The Abyss of Time: A Study in Geological Time and Earth History

The Abyss of Time: A Study in Geological Time and Earth History

The Abyss of Time: A Study in Geological Time and Earth History

The Abyss of Time: A Study in Geological Time and Earth History

Synopsis

Geologists are among that group of scientists who must factor the passage of time into their investigations and they thus have a perspective on time that sets them apart from many other researchers. The proposition that geological time is vast, encompassing thousands of millions of years, is relatively recent. It is a concept that remains controversial and unacceptable to many people today who still consider the Earth to have been made to a timetable covering no more than ten thousand years. Paul Lyle examines how our fascination with time has developed from our earliest ancestors' recognition of the cycles of the sun and the moon. It considers the passage of time as a series of non-repeatable events, Time's Arrow, in contrast to time as a series of repeated processes, Time's Cycle, both of which can be used to explain geological features on the Earth's surface. The author argues for a greater understanding of geological or 'deep time' as society becomes more aware of the vulnerability of the Earth's resources to over-exploitation by an expanding consumer society. This debate and the controversy surrounding global warming emphasises the importance of geological time to the process of economic and political decision-making. It is a book for those interested in the intellectual challenge presented by the extent of geological time. It is written for environmentalists and policy-makers who wish to better place their concerns and decisions in proper context but, above all, it is a book that offers to share a geologist's appreciation of time with the widest possible audience.

Excerpt

The idea for this book originated in a series of lectures for the general public which I gave in the Ulster Museum in Belfast in the autumn of 2005, on the theme of time and the geological history of Ireland. These lectures were well attended and the numbers of those turning up stayed high, even as the nights grew longer and the weather became more inclement. This suggested there was an interest in the concept of time in geology that was not being met elsewhere at that time. Hutton’s famous phrase – ‘we see no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end’, although flawed, clearly struck a chord with many of the audience. Perhaps for the first time they were thinking directly about the extent of time in Earth history, of time passing and of their place in the continuum of time, if indeed it is a continuum. Geologists, by the nature of their training, perceive time in a different way from non-geologists. A view of any landscape is automatically interpreted in terms of the age of the rocks that form that scenery and the landscape is also interpreted as a sequence of events in Earth history. This ability to ‘read the landscape’ adds a further dimension to the appreciation of the world around us but also allows a greater understanding of our place in the grand scheme of things, on Earth, in the Solar System and in the universe. It is clear that there is a poor understanding in general of the extent of geological time.

Recent surveys taken in the USA have shown that almost half the population there believe that human beings were created in their present form around 10,000 years ago. There is also a poor understanding of the order in which events in Earth history took place. Many people believed that certain events had occurred simultaneously when in fact they were separated by a considerable amount of time. A good example of this is the widespread belief that dinosaurs and humans were on the Earth simultaneously. A further cause for surprise is that, as well as this level of ignorance about time, there was also no apparent concern over their lack of knowledge among those polled. It seems that those enthusiasts who turned out for my lectures were very much an interested minority.

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