Cycles of Life – the Comic Cosmic

A long time coming – the long cycles of the Cosmos

We have to describe and to explain a building the upper story of which was erected in the nineteenth century; the ground-floor dates from the sixteenth century, and a careful examination of the masonry discloses the fact that it was reconstructed from a dwelling-tower of the eleventh century. In the cellar we discover Roman foundation walls, and under the cellar a filled-in cave, in the floor of which stone tools are found and remnants of glacial fauna in the layers below. That would be a sort of picture of our mental structure.
C.G. Jung Mind and Earth

For the form of cosmology is clearly much closer to that of poetry, and the thought suggests itself that symmetrical cosmology may be a branch of myth. .. Perhaps, then, this whole pseudo-scientific world of three spirits, four humours, five elements, seven planets, nine spheres, twelve zodiacal signs, and so on, belongs in fact, as it does in practice, to the grammar of literary imagery.

Northrop Frye Anatomy of Criticism (1957)

The entire body of scientific record is a story, although I would hesitate to call it a narrative. There are too many authors, and there’s simply too much material to be told even in seven generations. Nevertheless, let’s see about addressing it with broad strokes a billion years wide.

One particular calendar reform proposal, the Human Era, got me to thinking about the longer-term measures of time, history, and how we came to be here, sharing information on this wondrous network we call the Internet. Cesare Emiliani proposed that we add 10,000 years to the current Common Era (CE) to bring the calendar in line with the Holocene Epoch. So 2012 CE becomes 12,012 HE. It’s a good idea for reform, however, I believe the Mesoamerican Long Count Calendar is one up on this.

The Long Count Calendar is the one that notoriously comes to the end of the cycle of 13 baktun on December 21st 2012 (or 12,012 HE). The long count measures days, and arranges them into groups of 20 (with one exception of 18). 20 days make a winal, and 18 winal make a tun of 360 days. Every successive grouping after this is by a factor of 20. 20 tun make 1 katun and 20 katun make a baktun. A baktun is 400 tun, which is about 394 1/3 years. 13 of those is 5,125 1/3 years.

Longer periods of time have been named by Mayanists. 20 baktun = 1 piktun, 20 piktun = 1 kalabtun, 20 kalabtun = 1 k’inchiltun, 20 k’inchiltun = 1 alautun. There are greater measures possible, of course, but what could it possibly measure? The alautun is approximately 63,081,431 years. It’s close to the beginning of the Cenozoic Era following the extinction event that finished off most of the dinosaurs. Any connection between the Maya calendar and geological points of reference is purely coincidental. (4.134105 x 1028 years) is the longest date found at a Maya site (Coba) and it is believed to be their duration for one cycle of the Universe.

The Hindu Vedas relate vast spans of time from microseconds to the lifecycle of the Universe, a little over 311 trillion years.

The reason I bring up these calendar systems, is that they open up the possibilities of new ways to consider history. Each calendar measures its epoch from a significant moment: the Hebrews from Creation, the Romans from the founding of Rome, and many others. In our current, secular world, the date of creation is the Big Bang, estimated at 13.7 billion years ago (in Long Count terms that’s about 220 alautun).

The other events of significance regarding our little lives on earth would be the formation of the Milky Way and our Solar System. On a geological scale, there is the formation of Earth, the geological stages, the evolution of life, development of human beings, and the creation of culture and civilization and history. Jose Arguelles argued that the 13 baktun measure the history of human civilization from 3,113 BC to 2,012 CE (or 6,887-12,012 HE). Regardless, it’s those stages of creation that I intend to explore here, along with any associated periodicity.

I riffed on this earlier in Scales of History (how I do go on, and repeat myself).

thank you US Geological Survey – I love this graphic

What I hope to accomplish here is some kind of equivalent relationship between the smallest period and the largest basing it on scientific phenomena. This is by no means exhaustive, or even thorough, but a starting point for considering a system of timekeeping that reminds us of our place in the cosmos. We already have a few time periods to build from: 1 second is about one heartbeat (for an adult at rest); 1 day is the period of the Earth’s rotation around its axis; 1 lunation is the Moon’s synodic period; 1 year is one orbit of the Earth around the Sun.

There are local phenomena which are fundamental to time reckoning, like when certain plants bloom, or fruit, when animals migrate, when the ice freezes, and so on. These are less important to those of us who don’t garden, hunt or fish, but are important for those of us who respect plants, animals and fungi as our neighbours.

click to enlarge – it’s well worth it

Timeline of Major Events

Birth of the Universe – the Big Bang

13.7 billion years ago

Although there are competing theories about the nature of the universe and its destiny, the one that resonates with smaller events is the big bang to big cruch cycle. As the expansion of the universe appears to be accelerating, I would speculate that we are somewhere in the first half of the cycle. As new observations and discoveries regarding the nature of the universe are ongoing, who knows how this might change in the upcoming months and years.

For the time being, I’m comfortable using this cyclical theory of the timeline of the universe. Estimating its lifetime is a huge challenge, so for the moment, we’ll just let it do its thing at its own pace.

the Milky Way

13.2 billion years ago it formed

3-5 billion years hence, the Milky Way will collide and merge with the Andromeda galaxy.

100 billion to 1 trillion years hence, the galaxies of the local group are expected to merge.

Every 500 million years, Sagittarius A* goes through a period of starburst

The Milky Way’s rotation rate is 15 to 50 million years depending on the location

Galactic Atlas showing stars and constellations

the Solar System – Population I Star

4.56 billion years ago – lifetime 14+ billion years



A galactic year: 225–250 million years – the time it takes the solar system to complete one orbit of the Milky Way. It has completed an estimated  20–25 orbits during the lifetime of the Sun.

In addition, the Sun oscillates up and down relative to the galactic plane approximately 2.7 times per orbit – this was thought to coincide with mass extinction events, however, that no longer appears to be the case. 88 million years per oscillation (assuming its regularity).

The orbital speed  is approximately 251 km/s.

The Solar System takes 1,190 years to travel a distance of 1 light-year (10 trillion km), or 7 days to travel 1 AU (about 150 million km)


  • 13.7 billion years ago, Universe born
  • 13.2 billion years ago, Milky Way born
  • 4.56 billion years ago, Sun born
  • 225-250 million years – Solar orbit of Sagittarius A* (Galactic Centre)
  • 88 million years – oscillation cycle of solar system during galactic orbit
  • 1,190 years – Solar system travels 1 light year
  • 7 days – Solar system travels 1 AU
  • 3-5 billion years hence, the Milky Way will collide and merge with the Andromeda galaxy.
  • 10 billion years hence, the Sun dies
  • 100 billion to 1 trillion years hence, the galaxies of the local group are expected to merge.

More tomorrow in Cycles of Life part 2.

311 Days to Dec 21st 2012

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