In the science of geology, there are two main ways we use to describe how old a thing is or how long ago an event took place. When you say that I am 38 years old or that the dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago, or that the solar system formed 4.6 billion years ago, those are absolute ages.
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.
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.
On other solid-surfaced worlds -- which I'll call "planets" for brevity, even though I'm including moons and asteroids -- we haven't yet found a single fossil.
Something else must serve to establish a relative time sequence. Earth is an unusual planet in that it doesn't have very many impact craters -- they've mostly been obliterated by active geology.
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.
Look closely at the Geologic Time Scale chart, and you might notice that the first three columns don't even go back 600 million years.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.Here's the next step in that journey: the Geologic Time Scales of Earth and the Moon.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.With this kind of uncertainty, Felix Gradstein, editor of the For clarity and precision in international communication, the rock record of Earth's history is subdivided into a "chronostratigraphic" scale of standardized global stratigraphic units, such as "Devonian", "Miocene", " ammonite zone", or "polarity Chron C25r".