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Enter the Scots Saharan era

A new exhibition takes us back to when warmer air circulated in the glens.

Douglas Blane reports

Scientists can persuade us to do some peculiar things: "Don't just look at the rocks outside," Stuart Monro had said. "Touch them; fondle them. Find out what they feel like." Geologists do that sort of thing all the time, the scientific director of Our Dynamic Earth had insisted with a smile.

Sure enough, the sense of touch does bring an added dimension to the solid chunks of Scotland's past in Earthscape, the new outdoor exhibition at Edinburgh's popular educational attraction.

The story starts with Lewisian gneiss and Torridonian sandstone, gritty survivors from an unimaginably distant past. Then there are slate-coloured greywacke, carboniferous limestone, and jagged, sparkly Dalradian schist, formed and folded by colliding continents. Red sandstone, smooth and lovely, recalls Scotland's stay in Saharan latitudes, while swirls and whorls in an erratic boulder, polished like a gigantic curling-stone, record its glacial travels in foreign lands.

The long journey through time ends at an elegant piece of rock, shaped by human hands, whose scooped-out centre frames the Parliament building and carries around it a simple message: "The past is the key to the future."

Other features of Earthscape's 4,500 million year story include huge slices through Scotland, a simulated journey to the centre of the Earth, and a series of landscaped gardens where early primitive plants are interspersed with hidden fossils to create a contemplative space in the heart of the city.

"Scotland has a tremendous story, from its origins deep in the southern hemisphere, through collision with England when the Iapetus Ocean closed, right down to today," says Stuart Monro. "It is all written in the rocks, and it's not over yet as we're still heading north."

Colossal forces have shaped the Earth's surface, solid and unchanging to human eyes but actually in constant flux, its tectonic plates forming, drifting and colliding with enough momentum to make mountain ranges.

"Years ago when we were talking about setting up Our Dynamic Earth, we thought briefly about calling it This Fragile Planet," says Dr Monro. "We soon realised that was nonsense. The planet is incredibly robust. What is fragile is our place on it."

It is one of the most important messages in the new school science curriculum, which aims to capture the interest of a wide cross-section of citizens. "Scotland's science centres have an important role to play," says Dr Monro. "We can make science appealing. We can help to train the teachers. The new science curriculum is a sea-change really and our whole mindset will have to alter - the way we think about science, the way we link it to other parts of the curriculum."

As a member of the Scottish Science Advisory Committee, Dr Monro is well aware of the broad but untrodden paths school science is now travelling.

"Our science centres have a responsibility to put ways of supporting the teachers to deliver the new curriculum in place as soon as possible. We want them to embrace the curriculum with enthusiasm. With Scottish Executive funding, our sciences centres are now doing something unique in the world - working together as a network."

At the heart of the new curriculum is the ideal of the scientifically literate citizen - a person with enough knowledge to reflect upon and take informed decisions about the ethical, social and environmental impact of scientific discoveries.

Futuredome, the other new experience at Our Dynamic Earth, illustrates in spectacular fashion what can be done to support teachers and stimulate analysis and debate about science and its consequences. Where Earthscape is static, yet sensuously stunning, Futuredome is hi-tech, action-packed and interactive. Inside a darkened dome, participants settle into reclining armchairs to watch the future unfolding. The comfort is purely physical, as hard decisions with unforeseeable consequences must be taken - and the buck stops with the blue and green buttons on the arms of every chair.

"It won't be easy but there are no wrong answers," says the friendly figure projected on the starry ceiling. "Let's tune into the DBC, the Dynamic Broadcasting Corporation, and see what difference your choices make." As international delegates, the audience participates in one of several simulated scenarios - global warming and energy generation, the world's fresh water supplies, controlling population growth - then lives with the consequences by visiting the future.

Physical motion of the armchairs, star-streaked heavens and the sound a time-machine would make, if such a thing existed, lend depth and texture to the experience.

It is very hard to predict the future, our guide concludes, but decisions must be made and each one has consequences: "When we look at our world from space we can see how beautiful it is... It is the only inhabitable planet we know. Where else can we call home?"

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