The Geologic Time Scale is up there with the Periodic Table of Elements as one of those iconic, almost talismanic scientific charts.Long before I understood what any of it meant, I'd daydream in science class, staring at this chart, sounding out the names, wondering what those black-and-white bars meant, wondering what the colors meant, wondering why the divisions were so uneven, knowing it represented some kind of deep, meaningful, systematic organization of scientific knowledge, and hoping I'd have it all figured out one day.The chronostratigraphic scale is an agreed convention, whereas its calibration to linear time is a matter for discovery or estimation. We can all agree (to the extent that scientists agree on anything) to the fossil-derived scale, but its correspondence to numbers is a "calibration" process, and we must either make new discoveries to improve that calibration, or estimate as best we can based on the data we have already.To show you how this calibration changes with time, here's a graphic developed from the previous version of Fossils give us this global chronostratigraphic time scale on Earth.The more fossils you find at a location, the more you can fine-tune the relative age of this layer versus that layer.Of course, this only works for rocks that contain abundant fossils.Major boundaries in Earth's time scale happen when there were major extinction events that wiped certain kinds of fossils out of the fossil record.
There are absolute ages and there are relative ages. We use a variety of laboratory techniques to figure out absolute ages of rocks, often having to do with the known rates of decay of radioactive elements into detectable daughter products.This all has to do with describing how long ago something happened. There are several ways we figure out relative ages.The simplest is the law of superposition: if thing A is deposited on top of (or cuts across, or obliterates) thing B, then thing B must have been there already when thing A happened, so thing B is older than thing A.That last, pink Precambrian column, with its sparse list of epochal names, covers the first four billion years of Earth's history, more than three quarters of Earth's existence. Paleontologists have used major appearances and disappearances of different kinds of fossils on Earth to divide Earth's history -- at least the part of it for which there are lots of fossils -- into lots of eras and periods and epochs.
When you talk about something happening in the Precambrian or the Cenozoic or the Silurian or Eocene, you are talking about something that happened when a certain kind of fossil life was present.
Topics: Earth, the Moon, geology, explaining science, Late Heavy Bombardment A few days ago, I wrote a post about the basins of the Moon -- a result of a trip down a rabbit hole of book research.