Thursday, September 8, 2011

Visualizing and Exploring Deep Time or "Big History"

Many folks with paleo interests will be familiar with Pan Terra's Correlated History of Earth and Correlated History of Matter laminated charts. These charts pack an amazing amount of deep time information into a relatively small space (28" x 36"). And there's a map-folded Correlated History of the Universe that has both of the aforementioned charts printed on opposite sides. I've spent considerable time trying to get a visceral feeling for the correlated events in deep time, particularly on the Correlated History of Earth chart. Columns for plate tectonics, the geologic timeline, known and suspected meteor impact events, orogenies, volcanic, events, and evolution timelines major phyla are packed into this chart with admirable clarity. You can purchase these charts from the publisher and also from several online stores.

Pan Terra's Correlated History of Earth

As impressive the Pan Terra charts are, there's a practical limit on how much information a printed chart can include. And since the geologic timeline isn't to scale, that's a big limitation when you're trying to build a mental model of deep time. I was really happy to find an amazing interactive timeline that provides a visual timeline of the universe with correlated information that only networked computer and display technology can offer. It's called ChronoZoom by Walter Alvarez and Roland Saekow, as well as their team of developers. It's an amazing free (version 1.0) resource developed in the Department of Earth and Planetary Science at U.C. Berkeley within a new interdisciplinary field called "Big History" (I think "Deep Time" is more poetic and sounds less anthropocentric). The concept reminds me of Gigapan photo images, but instead of zooming in on an extremely detailed photo the application lets you zoom into detailed timelines. Below is a embed of a 22 minute video narrated by Professor Alvarez. It's a really interesting presentation that's both an overview of deep time evolution and a good way to get a feel for the power of the ChronoZoom tool.

ChronoZoom: Interactive timescales of Cosmos, Earth, Life, Humanity

I've just started exploring the first generation ChronoZoom application, which runs using Silverlight as a web app. Doubleclick to zoom in, shift-click to zoom out, and click-drag to move around the timeline. Right now, the application is just a proof of concept with only a hint of the exploration power the tool could provide. I can see huge potential for this tool and really hope it catches the imagination of scientists working in many disciplines.

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