The Big Picture in Seven Scales

See the full size and Turkish versions here.

After publishing this, quite a lot of people have said that they want to hang a print of it on their wall. High-quality prints of different sizes and materials of The Big Picture in Seven Scales can be bought here, with worldwide shipping. (The png file you see on the web isn’t good for printing.)

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This is a summary of the history of the universe, life on Earth and humanity, all belonging to the same picture shown in seven different time scales. It is in fact a reminder I made for my own use, like a summary of the course material a student prepares before an exam. (This was something I was particularly good at as a student, and I now realize that most of my personal work too is of that nature. I’ll remember this if I ever need an “artist’s statement”. If I ever become an artist.)

The initial plan was to represent everything on one very lengthy line at one scale and produce a print to hang on some large enough wall so that the viewer can intuitively sense the amounts of time in question. For the screen medium – and for regular walls – this was not very practical so I did this version with seven scales, though I still plan to do the big version, at least 15 meters long.

My main purpose with this thing was to give a sense of how tiny our time scales are compared to the larger scheme of things, in one look. For this reason, the key feature of this visualization to me is the gray gradients relating the different scales to one another. And that’s why I stick with an oldschool flat-out one-image version instead of a fancy interactive one with zooming in and out. (It has nothing to do with my personal dislike for interaction.) By the way, I find the fact that all this immediate visual information is embedded in a 104 kilobyte image file terribly pleasing.

Dates are of course approximate. I first wanted to cite the sources for the information here but after some point of my research they became just too numerous to keep track of as I cross-checked everything in multiple sources. (When different dates were given at different sources, I chose to use something in between. Luckily there isn’t too much controversy; everybody agrees that Mayans came after the dawn of multicellular life.) In any case, I believe the information here is as public domain as can be. I will just hyperlink the sources of the linegraphs I included: the atmosphere oxygenation, the global mean temperature for 160.000 years, the world human population and the global mean temperature anomalies for 150 years.

While researching for the temperature data I had a chance to form a more informed opinion on the issue of global warming but here I won’t go into the discussions of whether it is real, human-induced or dangerous; I tried to stay as neutral as possible by showing temperature graphs at two different time scales, both accepted and used by people on both sides of the argument. If anything my visualization just says “Yes, the global mean temperature is fluctuating in every time scale, and yes, in the scale of the last 100 years we are seeing a warming trend.” – these two statements, I believe, are not debated. (This page by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research is by far the most clear, concise and structured one I saw on the basics of global warming, and although it’s on the “warmist” side it could be a good starting point for any curious person no matter his/her inclination on this politically charged issue.)

Some of the information on The Big Picture is less conclusive than the majority and perhaps I should add a few explanations for those.

  • The RNA World hypothesis about the origin of life may be impossible to confirm but I observe that it’s the most popular one among scientists, and I was assured enough when I saw it favored in the prestigious Molecular Biology of the Cell (Fifth Edition).
  • The dates for the beginning of sexual reproduction are also vague, and I have nothing to say about that. I just wanted to give you a piece of advice based upon my experience: don’t ever google “sex” if you want information on the evolution of sexual reproduction. Just don’t. The world doesn’t work like that.
  • There’s some recent findings, published in Nature in 2010, that suggests that multicellular life may have begun as early as 2.1 billion years ago but I chose to stick with the status quo on that because the paper’s too fresh.
  • There’s also some new findings (Science, 2005) suggesting, contrary to what we knew, that grasses may have evolved before the end of dinosaurs. (Just a cool way of saying “They found grass in fossilized dinosaur dung”.) Here I was convinced enough to have it their way.
  • There are people who claim that the Moon landing was faked. There are also people who claim that everything popped into existence 6000 years ago. Just so you know.

One terminology note: The dinosaurs – that are extinct – are dubbed “non-avian dinosaurs” today by scientists because we’re sure that birds are technically dinosaurs too. So we mustn’t say that “dinosaurs”, in their entirety, are extinct. However, as Jack Horner reminds us, all the kids in the world know that birds are not really cool enough to be dinosaurs.

Please don’t hesitate to contact me via comments below or email if you think there are corrections to be made, very important things to add, etc. I’m sure it’ll need updating in future, thus the “v1.2” in the title.

My thanks go to Amaç Herdağdelen and Eser Aygün for their useful and challenging comments, as always. Eser has suggested that I should also add the future of the universe and at first I loved the idea. However, when I did research for the future scenarios for humanity, the Earth and the universe, I realized that there are too many alternatives – nearly all of them speculative – and it would be misleading if I chose between them and omit the rest. The historical information displayed in this work is obviously much more conclusive compared to our predictions about the future, and adding those predictions here would unfairly diminish the reliability of the former. Maybe I can do another version just for the alternative future scenarios. In future. That’s one scenario.

I dedicate this piece to mom, who has made sure, recently and on many past occasions, that I stayed sane enough to be spending time on these things.



v 1.3

  • “Universe” changed from 13.75 to 13.72 billion years ago.
  • “Relativity, Einstein” added.
  • Turkish version added.

  1. Barrett

    Thank you for this. I really enjoy it and the ‘Find out What You Are’ image.

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