PESGB June 2008

Sun 01 June 2008

Category: Magazines

“Time – he’s waiting in the wings
He speaks of senseless things
His script is you and me, boy”

– David Bowie, on the US Ziggy Stardust Tour, New Orleans, November 1972.

In late 1972, whilst not skipping off to Bowie or Mott the Hoople gigs, I was gearing up for A Level exams. The “script” would shortly take me on to read Geology at Southampton University. By chance I was back at the Alma Mater last weekend, for the first time in many years, and initially had trouble locating the old Geology building during my wallow in nostalgia. Although still standing, the Shackleton Building, the location of three happy years of study and camaraderie, now houses the Geography and Psychology Departments. To add to my confusion at least two thirds of the buildings appeared to have been built after my time, or face lifted – making orientation a bit difficult. At least the Student Union bar, the Hartley Library and the Nuffield Theatre are still standing as good reference points! Of course, although long enough for a lot to change, 36 years is no great shakes in the great scheme of things. Historians are trained to consider the relevance of time back to the first writing, say 4000 years, archaeologists have the brains to consider the entire history of Homo Sapiens over the past 200 thousand years but as geoscientists we are lucky to have even more of an understanding of the concept of time. Our terms of reference, for those of us working in the North Sea say, regularly extend our thinking back 400 million years to the time of deposition
of the reservoir sands in Clair or Buchan or the lacustrine source rocks of the Inner Moray Firth. At a stretch, some of us probably even have at least some grasp of the entire history of the earth since its formation 4.6 billion years ago. In the context of the Global Warming debate, the paleoclimatologists within the geoscience community have a responsibility here to express their knowledge of the facts, concerning the previous naturally occurring paleo warming and cooling events that are evident from the rock record, as clearly as possible so that the debate can be an informed one. At a recent evening gathering of geoscientists I was lucky to have a conversation with an astrogeologist. Apparently cosmologists are pretty much agreed that the universe began with a big bang some 13.27 billion years ago (give or take 200 million years). If that’s so then even the geologist’s 4.6 billion years term of reference is sadly inferior. To stop my new friend getting
too superior I asked the obvious question “What came before the Big Bang?” The answer is that the deepest questions about our cosmic origins cannot be answered within the framework of existing physical theory. Here physics merges with philosophy and even theology – so I guess we all have our limits.

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