Turning back time
THIS week’s recommendation is strictly for the science nerds out there.
OK, now that everyone else has stopped reading and left us all to ourselves, let’s talk about palaeontology, history, geology and really big numbers, shall we? A new four- part series beginning on ABC1 tonight will have you looking at the Australian landscape in an entirely new way.
Australia: The Time Traveller’s Guide explores our country through the eyes of filmmaker and marine biologist Dr Richard Smith as he traces the entire evolution of the Earth through the varied and ancient landscapes of Australia.
If you know where to look, it is possible to find a patch of ground from every phase of the Earth’s existence somewhere in Australia, meaning it is possible to simply jump in your car and travel back in time.
Dr Smith uses the tongue- in- cheek contrivance of a time- warping GPS system to transport his four- wheel- drive back in time along the highway, going all the way back to 4.5 billion years ago, to visit the Earth as it looked when it first formed from an inward- falling cloud of debris in our infant solar system.
Obviously, he isn’t really going back in time, but the fact he can so easily touch every stage of history just by zooming along a few highways is quite remarkable. He visits a spot in Western Australia with crystalised minerals formed during the Earth’s fiery birth, and a beach with some of the oldest lifeforms still on the planet.
In subsequent episodes, Dr Smith’s time- travelling car takes us through each phase of Earth’s vast geological history, taking in the dinosaurs, megafauna and the arrival of humans in Australia.
It really is quite amazing to see just how ancient some of our landscape is, from sedimentary rock showing direct evidence of the first oxygen being produced on the planet, through to more conventional fossils.
But what will really make your head hurt is the sheer size of the numbers we’re talking about.
Dr Smith says to really appreciate this story, we need to have a concept of ‘‘ deep time’’.
The Earth is about 4.5 billion years old, but that just sounds like another big number until you put it in context.
Dr Smith’s time- travelling car zips back in time at one million years a minute, rocketing back towards the birth of our planet. At that rate it takes him only a fraction of a second to reach an Australia before the arrival of Europeans; within just a few more seconds, he has passed the arrival of the first Aboriginal inhabitants. In just a few minutes he is passing the time of the megafauna; in an hour he is entering the age of the dinosaurs, a period which takes him three hours to traverse.
If that is not already putting human history into perspective as the cosmological blink of an eye it truly is, it will still take him about 2 ½ days to reach the point where the first microbial forms of life began to evolve and nearly four days to reach the dawn of time on Earth.
There’s plenty more where that came from. Enjoy the trip!