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Andrew Alden

Denver Day 3 (GSA 2010 Annual Meeting)

By November 2, 2010

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The weather has been superb this week, but I'm too busy dashing about to enjoy it. Instead, this morning I attended a session on the history of geology that covered a lot of ground before the typical signposts of geologic history, which begins in the textbooks with Steno (Neils Stensen) in the mid-1600s. Just as the Proterozoic Eon can be seen as a long struggle of the Earth against atmospheric oxygen until oxygen won, so can the Medieval and Renaissance periods be seen as the struggle of the Church against nature until nature won. More precisely, the Medieval thinkers were concerned with showing how the Earth, which God declared good way back in Genesis, fits in all its grimy detail with the great symmetrical divine plan. But the deeper they got into the details and the more respect they granted to the evidence of nature, the harder it became to sum it all up in a beautiful diagram—and we were shown many of those from the Middle Ages. But to today's "intelligent designers" and creationists, the thousand-year argument that ended with science ascendent might as well never have happened. Truly those who know no history are doomed to repeat it.

Walter Alvarez took the opportunity to tell the audience about his new emphasis on "Big History," a way to think about (maybe) and teach (certainly) Earth science in a more general and interdisciplinary context that includes cosmic and human history. (He mentioned Preston Cloud's Cosmos, Earth and Man (1968) as a worthy predecessor, but he was grateful when I reminded him that Cesare Emiliani's Planet Earth is another.) Its most tangible product is the ChronoZoom site under development at the University of California Berkeley, where Alvarez teaches. The time scale lets you zoom in and out of all 13.7 billion years of Big History.

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