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The ultimate heritage trip

Geologists Jan Zalasiewicz, Sue Rigby and Adrian Rushton see a great future for the past...

You’re tired. Stressed. Harassed. The kids are being impossible, the spouse is phoning the lawyer, deadlines at work are a joke and the cat’s just been sick on the new carpet. A good time to plan the holidays, in fact.

But where to go? You’re no longer fooled by the brochures. For the cultural spots are worn smooth by visitors, and the last remaining rain forest is behind glass. The planet’s entire supply of sandy beaches is wrapped in concrete, and long queues form in front of any remaining authentic desolate Mongolian yurts. Eskimo villages are being crossed off the list, as igloos and global warming don’t mix. The discerning traveller just won’t want to know about earthly travel.

How about outer space? The moon? Undeniably an out-of-this-world temptation to the blasé terrestrial tourist. But after one visit all the dust, and those dam’ eternal footprints and that tedious predictable weather might begin to pall. The rest of the solar system? Mars is just as dead as the moon, give or take the odd microbe. Venus? – the thick asbestos clothing required means that it’s really a deeply unromantic spot. Further out, Europa’s frozen-over sea might be fun, but the asteroid belt would surely put insurance costs beyond the reach of even the most plutocratic sensation-seeker.

There really is only one answer. Go back to the past.

Hang on a minute, you might say, there’s a minor technical hitch. Time travel is just, well, impossible, at least given today’s crude level of cosmic wormhole engineering. But these days, that need be no problem. Thanks to human ingenuity and, more importantly duplicity, mere impossibility is no barrier to establish a viable and immensely profitable time travel business. Virtual reality has appeared, and just in the nick of time, too, as ordinary reality is becoming too awful to contemplate. Now, with VR, we will be in a position to open the magnificent vistas of the past of this complex, green and beautiful planet to the inquiring and discerning traveller - at a price, of course (though all major credit cards will be accepted!).

What could be on offer? Well, everything and anything. With four and a half thousand million years to choose from, there is bound to be a palaeoenvironment to suit anyone's mood, or to tickle even the most jaded palate. Tired of skiing on those crowded Alpine pistes, as the artificial snow machine whirrs in the background? Just go back a mere 15 000 years or so, and there will be virgin snow covered hills stretching to the horizon. And the après-ski entertainment would certainly be different. A visit to the woolly mammoth park, or a fascinating, if halting, conversation with the local guides, provided, that is, you have taken the recommended Berlitz crash language course in proto-IndoEuropean, available at reduced rates to bona fide time travellers.

Go a bit further back, perhaps 40 million years or so, and bask in the tropical temperatures of the Eocene. You could sit in a deckchair somewhere on the Chiltern foothills, gazing across at the Great London Sea. Somewhere nearby a herd of early horses, waist-high to your entranced children, will be gambolling, while the mighty but amiable Uintatherium might be heard crashing through the undergrowth.

You would have to book early, of course, for the perennially and massively popular Jurassic holidays. These would be carefully designed to combine maximum thrills with absolute safety. After all, being virtually eaten by Allosaurus might feel almost as bad as the real thing. (To be threatened by a Tyrannosaurus rex, one would – of course – need to book the Cretaceous holiday. Reputable companies would not allow incorrect temporal settings, Hollywood style, for inter-species confrontations).

Going further back in time, there would be even stranger delights. The 300 million year old coal measures swamps, with their 30 metre-high horsetails and fascinating amphibians. And for the entomologists, the gigantic dragonflies would be an absolute must. But be warned. Some of those early insects cut their mandibles on pretty leathery-skinned early lizards. They might be capable of giving you quite a nasty bite.

The barren landscapes of the early Palaeozoic, some 500 million years ago, would be balm for the mystically inclined traveller seeking to commune with the Void, though really strong sun cream is recommended, in view of the levels of ultra-violet radiation. More conventionally minded tourists would don aqualungs and be given guided tours around the luxuriant Shrophire coral reefs. Ever wanted to pick up a living trilobite? – now here’s your chance. Parties would be kept well away, though, from where the two-metre long sea scorpions hang out; ugly customers indeed, and best left undisturbed.

There might be few takers for the three and a half billion years of Precambrian, despite the possibility of some really stupendous volcanic eruptions and spectacular weather. Ten days in an environment where green scum is the dominant life form might try the patience of even the least demanding holidaymakers. But then, could anyone refuse the offer of going back to basics in quite such a dramatic way?

A myriad possibilities. But imagine the effect on the scientific community if the concept takes off and the business starts to boom. There would be a renaissance of earth sciences. Palaeontologists and palaeoeclimate researchers would be suddenly in demand, rescued from the dole or from driving taxicabs and milk floats. They would become the creative darlings of the tourist industry’s research branch, recreating the vistas of the past. A professor occupying, say, the SunVistas Chair of Scenically Interesting Ancient Environments at your local university, would at last have some really serious research funding. Enough to higher dozens of supremely bright and enthusiastic post-docs, buy into some awesome computing power, and attend every conference in Hawaii, regardless of relevance to palaeoenvironments.

There would have to be some re-orientation of research to priorities of course. This is because some of the most obvious and necessary questions about the past are the toughest to answer, while apparently more subtle process may, in fact, be a doddle. We may know everything about the behaviour of lanthanum and cerium in sea bed sediments during the Cretaceous period, but do we have know how many days of sunshine there would have been in a year then? - or whether Miocene grass was entirely suitable for golf courses? The evolutionary history of early Tertiary small mammals is now fairly well established. But have their relative positions on a properly calibrated Cuddliness Index ever accurately determined? Such questions, previously overlooked by the grant committees, would be the subject of intense enquiry as part of the R&D programme of the major tour operators. Palaeobiology would at last get the kind of funding that would make even particle physicists drool.

Absurd, you might think. The ravings of palaeontologists who’ve finally tipped over the edge. But there may be a grain of truth in these fantasies. We all meet and chat with many people while collecting rocks or fossils in the field. Almost all are amazed to learn that their own particular garden or piece of farmland has been under the sea so many millions of years ago, and inhabited by such strange and unfamiliar animals and plants. Almost all want to find out more – and flock to sit in front of the dinosaur programmes on TV. But most are also afraid of ‘scientific’ books and think they would never understand them. After all, many more people got some flavour of the past from Jurassic Park, Living with Dinosaurs and Conan Doyle’s Lost World than ever they did from textbooks. 

So, there’s work to do on this, and we can’t really rest until the relative merits of paleo-holidays become the stuff of conversation in pubs up and down the country, with the visions of competing research teams being ardently discussed. Can science at last enter the life blood of society?

An exhilarating prospect. There is obviously a need for careful planning so as to catch this bandwagon of the future. And, once caught, and careers made – well, why not indulge in a much deserved VR holiday? Our best would be for 134, 528, 163 million years BC. They say that an absolutely classic year for the Chateau Sauriéne sparkling cycad wine….

Footnote: Department of Geology Lecturer Jan Zalasiewicz, Sue Rigby (formerly at the University of Leicester, now at Edinburgh) and Adrian Rushton (now based at the Natural History Museum, London) routinely make safaris back to the past and call it palaeontological research. 

Story from Volume 39 of Petros, Journal of the Sylvester-Bradley Geological Society and the alumni magazine of the University's Department of Geology

July 2002

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Last updated: 12 July 2002 10:55
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