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A history of the universe - mapping the past

by Anthony Webb, 19 January 2024

History means looking back at the past. But the past is long and deep. You can easily find yourself adrift as you reach back through the aeons.

This timeline will provide you with a map. Everything from history, to prehistory and beyond to the beginning of the universe! It is not intended to tell you exactly when everything happened. It is designed to help you feel how long ago things occurred.

If this doesn't quite make sense right now, don't worry just keep reading!

Beginning ofthe UniverseNow

Right now

Relax. Lean back. Put your hands behind your head and close one eye. Imagine that you are lying on a little beach right at the far south-westernmost corner of the UK. On one side you have the sea and the waves, gently lapping at your beach towel. On the other the land, sloping up and away from you. A seagull wheels in the clear blue sky overhead, hoping to spot some unguarded sandwiches.

If you were to get up, stretch your legs and walk right the way to the other end of the UK, the northernmost point on the mainland, in Scotland, it would be a journey of 1,387.8 kilometres1.

By happy coincidence the age of the universe is calculated as 13.878 billion years. This means we can visualise the that has time elapsed since the big bang as a journey: from the northernmost mainland point of the UK (John O’Groats) - representing the beginning of the universe - to the southwestern most point in the UK (Land’s End) - representing the present day2.

Starting now, let’s go on this journey back in time together.

LondonCardiffEdinburghLength of UK = 1,350 km1,378.7 km = 13.787 billion years

We are going to break the journey down into stages. Each stage will be ten times longer than the previous one. So the first stage will be going back in time one year, then back ten years, then a hundred and so on.

Travelling back one year

↓ ten years

If we were to travel one year back in time along our path, we would cover the distance equal to the width of a single human hair - 0.1mm.

Hair width = 0.1mm0.1mm = 1 year

Because we have started now with you, think about some of the things that were most memorable for you over the year. For me it was celebrating Christmas, going to work (every day), my children’s birthdays and visiting China. All this was accomplished in the distance of 0.1mm as we traversed a hair’s-width!

Travelling back ten years

↓ one hundred years | ↑ one year

Travelling back ten years along our path covers a distance of 1 mm - crossing the width of ten hairs lined-up side by side, equal to the thickness of two or three of your fingernails.

What does the past decade mean to you? What about the country where you live? In the UK we have seen changes that feel significant: Britain has left the EU. COVID-19 caused big changes in how we live our lives. And on a happier personal note, I got married to my beautiful wife, and we had two lovely children!

Travelling back one hundred years

↓ one thousand years | ↑ ten years

Travelling back one hundred years will still only cover a paltry 1cm of our journey across the UK. This is equivalent to a journey across the width of your finger, or across from your eyeball from eyelid to eyelid.

Eyeball width = 1 cm 1 cm = 100 years

Last one hundred years

  1. 👶 We are all born 19XX...
  2. 💊 Birth control pill available 1961
  3. 🛫 Airplanes and war 1945
  4. 💉 Antibiotics 1920

Within this 1cm timeframe almost everyone alive today will have been born 👶. For the first time women had the possibility of establishing control over when / if they had children with the development of the Pill in the 1960s 💊. A hugely destructive global war was fought on land, sea and air - the second world war from 1939-1945 🛫. Antibiotics and other life saving medicines were developed in the 1920s 💉.

Travelling back one thousand years

↓ ten thousand years | ↑ one hundred years

A journey of 1,000 years covers a mere 10cm of our trip across the UK. About the distance from your eye to your mouth let’s say - so you don’t have to get up and go anywhere just yet.

Face height = 10 cm10 cm = 1,000 years

Last one thousand years

  1. ✨ Stars recognised as suns 1840
  2. 🌍 World is (almost) all mapped 1770
  3. ⛵ Europeans invade Americas 1492
  4. 🔫 Guns and cannons 1250

On the scale of a thousand years humanity has finally become aware of deep space, figuring out in 1840 or so that stars and the sun are the same giant balls of burning gas and the stars are really really really far away ✨. It wasn’t that much earlier in the late 18th century that humans had managed to map the whole world, sailing ships around and charting the coastlines, with Australia being one of the last places to be mapped from 1770 🌍. Humans all over the world were finally reunited with the European invasion of the Americas kicking off in 1492 ⛵. Close to the beginning of our thousand year period guns and cannons were invented 🔫, seeing use from about 1250 or so and going on to become wildly popular with everyone.

Back in time ten thousand years

↓ one hundred thousand years | ↑ one thousand years

Going back in time ten thousand years in our journey to the beginning of the universe will take us precisely one metre along our trip across the UK. We still won’t even have left our beach towel - a metre being, say, from your head to your legs.

Torso = 1m1m = 10,000 years

Last ten thousand years

  1. 🧙‍♂️ Stonehenge 2500 BCE
  2. 👑 Cities and kings 4000 BCE
  3. 🌊 Channel forms, Europe cut off 6500 BCE
  4. 🌾 Agriculture takes root 9000 BCE

Each 10 cm eats up a thousand years: in 20cm we have reached the heyday of the Roman empire. In 30cm the ancient Greeks have come and gone. Within this timeframe we will witness the entirety of written history, with kings, cities, writing and whatnot kicking off in about 4000 BCE 👑 60cm from our starting point.

