Some shallow thoughts on deep time

January 9, 2009 09:58 by Wayne Gerdtz

Above: Trilobites, fossil ferns and Diprotodon - all a bit older than me.  (Source: Museum Victoria)

Time is an odd sort of thing – I’m always losing it, but you can never get it back. For example, one year ago, my son wasn’t even born. Ten years ago, I was still at University. A thousand years ago, Vikings were doing their thing in Europe . A million years ago, ancestral humans hadn’t even formed recognisable civilisations. But 600 million years? It almost goes without saying, but that’s a very long time ago. As you can probably guess, quite a bit has changed on our planet in that time.

One of the challenges we’re facing with our new exhibitions in the Science and Life Gallery redevelopment is to make this sort of timescale comprehensible – the amount of time is so big that it is hard to wrap your head around. The first of the four exhibitions to open will be Dinosaur Walk, displaying dinosaur skeletons and others, aims to summarise the last 253 million years of land vertebrate evolution, starting just before the age of the dinosaurs, passing through the Mesozoic where dinosaurs, flying and marine reptiles ruled their domains, through to their extinction and the eventual rise (and demise) of the megafauna.

So how do you fit something as mind-bogglingly vast as hundreds of millions of years into an exhibition space less than 50 metres long at Melbourne Museum ? The answers to that are, with careful selection of display objects, some very clever (and patient) exhibition designers and an equally talented exhibition team!

And consider this - if you think that 253 million years sounds like a long time, the exhibition opening 12 months after Dinosaur Walk will go back in time more than twice as far, right back to the emergence of complex life on earth, around 600 million years ago. That exhibition will also include the stories of life underwater as well as on land, and the geological processes that have shaped the very land and seas themselves. So, soon you will be able to stroll through 600 million years of life and landscapes and 253 million years of skeletons before you have a mid-morning coffee at the Melbourne Museum Cafeteria.

I think I’ll go and have one myself right now….

‘I’d like to see how the cavemen got on with the dinosaurs…’

October 22, 2008 05:06 by Kate Phillips

Trying to visualise ane million years I a created a document with one million dots. Here is one page – it  takes 96 pages like this to hold one million dots.  

When we did some evaluation of ideas for exhibitions and talked about dinosaurs, only one out of the forty adults we interviewed said they would like to see how the dinosaurs and cavemen lived together (think ‘The Flintstones’), but that one was enough to remind me that not everyone has a scientific appreciation of the sequence of life on earth, let alone the mind-bogglingly long time periods over which happened. I’m only just getting comfortable with the idea of a million years myself. 

To get a mental image of one million, I created a word document with one million dots on it. I made the dots as small as possible and they covered the page – you can only just see them as separate dots. The document is 96 pages long, so I’ve only ever printed out one page. It was an interesting exercise! 

600 million years ago  (that is 600 000 000) is the time span for one of the new exhibitions. We start with the dawn of animal life (i.e. multicellular organisms) and end with the relative recent megafauna which became extinct a mere 40 000 years ago, or 0.04 million years ago. While I still struggle with these time spans, the palaeontologists and geologists at the museum think effortlessly in millions of years. 

I remember watching a documentary about Thylacaleo, or ‘marsupial lion’. A perfectly preserved 1 million-year-old skeleton was found in a cave in the Nullarbor. The animal probably fell into the cave and died. Then gradually dried out and remained undisturbed for one million years to be discovered by some intrepid cavers a few years ago. Just lying there for one million years …quite astounding really. But to my geologist friends here at the museum, that isn’t old, a mere million years – hardly any time at all…