Zoom Through Nearly 14 Billion Years of History Online


Can a new website help us comprehend just how little time has passed since humans appeared on Earth? 


If there's one thing that's hard to map your mind around, it's the scale of time -- how long the universe has been around and just how short, relatively speaking, are the eras of all life on Earth and, even shorter, human history. A powerful tool for impressing this, for me at least, is the Cosmic Pathway at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. As you walk the long, spiraling ramp, each step takes you past some 75 million years of history (depending on, of course, the length of your stride). Each inch represents 3.6 million years. You walk and walk and walk and all you pass are little displays on the development of the cosmos. Stars are born and die, galaxies appear, but little, very little, seems to happen. You keep walking. It's not until you reach the final third of the walk that you start to see exhibits related to, well, you. Oh, there's our solar system and our planet. Oh, here's where life begins. You walk some more. Then, less than two feet from the walkway's end: dinosaurs. And at the very end, underneath some display casing: a human hair, whose width represents all of recorded human history.

Your world is rocked.

It's so thin! The rise and fall of great societies, the migrations of humans all over the Earth, the progress of science -- all of it in the width of that hair.

Now a new website hopes to deliver that same experience virtually. ChronoZoom, a collaboration among the University of California at Berkeley, Moscow State University, and Microsoft Research, is an infinitely expandable timeline of "big history" -- a field of history not focused on, say, the Renaissance or the 20th century, but of the entire universe, all 13.7 billion years of it. On ChronoZoom, you can navigate from era to era, and zoom far into the details of particular periods, where you'll find little curated "exhibits" about the major events of that time.

The site grew out of a class project by Roland Saekow when he was a senior enrolled in Berkeley's Big History course taught by legendary geologist Walter Alvarez. (Each week of the course covers approximately one billion years of history.) ChronoZoom is essentially a framework on which you can hang all information -- whether the development of agriculture to a biography of da Vinci -- in chronological order. They released the beta version last week and over time plan to add tools that will allow for other people to submit timelines and exhibits, including, eventually, a way for people to include timelines of anything the want, for periods of time as short as a day. When you look at the site now, you get a sense of the vastness of the time it covers. But the flexibility and infinite zoomability of the HTML5 design mean that eventually it could contain timelines for any story on Earth (or anywhere else, for that matter). 

Saekow and Rane Johnson, of the project's lead developers at Microsoft Research, told me that they hope that by putting all of history into one timeline, the site will help researchers find links between trends they hadn't previously seen -- like, for example, relationships that could emerge between changes in climate and developments in life on this planet. But before that can happen, the timeline needs to be outfitted with a bit more history -- all of it, actually.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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