us. Our very existence depends upon germs. They will outlive us all.
So, what do you think? What are your take-aways from this information? I’d love to hear!