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The University of Southampton
Biological Sciences

Getting a feel for geologic time using Google Earth

Published: 4 July 2011

For teachers and lecturers, explaining how long the planet and humans have existed is always a challenge because of the incomprehensibly large time spans involved.

Now a scientist from the University of Southampton has developed a unique and effective way to demonstrate earth’s history using Google Earth’s route map.

“The story of our planet is often demonstrated using a clock face, with the last fraction of a second of time showing how long humans have lived, but that doesn’t really communicate the true scales involved,” explains Dr Joel Parker, researcher in ageing, from the Centre for Biological Sciences.

“This new analogy works because the scale is set from the smallest distance we can see, to no further than one day’s travel by car or train. These distances had been previously shown as the limits of most peoples natural ability to judge scale.”

By using Google Earth, Dr Parker is able to plot a route between two locations that resonate with the audience by showing key dates along the way using this comprehensible scale.

Google Earth’s route map helps explain incomprehensibly large time spans
Demonstrating the earth’s history

An example route between Big Ben in London and to the entrance of Southampton Bargate reveals how the analogy works. On route from Big Ben, as this attached graphic shows:

- Life begins on the M25 at Heathrow.
- Multicellular animals do not arise until just south of Winchester.
- The age of the Dinosaurs runs from around the M3/M27 junction down the Inner avenue to Middlestreet
- Humans first appear about 18 and a half feet in front of the Bargate
- British life expectancy (80 years) is the thickness of a eurocent coin from the front of the Bargate.

Now imagine driving 70 mph through the single celled phase of life from the M25 along the M3 to Winchester with a human lifespan the thickness of a eurocent coin.

Dr Parker adds: “This method is available for anyone to use, they just need to have access to Google Earth.”

The research was published in The Journal of College Science Teaching, May/June 2011 pp. 23 -27.

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