We spoke with Helen Gordon, author of ‘Notes from Deep Time’, an exploration into how the earth tells us the story of the distant past and informs our future. It’s a wonderfully insightful read in which she engages with many of the characters and discoveries that define our understanding of the earth and what it’s made of. Helen tells us more about the book and how she came to write a geological book about time.
Taking Time: Helen, where did this all start for you?
Helen Gordon: My background is literature, not science. I worked for many years at Granta and was editor for a long time, then I left to be a freelance writer. I also teach creative writing, I do some editing, I do some journalism. I've published a novel, as well as ‘Deep Time’, and I’ve almost finished my second novel.
TT: The book, ‘Deep Time’, is wonderful, really engaging. I started learning about all sorts of ideas and concepts that hadn't necessarily come across before. I wasn’t coming to it as someone who is particularly well read in the area of geology and deep time, but someone who's very interested.
HG: That was very much the spirit in which I undertook writing the book in the first place. I'm not a scientist by training, I'm a journalist, so I thought there was a value in that approach, because the reader finds things out along with me. Hopefully, what I want to know is what the reader will also want to know, so what I don't understand and need to get the scientists to explain to me is what the reader won't understand. I think there's definitely a value and having that outsider perspective on a subject or a discipline. The book is about deep time, but it's also about the people who work with deep time, and looking at them as well in a way that you perhaps wouldn't do if you were one of them.
TT: What was it that fascinated you about rock and deep time that led you towards the book?
HG: I think initially, it was that fantastical, almost sci-fi notion that rocks can show us that our world is not the only world there's ever been. That you can be standing somewhere and that in this particular sort of position, the latitude and longitude, it was a completely different place. I'm in a city, but I would have been in an ocean. I'm in a green hillside in Shropshire, but I would have been in a desert. I just found that so striking, and strange.
The other thing was the way that, and this is something one of the geologists said to me, rock is time made manifest. Time is this intangible thing. Rock is something that you can touch and feel, it's a physical record of something that's intangible. If, for example, you have an idea of the rate of deposition, you can look at a clip of chalk, you can say that maybe a centimeter of chalk represents 1000 years of time.
TT: Yes, so your way of observint it is a way to measure time. Once you're looking below the surface to any degree there are all these signifiers that even a layman can try to grasp something from. Which is what you're trying to allude to through the book, you're taking the reader on a journey of discovery. To think about rock, in its historical sense, but also, the fact that it's constantly changing into the future and way beyond our personal existence, and maybe even beyond humanity's existence. As a way to frame existence for an individual, that is quite a remarkable thing to do. You're placing yourself in that sense of deep time, but it's a way that feels vaguely tangible whilst being extremely broad at the same time.
HG: In terms of conceiving of deep time, in terms of there being lots of time, you could argue that we still can't do that today, because our brains are not wired to do that, to think like that. Historically, for most of history in the west, time was shallow. In the book I talk about a famous Archbishop in the 17th century, he calculated the age of the Earth based on dates in the Bible. He added up the dates and he got that the beginning of the Earth was around 6pm on the 22nd of October 4004, BC.
TT: Which is potentially something that certain people might still subscribe to today?
HG: Yeah, which is a bit terrifying!
When we get to the Enlightenment, people start questioning this, in the late 1700s, in France, for example. Through various experiments to do with heat and the rate at which the earth will be cooling, if you assume that the Earth has a hot molten metal core, that was cooling down, you could perhaps use that to measure the age of the Earth. So it was announced in 1778 that the earth was 75,000 years old, which at the time was pretty radical. He probably actually thought it was older than that, possibly 3 million, but 75,000 was tough enough for people to be getting on with!
At a similar sort of time in the 1780s, we have James Hutton, the very celebrated naturalist scientist, who essentially looked at how slowly how the rocks around him were being formed, and said, if the same processes are happening in the past that are happening today, then I've got a rough idea of the amount of time it would take for a rock to come into being, and I can see that 75,000 years just doesn't give enough time for the landscape around me to be created. So he is one of the first scientists to have this sense that the earth must be way, way, way older than had been hitherto considered.
It's not until the discovery of radioactivity and radiometric dating, that we start to get the billions coming in. So 1913, Arthur Holmes puts a date of 1.3 billion, and then in the 50s, we get basically 4.5 billion, which is what geologists think today. So from then, time has become deep!
TT: I suppose there's still research going on, there's still people learning, there's still people discovering more. I'm always fascinated by the things we know as truth, but which, in 50 or 100 years time we'll look back and go, I can't believe we used to believe that!
