Living Earth

Did the dinosaurs die out due to a lack of enthusiasm? Did Neanderthals shave when they got up in the morning? What did primordial soup taste like? These were the questions we claimed we would answer with our science outreach stall, Living Earth, at two festivals in August 2016. I’m not sure if we ever got to the bottom of those fine details, but we did have a lot of fun. First we were headed to Sunflowerfest in Co. Down, Northern Ireland: a small music and arts festival (approx. 3,000 attendees) showcasing mainly Northern Irish talent, but with a few visitors from farther afield. The second festival was Green Man in the Brecon Beacons, Wales, which is around 10 times the size of Sunflowerfest and has a designated science area called Einstein’s Garden.

The aim of Living Earth was to recreate the 4.5 billion year evolution of the Earth over the course of each festival by building a 1.5 m diameter globe out of living and upcycled materials. Each festival day would cover a big chunk of the Earth’s history and would nicely represent the processes that have shaped the Earth as we know it today. Briefly, something like this:

Day 1: The first ~90% of the Earth’s history from 4.5 billion to 450 million years ago. We assembled the basic sphere structure out of willow, pulling it together (like gravity) and covering it in blue fishing net, which gave us something to build upon. Next we cut out a continental jigsaw from beige fishing net, which was laid out as Pangaea being attached to the globe with the continents in their modern positions. We also calculated that to scale the sun would have been approx. 10 miles away from our humble blue marble.

Day 2: The next ~90% of the Earth’s history from the Triassic through to the Eocene. This was a very hot period in the Earth’s history when the ecosystems and animals that we would recognise started to evolve. We spent this day pruning various vegetation types from around the festival sites to add climate zones and ecosystems to our globe. For example, grasses for the savannah, broad leaves for the tropics, pine and leylandii for the boreal regions and hessian sack coated with a sand-glue mix for the desert. We also had on-going craft activities for kids, making animals and features to decorate our globe, including clay dinosaurs that would fossilise overnight made with bespoke 3D printed cutters.

Day 3: The next ~99.9% of the Earth’s history brought us from the warm Eocene 45 million years ago through to the last ice age 45,000 years ago. Ice sheets and permafrost were added with fine white netting. Specific features were added to the globe including folded, uplifted Himalayas, shells around the Great Barrier Reef, volcanoes around Hawaii, Iceland, the mid-Atlantic ridge and the Pacific ring-of-fire and some inland lakes and seas in central Asia and North America. More crafts involved decorating plastic fish made from old milk bottles and making birds from plasticene, feathers and matchsticks.

Day 4: Finally, we covered the last ~0.001% of the Earth’s history through the Holocene and the Anthropocene, the geological era that has been started and defined by human activity on the planet (e.g. the global abundance of plastic pollution, fossil fuel derived atmospheric CO2 or radioactive isotopes from nuclear testing over the Pacific; all of which will be visible in the geological record in millions of years’ time). To represent the spread of humans, we added some old computer circuit boards and fairy lights for cities and satellites around the Earth in orbit. We also added the fossilised dinosaurs, fish and birds that had been lovingly crafted over the previous three days. Our globe was mostly complete, roughly to scale and vaguely accurate scientifically. Rather appropriately, it looked like it was struggling a bit by the time it reached the Anthropocene – listing heavily to one side and over representing the ‘squashed orange’ non-spherical nature of the Earth. Still, we had created something eye-catching and visual and there was still hope that human intervention could stop the globe collapsing!

Alongside the globe-building project that illustrated the physical evolution of the Earth, once a day we also put on a semi-scripted puppet show about the evolution of life, entitled This Soup Tastes Funny. It told the story of Douglas and Barold, two friends who were so distraught that they had missed the start of the festival that they simply had to go back 3.5 billion years via a time machine that runs of primordial soup to make up the lost day or two. They learn the hard way that it was not all plain sailing for protozoa, sea sponges, amphibians, dinosaurs, mammals, monkeys and cavemen. Featuring songs, pyrotechnics and flying around the set, the only things that it was lacking were accurate contributions from a palaeontologist or evolutionary biologist (although it was grand for children)!

The project on the whole was very successful. The great thing about doing an art project that evolved over the course of four days is that you could suggest to punters who saw it on day one or two to make sure they came back later in the festival to see how it was progressing. It was great to see so many people return day after day, testament to them engaging and enjoying what they saw, as they could easily have spent their time at any of the other stages, areas and stalls at the festivals. The puppet show had up to 30 viewers each time staying the duration of the 30-minute show even in the rain. The dinosaur, bird and fish crafts seemed to have an endless draw of interest from children, giving them and their parents a chance to chill out (as well as some distress if they came to collect their craft the next day to find someone else had taken them).

We aimed to keep the science light: we did not want to pounce on people or seem preachy. If all they took from the globe was that there are different ecosystems in the world and that these have changed over time, I was happy. However, we were not afraid to chat in depth about the science if people were interested (and in some cases in much greater detail). My personal highlight was when a 5 year old stumped me with a simple question after a puppet show: “Why did the sharks survive the asteroid when the ocean dinosaurs didn’t?” Good question – that gave the parents a good laugh.

Big up to the fantastic team (Dewi, Zuleika, Mike, Emily and Amy) for their assistance with set design, puppet shows, social media, entertainment/crowd control and bags of enthusiasm. It would not have been possible without all of them! Also big thanks to Michael, Vanessa, Barra and Aoife at Sunflowerfest and Ellen and Sally at Einstein’s Garden for having us, and the support of the School of Geographical Sciences and Public Engagement Office at the University of Bristol in helping us put it on.

Overall, an exhausting but very worthwhile experience… It turns out people do find earth science interesting, you can make something visually artistic out of past climate and that you can capture people’s imaginations and persuade them to come back and learn more about our amazing Living Earth.

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