“As time goes by…”

Deep time and deep space are almost incomprehensible, yet they have an inherent beauty that stirs the imagination and invokes profound contemplation.

American song-writer Herman Hupfeld (1894-1951) penned the lines, “The fundamental things apply, As time goes by.” Best known from the film Casablanca, the song was originally written for the 1931 Broadway show Everybody’s Welcome. In our heart of hearts, we all know that time is unassailable and unforgiving, but all the same its effects are wondrous.

Deep time describes the vastness of the geological time scale from the perspective that the Earth can be shown to be very old. The modern philosophical concept was developed in the 18th century by Scottish geologist James Hutton (1726–97). One of the first uses of the term “deep time” was by John McPhee in Basin and Range (1981) – a book of journeys through ancient terrains. Parts of it originally appeared in The New Yorker magazine and one of McPhee’s metaphors used to explain the idea was quoted in Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle (1987) by palaeontologist Stephen Gould:

“Consider the Earth’s history as the old measure of the English yard, the distance from the King’s nose to the tip of his outstretched hand. One stroke of a nail file on his middle finger erases human history.”

The geological time scale is a system of chronological measurement that relates the order and relative position of strata to the passage of time. It is used by geologists, paleontologists and other earth scientists to describe the timing and relationship between events that have occurred during the history of the Earth. Evidence from measuring radioactivity indicates that the Earth is about 4.570 billion years old and the timeframe of Earth’s past is now organized in relation to major geological or paleontological happenings.

Contrast the notion of deep time with deep space: the infinitude of distance measured in light years (the distance light travels in one year – 1016 metres or nearly six million million miles). The mind boggles under the strain. All the more astonishing, therefore, that an exploding star in a galaxy 21 million light years from Earth was visible from Britain earlier this month, when even amateur astronomers were able to observe the flicker of light from its death throes through a good pair of binoculars or a telescope.

The supernova – the nearest of its kind to be spotted in 40 years – lies in the Pinwheel Galaxy (left) and observers on Earth were able to see the death of the star as it played out 21 million years ago, the time it has taken the light from the explosion to reach our planet. The Pinwheel Galaxy is one of the largest galaxies yet discovered. At a whopping 170,000 light years in diameter, it is nearly double the size of the Milky Way and is believed to have a mass that is the equivalent of over 103 billion solar systems.

As Julian Barnes writes in The Sense of an Ending (p. 3), likely winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize:

“We live in time – it holds us and moulds us – but I’ve never felt I understood it very well. And I’m not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly: tick-tock, click-clock. Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally it seems to go missing – until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return.”

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