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The Perspective of Time

November 8, 2009

Leaf ghosts in the Vancouver morning rain

I was in Portland, Oregon earlier this week, presenting a paper at the Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation meeting. This big conference attracted people who study all aspects of modern coasts, with a particular focus on human-caused environmental change. Even though it was very different from the paleontology-oriented meetings I usually attend, I decided to go to the CERF meeting because there was a special session on jellyfish blooms.

I have been studying fossil jellyfish for a few years, so this seemed like a great opportunity to meet some of the people who really know about modern jellies. It turned out to be a really interesting session, they were wonderful people, and we all went out for dinner afterward (at a Thai place and no, we didn’t eat any jellyfish). In the course of the evening’s conversation, there was one comment that really stuck with me.

One of the biologists said that she had enjoyed my talk, and that, “It really put all that we are doing into perspective. Here we are talking about jellyfish blooms in the past 10 years, and you are talking about jellyfish blooms half a billion years ago. When I hear paleontologists or astronomers I realize that what we are looking at is really just a little blip.”


Moon jellyfish (Aurelia) at the Vancouver Aquarium

When we compare ourselves to scientists examining present-day issues, it is obvious that paleontologists have to work on an incredibly broad scale. We don’t generally know what colour our creatures were, we cannot observe most of their behaviours, and we can’t see how their populations varied year-to-year, or even century-to-century. We also cannot generally apply some of the modern biological approaches involving genetics or biochemistry. But what we can bring is an understanding of how organisms have changed over long periods of time. We can see what creatures were present hundreds of millions of years ago, and determine what has been lost as the Earth has changed. Time is a powerful tool for the study of evolution, a tool that needs to be accepted, grasped, and used by biologists.

Time is also an under-used tool in our ongoing discussions with those who oppose a scientific understanding of the universe. They can argue all they like that Evolution by Natural Selection is “just a theory” (even though there irrefutable evidence that evolution itself is an undeniable fact). But the evidence for deep time is all around us.

This is why the creationists don’t spend much time talking about time; they don’t really want their audience to start examining the evidence. If people begin to recognize how much time has obviously passed, then of course it also becomes much easier for them to accept that the world and life have evolved.


Passing seasons: the Portland Classical Chinese Garden

Using our own senses, the time we perceive is measured in the passing of the seasons, the passing of years, and our own aging. We do not tend to be aware of time much beyond our own lifetimes, or perhaps the lifetimes of our parents or children. Educational systems, by and large, do a very poor job of teaching children about the existence of deep time. History classes are usually focused on the past few hundred years, and more and more the teaching of history seems to emphasize things that happened in the past century, or even the past few decades.

If we go outside and open our eyes to it, evidence of deep time is almost everywhere. It is in the landscape, the rocks, the oceans, the stars, even the gases that make up our atmosphere, but those who are not taught to read will get no benefit from sitting in an entire library of fabulous books.


Young landscape: a volcanic cone south of Mount St. Helens, with Mount Adams in the background

After I left Portland, I went to Vancouver, BC, for a day. Leaving Vancouver, I took the new Canada Line train to the airport. Standing in that packed car between the working mothers, uniformed flight crew heading to the airport, and pierced hipsters carrying skateboards, I realized that the train itself was a good metaphor for humanity’s relationship with time. And that relationship is also a partial explanation for why we treat the Earth’s precious resources in such a cavalier manner.

We had waited on the station platform, and for us the train did not exist until we saw its lights reflected from the advertisements on the tunnel wall. We got onto the train and rode along with the rest of humanity. Periodically, some of them would get off and new ones would get on, as we continued on our journey. The view outside changed as we travelled, from tunnel walls to malls and suburbs, but most passengers took little notice of this. When we arrived at our destination, we waited for the doors to open, got off, and left the train behind. Once we walked onto the platform, we gave the train no further thought (and those of us arriving at the airport were, of course, leaving the train so that we could ascend in another plane).


MAX Light Rail, Portland

Unlike most of the rest of humanity, paleontologists, geologists, and astronomers are  concerned about the history of our train. We want to know how it came to be, what stations it passed through before it arrived at our platform, and what will happen to it after we disembark. This work could well be important to all of us. If this train’s wheels fall off, do you think that another one will come along any time soon?


Portland Classical Chinese Garden

© Graham Young, 2009

6 Comments leave one →
  1. November 8, 2009 1:40 pm

    nice photos 🙂 really liked the 2 mountain peaks one.

  2. November 8, 2009 3:54 pm

    Great post. I think Deep Time trumps even plate tectonics as the most important concept in Earth science.

  3. Steven Kukla permalink
    November 9, 2009 6:14 pm

    The average person is totally unable of relating to the deep time (eons, eras epochs, etc.). Scientists & journalist have attempted to depict deep time using stacked bar graphics, hash-marked lengths, fast-forwarded animated clips, and other means. However, as analogies, I think they all lack in that they use visual means to convey a sense of time. We certainly understand and can feel what it is to wait, and we can experience time in moments, hours, days, months, years, decades, but we really lack the ability to fully experience the depths of geologic time. I have gained a better sense of deep time through my amateur fossil collecting and by reading some geology books (e.g. The Mountains of Saint Francis, by Walter Alvarez). But I still wonder how to convey a more visceral experience of deep time to the layman (in a sound bite, in a 30-second spot, or in a museum drive-by). Here’s a mashup idea for an innovative museum…add a deep time slider to Google Earth and let folks see how a locale map changes as you go back in time & perhaps add ability to access linked list of life-forms that lived in that locale (per the fossil record).

    • Graham permalink*
      November 9, 2009 6:31 pm

      Thank you everyone for the comments on this post so far!

      Deep time is certainly problematic in scale for the average person, even if it is inherently obvious in occurrence. I quite like using spatial scales to depict time; I have taught classes before where we used 1 mm to represent 100 years (i.e., your maximum possible lifespan), then started measuring: back to the start of civilization, back to the start of the ice ages, back to the end of the Cretaceous. It is very illuminating!


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