The universe is very, very old. About 14 billion years old, in fact, give or take a few hundred million years.
But it’s worth noting that the Earth is almost one third of the age of the universe, even though our sun is a second or third-generation star – meaning it was formed from the debris created by the violent deaths of older stars. The Earth and our sun (and the other planets) are roughly 4.5 billion years old.
Life appeared on Earth pretty soon after it was formed, and about as soon as the Earth had cooled enough for life to survive, over 3.5 billion years ago. That means there has been life on Earth for roughly a quarter of the time the universe has existed.
For a lot of that time, it’s true, life on Earth was relatively primitive and certainly unintelligent. However, it pretty soon started to become more complex and varied, and although there are still many very simple species alive today, there have been millions of highly complex ones for a very long time. Depending how you define ‘complex’ you could say that complex organisms have been around (on Earth) for at least 1.4 billion years, or about one tenth of the age of the universe.
Dinosaurs roamed the earth for many millions of years, and they were the dominant group around 140 million years ago. That’s around one hundredth of the age of the universe. The earliest mammals and birds were also emerging around that time.
The earliest true apes had appeared by 14 million years ago. That’s about a thousandth of the age of the universe, and truly ‘human’ species existed by 1.4 million years ago – one ten thousandth of the age of the universe. (Hominid species have been around for over 4 million years, or one thousandth the age of the Earth.) Finally, Homo Sapiens (that’s us) have existed for 100,000 years or so. Let’s keep it simple and say 140,000 years, or one hundred-thousandth of the age of the universe.
(Interestingly, a more precise estimate of the universe’s age is 14.4 billion years. If we take it that homo sapiens has actually existed for 120,000 years, we find that happens to be precisely one 120,000th of the age of the universe. In other words, the universe’s age is exactly the square of modern humans’ time on Earth…)
But, for roughly 99,999/100,000ths of the universe’s existence, there were no modern humans to observe it. If we’re generous and say that early human species were intelligent enough to start to wonder about the stars and universe, that has still only been happening for about 9,999/10,000ths of the life of the universe.
So, on one hand we can start to grasp the enormous age of the universe by seeing that it is ‘only’ about three times the age of the sun and planets, including Earth. On the other hand, though, it’s sobering to realise how young our species is and how little of the world’s history has been seen, let alone influenced, by mankind.
Your experience of the universe will amount, in total, to a few billionths of its existence in time (and an almost infinitely small fraction of its existence in space). Every 14 years is about one billionth of the universe’s age. There are billions of galaxies, each containing billions of stars…
Does that make you small and insignificant? Well, to all the stars and planets (and all the species that may have evolved on them) that have been and gone already, you’re irrelevant. To most of the universe that exists today or will in the future, you are too distant and puny to have a perceptible effect. Most of our galaxy will never know you were here. To most people on the planet today, you’re an unknown.
But being unknown doesn’t make you insignificant. You can still have an effect, even if it’s only perceptible as part of the larger effect of a bigger group. And, to the people whose lives you touch directly, however minutely, you have a very real effect, even if they don’t notice or acknowledge it.
Smile at the next stranger you meet and see if that has an effect – it will.
Of course, to the people close to you, now and in the future, you can be very noticeable and influential indeed.
Most of the universe is unconscious and unknowing. Most of what happens just happens, without design and without any awareness of its effect on other things in the universe. There are powerful forces at play, building and destroying elements, molecules, planets, stars and whole galaxies, but they are governed by the unknowing forces of physics. They may have an element of randomness, but they have no choice.
You do have a choice. Every action you take can and will also affect someone else, whether you want it to or not. You can choose to have a bigger effect or a smaller one, but you will have an effect.
The choice, then, or the question is: “What effect will you have?”