A little birdie told me, part 2

Archeopteryx fossil

Two posts ago I discussed the use of Twitter as a way to get students to apply what they learn in the classroom to geology-related news and science stories.  There is another educational angle to Twitter exemplified by @RealTimeWWII.  This feed maps events of the Second World War onto the present day.  @RealTimeWWII is currently tweeting about 1942.  This means that on 22 March 2014 the tweets will be about events that occurred on 22 March 1942.  @RealTimeWWII is a very effective way to bring the human experience of the past into the present.  Could this approach help to bring geological events to life?

The best events to tweet about would provide ample geological details in addition to historical ones.  For example, tweeting about a volcanic eruption would be better than tweeting about an earthquake: much of the geological action of an earthquake happens where no-one can observe it, and the activity that leads to the earthquake takes place over very long timescales and with few discrete events.  There is no human experience associated with stress building up in tectonic plates over timescales much greater than a human lifetime.  We can feel vibrations, but rarely can we watch tectonic plates slipping past each other.  In contrast, volcanic eruptions are heralded by readily observable geological events, eruptions evolve as they proceed, and terrain is modified on timescales humans can comprehend.

I think the perspective of an observer is key to making the tweets more than simply a timeline.  Consider the 1883 eruption of Krakatau—it would be possible to tweet an impersonal account of what the volcano was doing.  However, there are a surprising number of first-person narratives from Javanese and Dutch islanders who encountered tsunamis and pyroclastic flows first-hand, and from passengers on ships in the Sunda Strait who saw and felt the final earth-shattering (literally) explosion.  The Royal Society’s 1888 report, The Eruption of Krakatoa and Subsequent Phenomena contains pages of tables devoted to reports of what different witnesses heard when the final explosion happened.  Thanks to brand-new transoceanic telegraph cables, the events were also reported in newspapers around the world.

The human experience represents but a tiny sliver of geological time, and detailed accessible records of human experience cover only a sliver of that sliver.  This means having an observer could present some interesting creative and scientific challenges.  The task of reconstructing the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE from the letters of Pliny the Younger to Tacitus and the scientific literature would be more difficult that recreating the events of Krakatau, but not nearly as difficult as constructing a narrative for the mind-bending extremes of supervolcano Toba…which happened 74,000 years ago at a time when we shared the planet with Neanderthals and Homo floresiensis (the “Hobbit” people).  Now that would be an interesting enterprise.

The ultimate project would be to condense all 4.5 billion years of earth history into a single year of tweets…but who would be the observer for the first billion years before a sentient cyanobacterium could be recruited?

Categories: Learning technologies | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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