Historical story

Time travel with ChronoZoom

It is an ambitious project:ChronoZoom. It allows to travel into deep time, but also in recent history. ChronoZoom is to become an endless database containing scientific knowledge over a period of billions of years. The project was set up by Berkeley University and Microsoft. But Dutch scientists are also working on it.

One of the Dutch scientists associated with the ChronoZoom project is Jan Smit, a geologist at the VU and a specialist in the transition from Cretaceous to Paleogene. This was the moment when many life forms, including dinosaurs, became extinct on Earth due to an asteroid impact. Smit jokingly calls himself a 'stock filler':after all, he will provide all relevant scientific knowledge about the K/Pg event add to ChronoZoom's digital timeline.

Time Consciousness

“Geology is pre-eminently a subject in which you become aware of the passage of time, all the way back to what we deep time in earth sciences. call it,” said Smith. “In our profession we literally see the course of geological time in the succession of rock layers and in the slow movements of continents across the globe. With ChronoZoom we have a tool in hand to stimulate this time-thinking. ChronoZoom also builds on the understanding of Big History.”

Beta and gamma

The birthplace of ChronoZoom is in the USA. A few years ago, a PhD student in ICT started working there with the question of how a timeline could be visualized in several dimensions. But geology isn't the only topic that's part of ChronoZoom. The project, which is being realized by Berkeley University in California and funded by Microsoft, is precisely designed to bridge the gap between humanities and sciences to close. For example, what climate prevailed when the Inca Empire came to an end, to name just one example.

Large connections

Another example:what did life on Earth consist of two billion years ago and how were the continents arranged on the globe then? Smit:“With ChronoZoom we want to connect everything. Via the timeline – the backbone of the website – you can jump to the different time slots. Initially, the timescale was linear, but now the timeline is logarithmic.”

ChronoZoom is available as an HTML version on the web and not available offline. If it is up to Smit, there will be frequent links to Wikipedia. According to him, there is quite a bit of cold feet regarding the information on Wikipedia, but he does not think that is justified. “The Earth science knowledge on the wiki pages is of decent quality.”

4D thinking

But isn't scientific knowledge too statically represented on ChronoZoom? How do you give space to discussions and uncertainties? After all, science is about progressive insight and not about encyclopaedic knowledge. His own specialism – the KPg event – is a good example of this. Scientists are fighting each other over the circumstances of how the dinosaurs met their end.

Smit:“The basis is peer reviewed work, i.e. articles that have been reviewed by fellow scientists. ChronoZoom will not be open source become a website; so you can't start discussions on it. The main goal is to encourage people to think in four dimensions.” Smit expects that it will take years before all 'boxes' are completed.

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