Julie Morrice takes a virtual journey from the Big Bang through the ages and learns about our ever-changing planet.
When Dynamic Earth, Edinburgh's state-of-the-art audio-visual experience, opens in May 1999, it will take visitors on a journey through the history of our planet, from the Big Bang to the present. It will reveal the grandeur of the polar regions, the depths of the oceans and the teeming life of the rainforests - and all thanks to electronic wizardry.
Inside the eye-catching building, with its amphitheatre and its translucent tented top, visitors will be able to see a volcanic eruption, feel the ground move under their feet and smell the sulphurous air. Primordial soup will bubble under the walkways and apes will swing past through the trees.
Dynamic Earth's chief executive, Julia Fawcett, speaks with enthusiasm about the virtual aquaria where visitors can have a Jacques Cousteau experience without getting their feet wet. "We have stunning underwater images from the BBC natural history unit. You really get the impression of being under water. There are panes of glass with water in between, and as the fish swim by bubbles go up through the water. It's like scuba diving."
But there is more to Dynamic Earth than virtual reality. Dr Stuart Monro, the scientific director, who is on secondment from the British Geological Survey, says the experience can be both educational and entertaining. "We want not only to do good science, but to communicate it to the public. We should be giving people the underpinning science to make up their own minds about how humanity has affected the Earth and what we should do in the future. The fundamental thing is that people should make up their minds on the basis of fact, not ignorance."
Dynamic Earth is being created on the site of the former Holyrood Brewery, given by Scottish Newcastle to the people of Edinburgh in 1988, on condition that a significant new building would be created for the benefit of the community. For the past 10 years, various ideas have been discussed but, says Dr Monro, Dynamic Earth is rooted to the site in terms of science, geology and history.
"Here we are in the midst of scenery that talks of volcanoes and great geological events," he says, waving an arm towards Salisbury Crags and Arthur's Seat. Moreover, it was in and around Edinburgh that James Hutton, the father of modern geology, developed his theory of the Earth.
Dynamic Earth has an impressive roll-call of academics acting as scientific advisers, and cutting-edge research is feeding into the attraction. It is, if you like, a virtual visitor centre for botanic gardens, zoos, observatories and universities, disseminating their research in an appealing and easily understood form.
Dr Monro hopes that post-graduate students who have done fieldwork, perhaps in polar regions or volcanic areas, will play a part in the education programme, sharing their first-hand experiences.
Dynamic Earth, which will have two resource centres and a dedicated education staff, hopes to attract 30,000 school visitors in its first year, with 70 per cent expected to come from primary schools. "What we are doing will slot into the five to 14 curriculum guidelines on environmental studies," says Dr Monro.
Education manager Dee Davidson plans to work with local artists and craftspeople to make a "unique educational environment, startlingly different from a typical classroom or lab", and she hopes to be as inclusive as possible in her programme, creating a range of "discovery activities and exploratory workshops" to appeal to all ages.