Turn­ing back time

Sunday Tasmanian - Tassie Living - - Television - TIM MARTAIN

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!

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