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Ammonite

Fossil Ammonite PleurocerasA recent visit to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum with my young nieces made me realize how much science education can foster a sense of wonder about life. The dinosaur skeletons, the enormous gems, and even things like the bug zoo make you realize how fantastical this Earth of ours really is.

I also love television shows about science, especially programs about geology and the early Earth. I have an inexhaustible fascination with the ways our planet has changed, and how dramatically, over the millennia since its creation. With the exception of Deadliest Catch, my current favorite is a program on the History Channel called How the Earth was Made.

I think this goes back to a time when I was about 8 or 9 and and my family was living in Dallas. One afternoon I found a fascinating piece of stone in a friend’s backyard. I was deep in the throes of dinosaur madness at the time and was convinced I had found some kind of fossil. My father tried to tell me it looked like a piece of statuary, but I remained certain I was on the road to becoming a great paleontologist. Finally my dad suggested I go talk to our neighbor Mr. White, since he was a geologist and might actually know what my rock was.

Mr. White was a kind and patient man. He took a good look at my stone, and pulled out one of his books. He opened it up to a page and showed me that my stone actually WAS a fossil. It was a piece of an ancient ammonite (like a modern Nautilus). I was thrilled to the core. Then he told me that where we stood was once underwater, under the surface of a huge ocean millions of years ago.

I walked around for days, trying to picture my house and neighborhood on the bottom of the ocean. Just thinking about it, the world became a more magical place for me. I never forgot it.

Later, when my family moved to upstate New York I had a similar experience as I learned to recognize the signs of the scars and rubble left by the ice ages, when glaciers miles thick dragged over the surface of my home state. I looked around at the trees and lakes and waterfalls and realized that all of this is temporary. An ice age, or an ocean, may come again to cover over the traces of what came before.

In all the current political discussion about global warming (Is there or Isn’t there? And whose fault is it?) I never hear any recognition of the fact that our planet’s climate has already changed many many times, and in much larger ways than a few tenths of a degree. It seems to me that there’s a serious lack of perspective in much of the writing about the issue. And by perspective, I mean having a view over the very long haul, as in millions of years. As the geologist Iain Stewart once said, “We shouldn’t worry about destroying our planet. It’s been here for billions of years and gone through much greater changes than we realize. The planet will be fine. It’s us we should be worried about.”

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