Sunday, June 29, 2014

"And one minute is a long time", or a reason to listen to Revolution 9

Taking a brief break from the "generic history" series:

If you've gone through a basic geology class at almost any level, you've probably encountered some kind of metaphor for geologic time versus some familiar standard, the objects of which are to give you an idea of the geologic chronology and the scale of deep time, and to impress upon you the rather tiny speck of time occupied by recorded history, Homo sapiens, and so on. The two favorites are the length of a calendar year and the length of a day. If you do not work with geologists and wish to forever establish yourself as eccentric, you should look up one of these and memorize it, and then at appropriate times use that information to excuse yourself from meetings, gatherings, and so forth. "I'd love to come over, but there won't be enough oxygen in the atmosphere at ten." "I am incapable of doing anything until twelve minutes before midnight on December 31." The truth of the matter is you can come up with all sorts of different ways of doing this exercise. All you need is enough of whatever you're converting to geologic time to get decent resolution, and a subject that will hold interest. Geologic time in a mile or kilometer? Sure. Geologic time based on the reigns of Holy Roman Emperors? You could do it, but it probably only appeals to a very select crowd. Why not pop-cultural subjects? A single movie or series of movies could be easily done, and offers the potential for endless irritation by pausing the show and exclaiming that Pangea is rifting apart. How about an album? Well, you're going to want one that goes a little longer than 30 minutes...

The White Album, known officially as "The Beatles", needs little introduction, even 45 years after the fact. It's a double album featuring 30 songs, with almost every one belonging to a different genre. Criticism of the album's self-indulgence and sprawl has surfaced from time to time, but as Paul McCartney said, "It's great, it sold, it's the bloody Beatles' White Album. Shut up!" Hopefully, it fulfills the second requirement, that of holding interest. At over 90 minutes long, it clears the first reasonably well. What do we get when we convert the White Album into a metaphor for geologic time?

First of all, we have to establish our standards. For geologic time, we will be using the International Commission on Stratigraphy's Chronostratigraphic Chart 2014/2, except that the starting point will be 4.54 billion years (if it's good enough for the USGS, it's good enough for me). For the White Album, you can find a number of different track timings. I'll be using the timing from the version on my computer, with three modifications due to mistakes in the tracking of the original CD: the instrumental doodling from the beginning of "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill" was tacked to the end of "Wild Honey Pie", the instrumental doodling at the beginning of "Don't Pass Me By" was tacked to the end of "Rocky Raccoon", and the dialogue at the beginning of "Revolution 9" was tacked to the end of "Cry Baby Cry". Whoever wrote up the album for Wikipedia had the same track timings as mine, except for those three spots, so I took their modifications because they made more sense. I'm also going to pretend that there aren't any fractions of seconds; obviously the tracks do not end at exact seconds, but there are error bars in geochronological dating, too. Therefore, the track listing will be as follows:

Side 1: 23:38
1. Back in the USSR: 2:43
2. Dear Prudence: 3:56
3. Glass Onion: 2:17
4. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da: 3:08
5. Wild Honey Pie: 0:52
6. The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill: 3:14
7. While My Guitar Gently Weeps: 4:45
8. Happiness Is a Warm Gun: 2:43

Side 2: 22:38
1. Martha My Dear: 2:28
2. I'm So Tired: 2:03
3. Blackbird: 2:18
4. Piggies: 2:04
5. Rocky Raccoon: 3:33
6. Don't Pass Me By: 3:51
7. Why Don't We Do It in the Road?: 1:41
8. I Will: 1:46
9. Julia: 2:54

Side 3: 22:43
1. Birthday: 2:42
2. Yer Blues: 4:01
3. Mother Nature's Son: 2:48
4. Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey: 2:24
5. Sexy Sadie: 3:15
6. Helter Skelter: 4:29
7. Long, Long, Long: 3:04

Side 4: 24:27
1. Revolution 1: 4:15
2. Honey Pie: 2:41
3. Savoy Truffle: 2:54
4. Cry Baby Cry: 3:02
5. Revolution 9: 8:22
6. Good Night: 3:13

This gives us the sum of 93 minutes, 26 seconds, or 5,606 seconds (again, no fractional seconds). For our purposes, the age of the Earth is about 4,540,000,000 years old (give or take). With that information, a second of the White Album is equal to about 809,800 years, and a million years is roughly equal to 1.235 seconds of White Album time. That's all we need to know to get going.

The Earth forms out of the primordial stardust to the sound of jet engines opening "Back in the USSR". We have very little direct evidence for what was going on for the next half-billion years or so, which takes us through a significant chunk of Side 1. At about 11:07 in, we're at 4 billion years ago, which is the beginning of the Archean Eon, also known as a pirate's favorite geologic time division. This is 2:15 into "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da". If you're not a fan of the song, console yourself with the knowledge that the worlds of the inner Solar System are being pelted with asteroids. Life appears sometime during the Archean. The oldest possible signs of life are about 3.7 billion years old, and the oldest fossils are about 3.5 billion years old. Split the difference, and you end up at 3.6 billion years, 19:21 into the album, 3:10 into "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" (third verse). Because a hundred million years is about two minutes, life likely begins during this song.

The Proterozoic, last eon of the Precambrian, begins 2.5 billion years ago, 41:59 into the album, 23 seconds into "I Will". An eon is a long time, of course, and this one is no different. It won't end until about halfway through Side 4. All through Side 3 and into Side 4, oxygen is building up in the atmosphere, the Earth is going through periodic deep freezes, and at least one supercontinent cycle takes place. Life experiments with some unusual soft-bodied multicellular forms near the end of this eon, which takes place at about 541 million years ago, 82:19 into the album, 0:28 into "Revolution 9", during the initial loop of "Number Nine, Number Nine...".

