Fossil Moments, June 2012
Back in June I went to Portland in Dorset and spent some time fossil hunting on Chesil beach. One of the many finds was a perfect little fossilised Trigonia, which I pulled out of a rock – what a thrill that was! I wanted to learn what I could about it so I looked in the Youth Hostel library and found a lovely old book which I'm sure my parents had: British Fossils (Morrison & Gibb Ltd 1951). I then proceeded to try and get my head around fossils and time!
This picture is the fossil next to its old home - you can see here how snugly it fitted inside. The original trigonia has gone but what's left it an imprint, an echo of its shape. According to the book it's a mollusc. It would have had a pair of shells, hinged on one side, and two valves. The shape I pulled of of the rock is the inside of the shell. It shows where the muscles were. My one is slightly unusual because the two halves have pulled apart at the hinge. And it's 150 million years old.
150 million years is a time span impossible to perceive. I can just about imagine 100 years and possibly 500. 1000 is a struggle. So 1000 times 1000, or a million, is way out there. If I could comfortably imagine 1 million, I could probably imagine 150 of them. Like so many things in the universe (other dimensions, certain frequencies of light etc.) 150 million years is a provable thing but it's impossible for us humans to register with these bodies.
So 150 million years ago, my little trigonia was flapping around the sea floor, sucking sea water in through one valve, pushing it out through the other. And where were the humans? Just a glimmer in some dinosaur's eye. Check out this timeline. The dinosaurs were around much longer than I had realised. And look at what happened in the Permian era when 90% of sea life was killed just like that! The mammals were putting in an appearance 150 million years ago and our direct ancestors, the primates, only arrived 65 million years ago.
Like most people, my knowledge of fossils and geographic history is pretty limited. I've seen Jurassic Park, I know coal is something to do with it and I know that the plant, horsetail, is a 'living fossil'. So I find it helpful to focus on landmarks like my fossil being 150 million years old. Learning that coal is 280 million years old, older than the earliest mammals and even dinosaurs is very interesting. But knowing that coal is even older than I imagined heightens my anxiety about the rate at which we're releasing that carbon back into the air when we burn fossil fuels. It makes the idea that humans are affecting the climate, after such a short time on the planet (relatively speaking), kind of horrific.
British Fossils wasn't the only book I read while staying at Portland Youth Hostel. A fellow resident insisted on lending me a book by Diana Cooper, called 2012 and Beyond. I skimmed through it and got the sense that she is a bit of nutter, going on about unicorns, aliens and angels. Then I read a bit more carefully and became concerned. Here was someone arguing that people being killed in tsunamis etc are dying as part of Gaia's great cleansing and that the individuals concerned had consented to be 'taken' (but that this conversation had been wiped from their memories). She argued that the chosen people will ascend into the fifth dimension and that some children are being born with extra DNA so that they'll be able to perceive the 'higher frequencies' of the fourth and fifth dimensions. People – intelligent, considerate, caring people – are getting into this baloney. It's the worst case of bargaining and denial I've come across.
I can see why, when presented with a choice of contemplating a mass extinction or heading off into a 'new' dimension, some people would be tempted to choose the latter. For myself, I'm very grateful to the space-time continuum and the wink of an eye that makes up my turn (our turn) on the planet (which I got given for free, with no strings attached) because it's all relative.
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. (William Blake)
I wonder how many people will decide that this world, this heaven, this infinity, this eternity, is not enough? Sadly, I think they'll find there isn't an "opt out" clause for us, any more than there was for that beautifully preserved Trigonia.
Images: Trigonia (author's); Time line from http://sciencemax.pbworks.com/w/page/25910486/beylifestory
Additional video: Chesil Beach: http://youtu.be/o08R_1XLqNU