In the UK we might stop off to watch the construction of stonehenge in 2500 BCE 🧙‍♂️, and the flooding of the channel in 6500 BCE 🌊 or 80cm away. Before this you could have walked between the UK and France. Right at the earliest part of the ten thousand year span - a metre from our starting point - agriculture takes root from about 9000 BCE 🌾.

Travelling back one hundred thousand years

↓ one million years | ↑ ten thousand years

To go back one hundred thousand years you are finally going to have to get to your feet and walk ten metres - perhaps to the edge of the beach if it is a very thin one.

Strip of beach = 10m10m = 100,000 years

Last one hundred thousand years

  1. 😎 Stable warm climate 11,500 years age
  2. 🎨 Cave painting 40,000 years ago
  3. 🏹 Bows and arrows 60,000 years ago
  4. 🩲 Clothes 100,000 years ago

As you leave your towel you will find the temperature noticeably drops: the 11,500 years of stable warm conditions that we are used to in the holocene 😎 will be replaced by the most recent ice age. About halfway across the little strip of beach - five strides away - you might spot some of the earliest cave paintings from 40,000 years ago 🎨. Soon after we will see humans shooting bows and arrows for the first time 🏹. Right at the edge of the beach - 100,000 years ago, or ten big steps - you will notice that humans have just started wearing clothes 🩲: for the rest of our journey back in time everyone will be naked.

Travelling back one million years

↓ ten million years | ↑ one hundred thousand years

In our time-scale a million years is represented by a hundred metres. In our map of the UK this will get us from the beach to the cafe or car park.

To car park = 100m100m = 1 million years

Last one million years

  1. 🥶 Ice ages, most of the time
  2. 😀 Modern humans evolve 300,000 years ago
  3. 🔥 Human-made fires 400,000 years ago
  4. 🧔 First Neanderthals 500,000 years ago

This million years will almost all be cold, with glaciers continually flowing to and fro 🥶. At about 300,000 years ago, or 30 metres, we will meet the first modern human 😀. Hi! Going back another hundred thousand years to 400,000 years ago we will see the first human controlled fires 🔥. From now on it’s going to feel even colder. At about halfway to the car park we will encounter the first Neanderthal too 🧔‍ who will grunt and throw us a wary glance.

Travelling back ten million years

↓ one hundred million years | ↑ one million years

Now we actually have to stretch our legs a bit, taking 15 minutes to walk a kilometre - ten million years. This might take us to the next farmhouse as we trudge down the road.

To next farm = 1km1km = 10 million years

Last ten million years

  1. 🐒 Ape common ancestors lived 6 mya
  2. 🚶 “Walking around” humans 3 mya
  3. 👄 Language develops, 1.8 mya (disputed!)
  4. 🪓 Nice looking hand axes 1.5 mya

Quite close to the start of our stroll we will see the first nice looking hand axes, made about 1.5 million years ago (mya) in Africa 🪓. A little further on at 1.8 mya we may be lucky enough to witness the first ever conversation between humans with the evolution of language 👄. (The timing of this is heavily disputed with others dating it to less than 100,000 years ago!) From now on there will be no more chit chat on our journey.

At 3 million years ago - after 300 metres walked - we will see the first (non-tottering) steps as humans get the hang of bipedal locomotion 🚶. At just over half of the distance to the farm we will meet our most recent common ancestors with the great apes who was a sociable chimpanzee like fellow from 6 mya 🐒.

Going back one hundred million years

↓ one billion years | ↑ ten million years

We are now going to walk a bit further - half a day’s walking at 10km. This will take us to the next village and a hundred million years ago.

St JustSt BuryanPorthcurnoTo next village = 10km10km = 100 million years

Last one hundred million years

  1. 🌺 First flowers bloom 100 mya
  2. 🦖 Dinosaur extinction 65 mya
  3. 🐎 Tiny horses evolves 50 mya
  4. 🌄 Himalayas start their ascent 40 mya

After we have been walking for an hour or so, we might remark upon the very beginnings of the Himalayan mountain range from about 40 mya 🌄. At the moment they are the merest undulations in the ground, as the Indian sub-continent has only just crashed headlong into the Asian landmass - careering along at an irresponsible 5cm a year.

At 50 mya we will notice the first horses - cute little animals the size of dogs 🐎. At 65 million years ago and 6.5 km down the road we will witness the sudden and fiery demise of the dinosaurs 🦖 + the marine reptiles + the pterosaurs. Birds will make it through the apocalypse along with the unassuming shrew like mammals who are our ancient ancestors. Just as we reach the village 10km away from where we started we will see the first flowers, evolving at about 100 mya 🌺. It will be a much less colourful journey from here.

Travelling back one billion years

↓ 13.878 billion years | ↑ one hundred million years

Our journey is now going to cover 100 km as we walk back one billion years. This will be a week of walking, the distance you might expect to cover to reach the nearest sizable town.

