Monday, January 3rd, 2011

Our Brief Fossil Record

I was supposed to be a geologist. It’s true: I know a lot more about dips and strikes, mass extinctions, the relative time scale (which I can recite thanks to the mnemonic “Please come over some day, maybe play poker, three jacks cover two queens”—look it up), dissolved oxygen, schist, gneiss, basalt pillow formations and various dramatic fault lines than I do about the current New York Times bestsellers list, or what’s trending on Twitter. I’m an editor, but I still spend a lot of time thinking about rocks. And water. Actually, saying I was supposed to be a geologist isn’t quite right: I was supposed to be a limnologist, an expert in fresh water.

This was thanks to a required science course in college, which sent me my first day of freshman year to Physical Geology and Dr. John Thomas, a tiny bald man with bad teeth who, for some reason, encouraged me to consider geology as a major. I had no better idea, and so signed up for the next class: Historical geology (i.e., fossils). Then: Mineralogy, Crystallography and Stratigraphy. I got a part time job using a bandsaw to cut rocks into pieces, and received a grant to do a study of the kidney-shaped Lake Lonely, upstate, during my sophomore summer. I spent a semester away from school not screwing my way across Europe, but sailing a two-masted schooner so far from land that stars actually looked like stars and the weather was so treacherous that I once had to be chained to a mast so as not to go overboard.

None of this means I learned survival skills; I wasn’t a geologist/hippie hybrid with a desire to live off the land, but a misfit who felt more comfortable floating in a fishing boat with her awkward middle-aged professor (not Dr. T, but another one), searching for life in a tiny, lonely lake than hanging out at the Icehouse, an awful bar in Saratoga Springs. I didn’t “collect” the high peaks of the Adirondacks; I didn’t dream of following Darwin’s footsteps in Patagonia. I certainly never camped. But I did learn how to imagine what the earth looked like without people: so much water and bizarre looking creatures with harsh, un-pet-like names. And, from sailing, and sitting up in the middle of the night on watch searching for pirate ships that would never materialize, I learned what it would feel like to be forgotten.

Weirdly, neither of those things—a world without people, or being forgotten—scare me too much; I don’t much like aging, but I don’t carry around much angst about death. The end of the world, as it exists in pop culture, is a science experiment instead of a horror show. I think I feel this way because when you study geology you accept that we humans are just another bunch of trilobites, inevitably if slowly headed for a mass extinction, and that the earth is more powerful than Fox News or any other monster we can create. We may ruin the atmosphere, but people still can’t make weather.

Hillary Frey is on slow-time.

9 Comments / Post A Comment

ShanghaiLil (#260)

I thought this was going to be about Hugh Hefner's engagement.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

You can't always go by the picture.

jfruh (#713)

Human civilization has been on the earth an incredibly short period of time, geologically speaking, that I've often wondered that if we do manage to drive ourselves to extinction in the next century or so, whether any trace of us would be left 20 or 30 million years hence, or if this geographic strata would just look like another climate bump and associated mass extinction like we had at the end of the Cretaceous (and other less famous but even more earth-cleansing events, like the one at the end of the Permian). This in turn has led me to wonder: what if the last 100K years or so of the Age of Dinosaurs saw the evolution of an intelligent dinosaur species, and what we interpret as an asteroid strike at the K-T boundary was actually an apocalyptic intelligent-dinosaur war that wiped out just about everybody and left the earth to the mammals?

Smart people to whom I have proposed this theory have told me that it's probably not true because our fossil fuel supplies pre-date the Cretaceous and probably would have been mined out by the brainy dinos. But I want my apocalyptic dinosaur war, damn it.

SeanP (#4,058)

Also: no technological remains of any kind have been found, and if dinosaur bones were preserved, dinosaur cars, airplanes, and buildings surely would have been preserved as well. And: the reason they think it was an asteroid is that there's a layer of iridium at the right place in the fossil record… which is consistent with an asteroid strike (apparently many of them are rich in iridium) but not with, say, a nuclear winter.

AnotherDave (#8,380)

Why do you have to go spoil a beautiful story with a bunch of 'facts'? Factist.

KenWheaton (#401)

So did you do SEAmester through what was once LIU/Southampton? Or another one?

SeanP (#4,058)

From the article: Please come over some day, maybe play poker, three jacks cover two queens

Wow, you're geology program was a lot more politically correct than mine. In my day it was "Paul can only see down my pants pocket, though John can't. That's queer"

And for the periods of the Cenozoic (in reverse order): "Recently, Paul prefers many odd erotic pleasures".

That Paul, what a weirdo.

SeanP (#4,058)

Hmmm. "Your". Edit function doesn't seem to be working.

Annie K. (#3,563)

I want to live on slow time too. The time I live on, it's always next Thursday. Can you tell me how to slow it all down?

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