Analogy The Cosmic Calendar

Ages 8+

Next time your child floats a question about the dinosaurs, or the age ofthe earth, or the Big Bang, or has a homework assignment that touches on deep time—try this simple, engaging activity.

Materials: blank twelve-month calendar for each child (download free calendars at www.office.microsoft.com > templates > calendars)

Analogies can help kids grasp immense timescales. Carl Sagan suggested compressing the history of the universe to date into a single year.8 On a blank calendar, write BIG BANG on January 1, and NOW in the lower right corner of December 31.

Somewhere between the Big Bang and today, all sorts of things happened. Everything, in fact. Ask your kids to estimate when on the compressed calendar you would put:

• The first dinosaurs

• The first plants

• The extinction of the dinosaurs

• The formation of the Milky Way galaxy

• The first humans

• The formation of the earth

• The formation of Earth's oxygen atmosphere

• The voyages of Columbus

Ask the questions out of order so kids can think about which had to come first, and next, and next (e.g., Milky Way before Earth, dinosaurs come and go before humans, plants before oxygen).

When I was a kid, I would probably have put the Milky Way somewhere in February, Earth in March, dinos in April, people in May—something like that. A certain kind of kid will be gobsmacked by the actual answers:

Ages 8+

Richard Dawkins created another spectacular time-grasping analogy that focuses on the last quarter of universal history: the history of life on Earth.

Materials: arms (human)

Stretch your arms out to represent the span of the history of life on Earth. From your left fingertip all the way across your middle to well past your right shoulder, life consists of nothing but bacteria. At your right wrist, the most complex form of life on Earth is worms. The dinosaurs appear in the middle of your right palm and go extinct around your last finger joint. The whole story of Homo sapiens is contained in the thickness of one slim fingernail clipping.

As for recorded history—the Sumerians and Babylonians, the Pharoahs of Egypt, Ancient Greece and Rome, Jesus, Napoleon and Hitler, the Beatles and Britney Spears—they and everyone else who has lived since the dawn of recorded history are blown away in the dust from one light stroke of a nail-file.

Simply knowing that 99.98 percent of the history of the universe happened before our species even arrived on the scene is the single most humbling earthquake of perspective we can ever achieve.

Milky Way forms: Earth forms:

First (photosynthetic) plants: Oxygen atmosphere: Dinosaurs:

Extinction of dinosaurs: First humans: Roman Empire: Columbus:

May 1

September 14 November 12 December 1 December 24 December 28

December 31 at 10:30 p.m. Four seconds ago One second ago

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