“Engenders a sort of temporal vertigo” – Notes from Deep Time by Helen Gordon

IMG_2023-1-26-131846What’s deep time, eh? Helen Gordon, a novelist-turned-non-fiction-writer, sums it up as time imagined on ‘a larger, weirder scale’ than ‘human time’ (anthropocentric time or time conceived as a succession of human generations): millions and billions of years, the thought of which she says ‘engenders a sort of temporal vertigo’. And she’s not wrong. For example: Christianity is about two thousand years old, or, say, twenty-five human lifespans, going by current approximations in contemporary Britain. Now double that and add some: the oldest Egyptian pyramids were built around four and a half thousand years ago. Step it up again: the last Ice Age ended around ten thousand years ago. But humans – homo as a larger category, not simply homo sapiens sapiens – have been around for a couple of hundred thousand years. And the last of the non-avian dinosaurs died out sixty-six million years ago: that’s sixty-six thousand thousand years ago. This is deep time, but just the shallow end of it. Rewind another hundred and eighty-six million years, and we get to the start of the Triassic Period – the first of the three periods associated mainly with the dinosaurs. Old, right?  But before that, there was almost two hundred and ninety million years of the Palaeozoic Era, during which the Earth saw an explosion of plant life, sea-life and then land animals predating the dinosaurs; the earliest Period here was the Cambrian, which kicked off a little over five hundred and forty million years ago. But the Earth’s been around for 4.5 billion years: that means that all the above only accounts for one ninth of the planet’s history. Let that settle. Feeling vertiginous yet? From a deep time perspective, Tutankhamen is hardly even born yet.

In Notes from Deep Time, then, Gordon guides us through this dizzying span of Epochs and Periods and Eras. She shows us how and where deep time breaks into our daily lives: how we’re engaging with it, sometimes knowingly, sometimes not; how it’s engaging with us (volcanos!); and how we’ve got to engage with it into the future, like it or not. You’ll find out, for instance, where you can see four billion (!!) year old Archean rocks (Scotland!); the difference, geologically speaking, between London and Neapolitan architecture; how palaeobotanists date prehistoric plants; how researchers can breathe prehistoric air (and, more importantly, work out its chemical composition); the current thinking re. the projected ‘Big One’ at the San Andreas Fault; why the Channel Tunnel doesn’t run in a straight line; how we’re learning about the colouration of the dinosaurs; what people in different countries are proposing to do with their nuclear waste – which entails thinking not only in terms of the deep time of the past, but the deep time of the future.

What starts out, then, as a straightforward geology primer introducing us to deep time itself, rock types and formations, and the geologists and stratigraphers and other scientists, past and present, who’ve shaped their field(s) and in doing so shaped the way we think about the Earth itself, becomes an expansive exploration of multiple disciplines and political talking points – from the artist Olafur Eliasson’s work on climate change to the bitter wrangling between two nineteenth century fossil hunters, one of whom had his rival’s spine pickled after his death: TRUE FACT. It’s scrupulously well researched and referenced, includes a recommended reading list, and is, moreover, a beautiful and thoughtful read – Gordon really does bring a novelist’s eye for detail, pacing and humour to this ancient story about compressed and molten rocks and long-dead creatures.

Any Cop?: Thoroughly recommend this, especially with Christmas coming up, for general readers, science geeks, history fans, and basically anyone with more than a passing interest in this odd rock we call home, particularly with an eye to the damage we, as a species, are doing to it. And if you like the sound pf this, I also heartily recommend The Ends of the World, by Peter Brannen, an equally absorbing book about previous mass extinctions and the carbon cycle. More books like these, please!

Valerie O’Riordan

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