I have always taken more interest in cultural themes and steered away from science. However, it strikes me that culture so easily separates people, while science can connect people, regardless of their personal or professional background. For this reason, I have been making regular visits to the ROM’s Life Galleries, and have started to write about my experiences.
The first concept I needed to come to terms with was the geological time scale (GTS). Here is the Wikipedia definition:
The geological time scale is a system of chronological dating that relates geological strata (stratigraphy) to time, and is used by geologists, paleontologists, and other Earth scientists to describe the timing and relationships of events that have occurred during Earth’s history.
The length of the GTS is calculated with remarkable precision: 4.543 billion “years.” Scientists know that the GTS is a useful abstraction – not an absolute accounting. (After all, the “earth-year” is a relative term, and even if it had an absolute value, we could never prove that this value was a constant over billions of years.) Although this device is useful for scientists, it does not preclude the use of alternative devices. Consider, for instance, the poetry of William Blake:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
Imagine the effect of posting this poem alongside the GTS at the opening of an exhibit. Perhaps this would be seen as unscientific. In practice, however, I think it would stimulate a much higher level of engagement. No longer a finished concept, the GTS becomes a structure for further inquiry and exploration.
The Dawn of Life Preview Gallery is a great place to practice. It contains many stunning specimens, models and 3D animations of lifeforms from the Burgess Shale – truly inspiring! And I can grasp conceptually how today’s lifeforms (including my own!) are directly related to these ancient creatures. It becomes a more visceral experience when I contemplate the statement: ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. I suddenly realize that my own organism went through the same embryonic phases as did these creatures: the past is present!
The geological time scale is a very useful tool, but it does not tell the whole story.