HG: Absolutely. Science can't prove anything positively. You can just discount things.
TT: In the book, you talk about observing the rock yourself in a more urban environment, which I found fascinating to consider. For example, London was built upon what used to be an ocean. I wondered if you had any thoughts on the elements of people's modern lives in which they could help them consider deep time and observe it for themselves?
HG: Interesting question! The urban geology continues to be endlessly mind blowingly weird. So for example, if you're in London, you can walk down Oxford Street, and see paving stones made of sandstone and see ripples in them that are from a river that existed 300 million years ago, they've been fossilised. Of course there are many places other than Oxford Street, that's just an example that I know is definitely there. If you go to Paddington Station you can see in the limestone paving slabs you can find fossils, sea creatures and also apparently meteorites. That's not something I wrote in the book, I only came across this morning!
TT: I suppose even acknowledging the Portland stone which was use to build most of Bath and St. Paul’s Cathedral, recognizing the tone and quality of the rock. Even considering where building materials comes from and how they were formed. The evidence of the ripples on the on the rock is a remarkable thing that feels very, very tangible, but also hard to how to perceive that it was ever somewhere else in a different existence. We don't think about our buildings not being there, especially if they're hundreds of years old.
HG: Absolutely. It's just bizarre to think if particular conditions hadn't occurred in the Jurassic, we wouldn't have all these, these buildings wouldn't look quite the way they do today. That's very strange. Even where our cities are built, where our towns are built, which often relates to the geology underneath them? Was it a place that's good to grow food? That might be because of the underlying geology? Is this a place that's historically been wealthy or poor, again, could be to do with the underlying geology? Is it rocky uplands? Or is it lush fields?
The reason the London Underground is mostly to the north of the River Thames is partly because of the geology. It's partly because millions of years ago the land was squished, and the London clay thickened, the chalk and the sand were pushed to the surface or outcrops more to the south of the river. London clay is good to build tunnels in and chalk and sand isn't.
TT: I've often wondered whether there's a geological basis for the South of England in particular, being more historically prosperous than the North, and the basis of people settling in those southern counties initially to a greater extent than the northern counties?
HG: You can definitely make that argument, yes. The other thing connecting modern life with deep time would be looking at things that we're doing now that are going to exist into the future, the deep time future as well. For example, plastics which are forming new types of rock. You could think about nuclear waste as well.
TT: The section in the book about nuclear waste is terrifying and remarkable, the considerations that have gone into the decisions about storing nuclear waste, are both significant and drastic, but also circumstantial. We've built this problem for ourselves that we suddenly need a solution for. So where do we put it? What's the responsible thing to do? How do you communicate that to future generations?
HG: It’s a problem for the future, but what we need to do is understand more about the rock formations from many, many, many millions of years ago, in order to facilitate that for ourselves and ensure the safety and continuity of the safety over forthcoming generations. That's a real and very stark reminder of being in the moment, but having to think about both expanses of time, a deep time sandwich.
TT: I was really drawn to the fact that you wanted to educate the reader about certain individuals and bring some of those human stories into that sense of deep time. You discuss Mary Anning, who I'm sure lots of people are more aware of now than they were even 10 or 15 years ago. I suppose in that sense, as a writer, you've got a responsibility to try and accurately tell these stories.
In a similar way, with the paleoartists, whose job it is to try and use the evidence at hand to try and make sure that they're depicting dinosaurs with the correct features. You talk about paleoartists who just use the bony structure of a dinosaur and don’t considered the amount of flesh that they might have had, which is really a fascinating thing, that our imaginations would take us to a particular construction of a dinosaur, but actually, they might have really fleshy arms!
TT: Did it feel like quite a responsibility to sort of harness that information and deliver it to an audience who might not might not have any sort of prior knowledge? Or was it a case of, sort of, is it a case of making assumptions?
HG: I feel a huge responsibility in terms of not misrepresenting the scientists and know that people are going to come to a book expecting it to be correct! If my book was someone's first exposure to more detailed exposure to deep time and these kinds of discussions, then obviously, I want to make sure that the story I'm telling is easy to follow, easy to understand and engaging. So they don't go away thinking deep time is boring.
TT: It was really engaging, I don't think you have to worry about that!
HG: I didn't feel that it was my role, necessarily, to say this is right, this is wrong, I wouldn't feel at all qualified to say that. So it was more that I'm presenting things for the reader to give them the tools to think about it themselves.
TT: It was quite balanced in that sense, because you spoke with certain geologists and scientists who were quite specific in their take of when a certain epoch was starting, or whether we were in a new one or not. There was some sort of balance in the opinions and it was very enlightening in that sense. It’s great that it comes from you, as a writer, and someone interested in it, as opposed to scientists. Are you still exploring deep time, is it still something you're interested in writing more about?
