Enormous timescales made graspable by graphs

Wait But Why has a fantastic series of graphs that aim to help us wrap our heads around the enormous timescales on which forces like history, biology, geography and astronomy operate. By carefully building up graphs that show the relationship between longer and longer timescales, the series provides a moment's worth of emotional understanding of the otherwise incomprehensible.


Humans are good at a lot of things, but putting time in perspective is not one of them. It's not our fault—the spans of time in human history, and even more so in natural history, are so vast compared to the span of our life and recent history that it's almost impossible to get a handle on it. If the Earth formed at midnight and the present moment is the next midnight, 24 hours later, modern humans have been around since 11:59:59pm—1 second. And if human history itself spans 24 hours from one midnight to the next, 14 minutes represents the time since Christ.

To try to grasp some perspective, I mapped out the history of time as a series of growing timelines—each timeline contains all the previous timelines (colors will help you see which timelines are which). All timeline widths are exactly accurate to the amount of time they're expressing.

Putting Time In Perspective (via JWZ)




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  1. Claiming the telephone was invented in 1833 seems a bit aggressive to me.

    Bell's patent was 1876, right? Even Wikipedia's article on the history of the telephone doesn't make any claims to any precursor inventions going back to 1833. Am I mistaken?

    Because otherwise, it kinda ruins their credibility for me, which ruins the graphs. frowning And that's a shame because I'd really like to like 'em.

  2. Common Era onwards is very:
    1) USA-centric.
    2) European-centric.

  3. JonS says:

    Wait - this can't be right. All history started 5752 years ago.

  4. JonS says:

    I was surprised at the length of life (any old life) compared to the length of the universe, and how soon life appeared after the Sun and Earth were formed. It seems that Life is tenacious and ambitious.

  5. On one of my trawls of the local second-hand bookstores, I found this old gem: A Week in the Future.

    The author, writing in 1888, imagines the world of 1988, with the usual ratio of hits (working women, lower birthrates and casual clothes) and misses (socialist co-operative housing, reduced international trade, global happiness and an end to war), but the introduction is interesting for her musings on historical perspective:

    "*Having lived all my life with a mother who nearly attained the age of a century, and having a strong interest in things past as well as in things present, I have been steeped in memories of old times.[...]
    In her youth she had lived much with an intelligent grandmother, who could recollect the rebellion of 1745, and the battle of Prestonpans, and had been of mature years during the American War of Independence.[...]
    The older lady had said to her then youthful descendant that no one could expect to see as much as she had seen in her life, which extended from 1734 to 1817, and included the American War, the French Revolution, and the application of machinery to so many of the arts. The grandchild, born at the beginning of 1791, had seen five French Revolutions, and the map of Europe strangely altered; triumphs of art and science, countless in number; steam, gas, electricity, the railway system; mechanical inventions which had revolutionized industry; and the rise of mighty colonies to compensate for the loss of the United States.*"

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