Say what you will about "Revolution 9," but it's fitting that most of what we know about the history of life, and most of the geologic events for which we have substantial direct evidence, occur during the most chaotic track on the album. Keep on your toes, because things are about to start blazing past as we enter the Phanerozoic Eon, Paleozoic Era, and Cambrian Period.

The Cambrian Period, with its Cambrian Explosion and subsequent bust, comes and goes in just over a minute. Almost all major animal phyla have appeared by the end of the period, roughly 485.5 million years ago, 83:28 into the album, and 1:37 into "Revolution 9", during a lull in the track. The Ordovician has begun, with shallow seas covering most of the continents and an ice age and mass extinction to close things out. The Ordovician, of course, is the major period for fossils in Minnesota. At about 443.3 million years ago, 84:19 seconds into the album and 2:28 into "Revolution 9", it gives way to the Silurian. Vertebrates have been kicking around since the late Cambrian, but they evolve jaws during the late Ordovician and begin to diversify in the Silurian in the form of "fish". Mossy little things, the first land plants, set up shop. The Silurian is a short period, ending at 419.2 million years ago, 84:49 seconds into the album and 2:58 into "Revolution 9", at about the end of John shrieking "Right!" or "Ride!". We are now in the Devonian. Fish are diversifying, with new forms including the first tetrapods. Land plants are joined by terrestrial invertebrates. Pieces are lining up for the assembly of the supercontinent Pangea; the southern portion, Gondwana, has been together for a while, but there are still many chunks coming together in the northern portion. Another mass extinction occurs toward the end of the period, about 375 million years ago (85:45, 3:54 into "Revolution 9"). The Devonian ends around 358.9 million years ago, 86:04 into the album and 4:13 into "Revolution 9".

In Europe, there's just the Carboniferous, but in North America, there's the Mississippian followed by the Pennsylvanian, the difference being that the European rocks are mostly terrestrial lowlands but the North American rocks are shallow marine, followed by terrestrial lowlands. "Carboniferous" refers to the great amount of coal in these rocks, formed in vast forests. The Mississippian ends at about 323.2 Ma, 86:48 into the album and 4:57 into "Revolution 9". The Pennsylvanian sees the first diversification of vertebrates on land, with amphibians, the mammal line (synapsids), and the reptile–bird line (sauropsids) established. As the Pennsylvanian/Carboniferous draws to a close, the great forests fail, and the supercontinent of Pangea is fully assembled. The last period of the Paleozoic, the Permian, begins about 298.9 million years ago, 87:18 into the album and 5:27 into "Revolution 9". All of the continents are together, with vast deserts in the interior. Conifers begin their rise to prominence, and the land vertebrates are dominated by early relatives of mammals. The Permian closes with the biggest mass extinction on record, about 252.2 million years ago. On our record, this takes place at 88:16, 6:25 into "Revolution 9".

We are now into the Mesozoic Era and the Triassic Period. It is a time when the reptile–bird line undergoes its own diversification, only to have many branches pruned by another major mass extinction at the close of the period. Coincidentally (or not), Pangea is splitting apart, with volcanic eruptions in the area where Africa, Europe, North America, and South America meet. This is where the Atlantic Ocean will appear. The end of the period occurs at 201.3 million years ago, 89:18 into the album and 7:27 into "Revolution 9". Some of the sauropsid groups that appear during this time keep going for at least a while, such as pterosaurs, ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, the line that leads to modern crocodiles, and dinosaurs. They spread through the Jurassic, which also sees the first mammals, the first birds, and the first flowering plants. The Jurassic comes to a close about 145 million years ago, 90:28 into the album and 15 seconds into "Good Night" as the strings kick in at full volume. Yes, we've finally left "Revolution 9", although it's a bit of a pity that the Cretaceous doesn't close at the end of "Revolution 9" or when Ringo is first singing "Now it's time to say good night". Instead, at 66 million years ago, it closes at 92:05 into the album, 1:52 into the song, when he starts humming. By this time, shallow continental seas have left the interior of western North America for the foreseeable future and the Rocky Mountains are well on their way, while Gondwana has disintegrated into Africa, Antarctica, Australia, India, Madagascar, and South America.

We're finally into the Cenozoic Era, the Age of Mammals, which occupies 1:21 of the entire album. (Sometimes all it takes to be an Era is who you know.) Very little at all of interest occurs during the Cenozoic, except the champsosaurs go extinct (we think; they've fooled us before), elephants appear, big shallow lakes are briefly fashionable in the western United States in the Eocene, a small continental block is wrenched out of place and becomes the Transverse Ranges in southern California, packrats learn to build middens, and the Washington Senators win the 1924 World Series. To summarize briefly:
Paleocene Epoch: ends at 56 million years ago, 92:18, 2:05
Eocene Epoch: ends at 33.9 million years ago, 92:45, 2:32
Oligocene Epoch: ends at 23.03 million years ago, 92:58, 2:45
Miocene Epoch: ends at 5.33 million years, 93:20, 3:07
Pliocene Epoch: ends at 2.58 million years, 93:24, 3:11
Pleistocene Epoch, Holocene Epoch, and now: ends at 0, 93:26, 3:13
For reference, India collides with Asia during the latest Paleocene into the early Eocene, which will lead to the Himalayas popping up and causing some interesting changes to global atmospheric circulation. Antarctica, isolated at the South Pole since the beginning of the Miocene, becomes covered by glaciers. Continental ice sheets will also become fashionable in the northern continents during the Pleistocene. The genus Homo shows up early in the Pleistocene, getting to enjoy less than two seconds of fade-out. This is always the way these exercises end, but at least in this one you got to listen to the Beatles.

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