HG : One of the things that's been lovely, actually, is that several of the scientists who are in the book have got in touch to say that they hope I carry on writing about about deep time because they enjoyed what I'd written and they thought it was a useful thing.
I'm sure I won't spend the rest of my life writing about deep time, but there's some more things that I'd like to explore. One of the things about ‘Notes from Deep Time’ is I always think of it as a box of chocolates. It's lots and lots of different topics and areas, which is absolutely what I wanted the book to be, but maybe it would be nice to have something that was narrower and deeper.
One other thing I'd like to do, that I wanted to do for the book but just couldn't make it work, is I'd like to go and see the oldest rocks in the world actually in-situ. They're in really inaccessible parts of Greenland and Canada. I was talking to various scientists who were going on expeditions and might have taken me, but I would have had to have paid, like, so much money and it just wasn't gonna happen.
TT: It's very interesting to have a reason in deep time to think about the future and how our consideration of looking back might influence looking forward. For the majority of people, their sense of time is really quite limited, potentially, to within their own personal memories to about 20 years. Maybe it goes back a couple of generations in terms of stories or evidence of their family history, but actually, most people aren't perceiving very far into the past, and also aren't proceeding much into the future. So I think there's a huge amount to be garnered from looking a lot further back in order to inform looking a lot further forward and thinking about future generations. Obviously, the future of the planet and our ecology is extremely prescient at the moment.
HG: Very much so. In terms of climate change and the planet, there's definitely an argument to be made that we find it difficult to properly deal with climate change because it's a deep time problem. The worst effects of climate change, for many people haven't been felt yet, or even won't be felt in our lifetime. I'd appreciate that in other parts of the world things are happening very much right now, certainly. We know intellectually that these changes are happening, but we just don't feel it viscerally. As you said, we can intellectually imagine several generations into the future, but we can't really care properly because it's not how our brains sort of seem to operate.
TT: So if we could shift our thinking into a deep timescale, then you'd imagine that maybe we'd be able to break these short term patterns of thinking, could we then maybe do the things we need to do to halt climate change?
HG: I think the thing is that, looking back, that's the only way we can get a sort of an analogue for what might happen in the future in terms of climate change. So for example, right now, people are very interested in the Cretaceous 14.5 to 66 million years ago, because that is an analogue for a greenhouse Earth, a greenhouse climate. It's a time when atmospheric CO2 levels and temperatures were much higher than today, and if we want to know what's going to happen in the future, that's direct evidence, certainly of what can happen with those scenarios.
TT: Why is it that we have such a short term mentality? Is it literally for self preservation and thinking about, our own lives and, and maybe the generations either side of us? Or are there other elements that mean that we don't think about ourselves in that broader context?
HG: My personal take is that it feels like it could in some way, be a self protective mechanism to allow us to function. The things that we need to do to preserve our lives and the lives of our immediate family. Maybe we need to have blinkers on to some extent otherwise there’s that constant thought about your own absolute insignificance in terms of deep time, although that could be quite liberating in some ways?
TT: I think there's a duality between it feeling like, I'm here, I'm part of something huge and isn't it wonderful, but also, that sense of being very small. In some ways, its give us something that for many people in the past, and for some people today, religion gives them that sense of deep time, of accepting your smallness, I think that’s probably quite healthy.
HG: In the book I interviewed a historian who's been thinking about this. He says one of the problems evolution leaves us is that we have a big brain and we need the big brain, because it helps us understand very large, abstract events. But it also leaves us with the level of human experience. That is your sort of internal time consciousness, your internal awareness of your body, which creates your social sense of who you are, and your sense of ego. And is the thing that kind of gives meaning to our lives. It's predicated on the span of individual human lives and the inevitability of death, being anchored in this short span. Phenomenologically it’s something you can't avoid, even when you think about very large problems that can continue for hundreds of generations, and that's why when it comes to making policies and taking political decisions, you always do it in the short term. What does it mean for me? What does it mean for my children? So his argument was that it's sort of to do with the way our brains have evolved.
TT: So it in a sense, it's this natural default mode in a survivalist sense. But actually, we have got that capacity to try and think about it and try and perceive it. Maybe it's not something that lots of people have the necessity to do because they do have to feed their families.
HG: I think he's making the point that we can do it entirely. But we don't feel it. That's the problem. The way that our brains have evolved means that we can deal with it intellectually, but we can't deal with it, emotionally.