New year, new planet

Today, in Ian Cheney time, I woke in a small lighthouse in the middle of the Hudson River. Frost clung to the windowpanes. A morning train rattled along towards New York City. Ice skirred the edge of the banks. Phragmites rustled, victorious, as the sun broke on a glacially-carved landscape a few hours north of New York City. Feeling slightly hungover from an evening of Prosecco and oysters with old friends, I wandered downstairs to look for coffee and a toothbrush. 

Today, in Earth time, there’s a planet being made. Dark rocks, wet asteroids, and dusty chunks of primordial jetsam are slamming into each other and becoming a molten sphere. The sun is dimmer than the one we know today; it’ll brighten with age. But it’s bright enough to illuminate the swirling gases and dust that are violently coalescing to make Earth. I can’t fathom whether it sounds like anything; how does sound work when you’re making a planet? No cassette tapes from this era survive. 

Picturing this is tough, too. I’ve seen leaves swirling in mini-cyclones in vacant lots, but they don’t coalesce to make a sphere of leaves. I’ve made bread in a mixing bowl, stirring and kneading until it blobs together, ovoid and tacky to the touch. And at the ice rink near my parents’ house, where hesitant skaters slide in rough unison around an empty ellipse, I’ve survived a few knee-knocking collisions — but nothing on a planetary scale. 

Anyway, there’s no saying precisely how long this takes. Current models estimate it could take as little as tens of millions of years, or as long as hundreds, to pull together a planet Earth. Which means, on my current timescale, where 1 day of Ian Cheney time is equivalent to 33 million years of planet Earth time, you could theoretically make a planet in a day. 

Not spheres of water and ice on glass, looking towards the Hudson.

Not spheres of water and ice on glass, looking towards the Hudson.

There will surely be time for more discussions of planetary formation when my hungover head is not itself filled with tiny colliding rocks, so for now I’ll stick to comfortable territory. To things we know: in Iowa in the early 20th century, there were at least two gents named Clair. One was my great-grandfather, who eventually left the state to become a barnstormer. He settled in Texas. My sister was named after him. The other Clair was born in 1922 in central Iowa, and later - using lead dating - declared the age of the earth to be 4.55 billion years old. 

The logic behind this 2nd Clair’s work is fairly simple: the planet is as old as its building blocks. Since we think our planet is made of colliding rocks, if you find an unincorporated remnant - say, a meteorite - you can date the Earth. At least roughly. The Earth didn’t start the way 2015 started, with a chanted countdown and the precise pop of a Champagne cork. But I suppose, in its own way, a ball did drop into the solar system, and all was suddenly new.