[18 June 2008]
Let’s just say that the making of Earth into the agreeably hospitable planet it is today took considerably longer than seven days. But the Genesis myth has this one advantage over the geologically determined age and history of the planet: it’s easy to get your brain around it. But taking 4.5 billion years, on the other hand, is such a staggeringly ginormous amount of time that the mind positively reels, starts to sputter and then short circuits.
That span of time, compared to our puny human lifetimes, is so astronomically huge as to seem infinite, to seem immeasurable and depthless. Scientists call it deep time, time measured both in temporal length, and in the tactile depth of geologic strata in the earth, by which we measure the age of the planet – I call it all a massive headache.
The History Channel’s How the Earth was Made makes a valiant effort to provide a crash course in the history and evolution of our planet, and mostly succeeds. Cramming as much bewildering detail and fact into 90 minutes as is possible, the program takes us from the point of conception 4.5 billion years ago, when the earth was just a swirling amorphous blob of gas and dust, to the much more environmentally stable (though not actually, as it turns out) present.
The story of the planet beings, though, in 1788, with Scottish farmer and life long rock enthusiast James Hutton (now considered the father of modern geology) musing on layers of rock on the coast of Edinburgh, and wondering how certain layers of volcanic rock and shale penetrated others at right angles. Somehow, by his figuring, he determined that the building up of layers and layers of rock occurred not over hundreds of years, or thousands of years, but hundreds of thousands or millions of years.
It was the first attempt of Enlightenment era science to set an age for Earth contrary to Church doctrine (which had Earth at about 6,000 years old), and would be built upon through the 19th and early 20th century, until radiometric dating of uranium-lead ratios stretched the age of the planet to its current accepted number.
So then, with a bit of impressive CGI help, we jump back 4.5 billion years to the planet’s birth out of the accretion of dust, gas, and meteoric bombardment into a molten sphere. About half a billion years in, after a crust solidifies, water overspreads the planet. No one is exactly sure where the water came from – there’re hints of extraterrestrial origins, though of the mundane variety (mere meteorite bombardment). Then, about 3.5 billion years ago, an upsurge in underwater volcanic activity gives rise (quite literally) to proto-continents, formed out of granite (much more buoyant and tough a rock than what had been kicking around).
And then about another billion years later, the first evidence of life on the planet appeared in the lumpish forms of stromatolites. Mysterious and basically unknown until 30 years ago, stromatolites themselves are not alive, but they are evidence of the existence of microorganisms, which formed these coral like structures out of sedimentary grains.
The key significance of the stromatolites, though, was their role in the oxidization of the atmosphere, which until then had been mostly carbon dioxide. The introduction of an oxygen heavy atmosphere opened the door for the flourishing of more complex life forms, the evolution of which would wax and wane over the next couple billion years.
So with all the major players on board now – water, continents, life – the Earth began repeating the cycles of calm and violence which would shape and scar its surface for the next 2.5 billion years. With the shifting of tectonic plates, the continents would spend millions of years drifting together, colliding and cohering into supercontinents, and then violently breaking apart again.
For example, the formation of the original supercontinent, Rodinia (about one billion years ago), lead to the Earth becoming totally encased in ice. The subsequent under-ice volcanic eruptions lead to the break up of the continents and eventual thawing of the planet, leading to the flourishing of new life. And so on. This would carry on, again and again, down through to the age of the dinosaurs, which were around to ride out the break-up of the last supercontinent, Pangea.
After the great mass extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, when a giant meteorite slammed into what is now the Gulf of Mexico, the pace picks up considerably, and the planet races down to its present age, witnessing the rise of mammals, and man, and the continual wax and wane of ice ages. More than anything, the plowing of the earth by enormous glaciers, coupled with the continual collision of plates, is responsible for shaping the world as we see it now.
It won’t be like this forever, though, obviously, and the end, the show posits in its rather depressing last ten minutes, dramatic climatic change probably isn’t too far off, at least for an Earth habitable by humans. We are living in the window between ice ages, and it’s just a matter of time before the inevitable march of glaciers lays waste to huge swaths of highly populated areas. Coupled with continental drift, we are headed back to the freezer and then another supercontinent pile up, and then… Well, who knows what? Another plague of world wide volcanic activity? Another period of the planet being totally encased in ice?
I made a point in a previous review about the History Channel’s series The Universe that it seemed that the universe was doing everything in its power to wipe us out (see The Universe: The Complete Season One). But it seems our own planet is in league against us, as well—and we don’t even get to pick our own poison. Death from without, death from within? Death by ice, death by fire, death by a massive intergalactic gamma ray burst? In the end it’s all the same.
But seriously, How the Earth was Made is just too fascinating and rich to leave one dwelling on such morbid thoughts. If the program has any faults, it may be its economy. A mere 90 minutes is far to brief to tackle such an enormous subject, and the show is so densely packed, and moves so quickly, that it tends to overwhelm. It invites lots of head scratching, rewinding and entire rewatching. I did a lot of this myself, I still don’t think I’ve digested it all, or realistically will. But that’s not really the point.
The cumulative effect of these types of programs, whether cosmological or geological, is to humble us, to reinforce the point that we do not occupy a central special place in the universe, or even on Earth; that we are not pinnacle evolution; that in the grand scheme of things, we may just barely register at all. Which, I realize, might sound all sorts of depressing and giving into inertia and indifference, but really, should have the opposite effect, and make us cherish all the more the very short amount of time we (humanity) have on this planet.
How the Earth was Made is accompanied by another 90-minute program called Inside the Volcano, which is pretty much exactly what the title would lead you to expect. Not quite as exciting as the main feature, this program is much more dry and studious, going into great detail about volcanology. Most of the scientists interviewed wax ecstatic about volcanoes, and just how integral and essential they are to replenishing the planet. (Which is great and all, but must really be terrible for property values if you live in the shadow of one, which, according to one eye opening statistic, one in 10 people on the planet do).
The program also devotes some time to spectacularly catastrophic volcanic eruptions throughout history, including the cataclysmic eruption of Thera in the Greek Archipelago in 1600 BC, an explosion which is credited with everything from altering the course of Greek, and thereby Western, history; initiating the Biblical plagues in Egypt; and even the sinking of the lost continent of Atlantis.
The extras are rounded out by a few extraneous deleted scenes from the main program, none of which are particularly noteworthy. More noteworthy is the DVD case, which is made entirely out of 100percent recycled cardboard. Apropos (considering the topic) and welcome and overdue, methinks. Bravo, A+E! It is easy to be green.