NewquayFalmouthPenzanceBodminTo the next big town = 100km100km = 1 billion years

Last one billion years

  1. 🦐 First decent (sea) animals 550 mya
  2. 🐜 Life on land 440 mya
  3. 🌴 Trees 385 mya
  4. 🦕 Dawn of dinosaurs 245 mya

On our second day of walking, at 245 million years ago, we will witness the dawn of the dinosaurs - leggy little creatures darting about which will eventually become the largest land animals to ever walk the earth 🦕. A day or so further on we will pass the first trees at 385 mya 🌴. Perhaps later on the same day (440 mya) we will witness life’s first tentative forays into dry land 🐜: from this point on all the action will be in the sea and we will be traversing a desert. Just after the midway point of our week’s walking (550 mya) we will see the world’s first decent animals, scurrying back and forth on the ocean floor 🦐. After this, life will mostly be too small for us to see.

If we think back to the start of our journey we can appreciate just how much time has passed. Remember that each metre long stride we take will eat up 10,000 years. A single stride length at the beginning of the journey was enough to see the development of everything we associate with civilization from crops, to swords, to cities and computers. It has taken us 55,000 of these metre long periods to reach the genesis of animals and plants on earth.

If we were to stop and lay a finger down on the road, the width of our finger - about a cm - represents one hundred years. Longer than the vast majority of human lifespans. Behind us: miles and miles of travelled road. Ahead of us: the path winds on yet further.

Travelling back 13.878 billion years

↑ one billion years

This is our last stage, taking in the remaining 92.5% of the journey! It’s going to be 1,387.8 km, less the 100 km we have already walked. Google tells me that it will take 2 to 3 months to complete on foot. I think it is best not to rush so you can enjoy the scenery on the way!

LondonCardiffEdinburghLength of UK = 1,350 km1,378.7 km = 13.787 billion years

Last 13.878 billion years

  1. 💥 Universe begins 13.8 bya
  2. 🌌 Milky way galaxy forms 13.6 bya
  3. 🪐 Sun and planets form 4.6 bya
  4. 🦠 Life on earth begins 4 bya
  5. 💩 Multicellular life starts 1.5 bya

The first important milestone will be the start of multicellular life. The dates are disputed but it could be argued to be a strain of red algae at 1.5 billion years ago, or some other blob of amorphous matter 💩. After about a month - a third of the way into this leg and 4 bya - we will pass a truly momentous occasion: first life 🦠. Unfortunately we will probably miss it, taking place at an undersea vent and on a microscopic scale.

Just a few days later at 4.6 bya we will witness the formation of our solar system, both sun and and planets 🪐. We will just have to do our best to keep going despite the lack of solid ground.

We keep going kilometre after kilometre, the weeks pass by. Our view now is always countless stars which seem to be getting closer together as we walk back in time. With just two days left of our epic three month journey we stop and appreciate the formation of the milky way galaxy at 13.6 billion years ago 🌌.

And finally after three months of walking we have made it: the beginning of the universe at 13.878 billion years ago. Things have been getting pretty weird on the last day until, with just 3.7 metres to go, the intense heat and pressure has fractured our atoms into their constituent elements. Luckily our momentum carries us forward and a little pile of quarks plops down at the very edge of the land of northern Scotland. A hideous crunch 💥 and... nothing.

Back to the present

It feels wrong to leave us here, squished into an impossibly small point at the wrong end of the universe. So travelling forward in time, again breaking it into stages, each stage ten times smaller than the last...

  • From 13.878 billion years 💥🌌🪐🦠💩
  • From 1 billion years ago 🦐🐜🌴🦕
  • From 100 million years ago 🌺🦖🐎🌄
  • From ten million years ago 🐒🚶‍♀️👄🪓
  • From one million years ago 🥶🧔🔥😀
  • From one hundred thousand years ago 🩲🏹🎨😎
  • From ten thousand years ago 🌾🌊👑🧙‍♂️
  • From one thousand years ago 🔫⛵🌍✨
  • From one hundred years ago 💉🛫💊
  • Until finally, miraculously, you are born! 👶

Or if you would prefer to do the journey in one go:

💥~🌌🪐🦠💩~🦐🐜🌴🦕~🌺🦖🐎🌄~🐒🚶‍♀️👄🪓~🥶🧔🔥😀~🩲🏹🎨😎~🌾🌊👑🧙‍♂️~🔫⛵🌍✨~💉🛫💊👶

...leaving you back on the beach, looking ahead over the sparkling blue-green sea.

Anthony Webb, London UK


General notes:

  • All the drawings were done using the excellent online https://excalidraw.com/ program, which I would urge everyone to give a try, it's great fun!
  • A lot of the dates are uncertain in this timeline: they are all approximate to some extent of course, but hopefully I have used the right frame of reference. If I have made any howlers though please do let me know: popularhistorybooks@gmail.com!

  1. Approximately - the actual distance would depend on your exact route. ↩︎

  2. This is going to be an unashamedly anthropocentric timeline - if you were a nematode worm for example you would likely have a very different view of the past. But then again, if you were a nematode worm you would be unlikely to be reading this. ↩︎

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