What in the world...?;Arts

2nd July 1999 at 01:00
Julie Morrice visits Dynamic Earth, Edinburgh's latest spectacular attraction, and takes a dizzying journey back throughtime to witness the creation ofour planet and everything that's happened since

The next time-travel departure is in 60 seconds." The emphatic mechanical voice, the darkened lift erratically lit by coloured lights - although everyone knows this is just pretend, there is an empty feeling in the stomach, a vague sense that something extraordinary and perhaps a little dangerous is about to happen. Then the lift doors close.

The entry into Dynamic Earth on the edge of Holyrood Park is a journey back in time. As the lift descends, the years tick away on a digital display, and sounds and images of the past flash past - the Beatles, Winston Churchill, Alexander Graham Bell. Then the journey speeds up, a flash of the middle ages. Was that something Biblical? A dinosaur roars, then a celestial starburst and a million twinkling lights guide us down to the depths before time began.

Scotland's newest attraction has an ambitious scope. In the space of 90 minutes in 10 galleries, it explores planet Earth, from "big bang'' to global warming, from polar ice-cap to tropical rainforest, from mountain top to ocean floor. A huge amount of scientific information is contained in Dynamic Earth. In between dodging meteor showers, and streams of molten rock, the visitor is engulfed by a river of facts.

I want to shout "Stop, rewind!" as John Hannah's voice weaves poetically through the complexities of the formation of our universe. But then, as the scale of Dynamic Earth becomes apparent, the visitor relaxes, begins to enjoy the displays on a less cerebral level, and realises there is always the chance of a return visit.

"Many of the attractions give people information burn-out," says Dee Davison, Dynamic Earth's education manager, "but this is an immersive experience. You risk sensory burn-out." She's right. Dynamic Earth is a whirlwind of sound and sensation, a rollercoaster ride over the peaks of scientific endeavour and around the tortuous labyrinths of cutting-edge technology. One of the highlights is a five-screen helicopter flight over the glaciers of Norway and the glaciated landscape of Skye. Soaring over the knife-edge of the Cuillins, the floor tilting beneath your feet, is exhilarating.

The first three galleries are a stand-back-and-gasp experience, but thereafter, Dynamic Earth is more interactive. Visitors will find flaps to lift, buttons to press, animals to touch and scramble on, and plenty of computer games to explore. Especially good is the computer in the Casualties and Survivors gallery, which explores what might have happened to the dinosaurs if they had survived.

Dynamic Earth aims to be a synthesis of science and entertainment and it succeeds. The shuddering floor of a simulated earthquake is fun on the shriek-and-giggle level, but it also involves visitors in the physical goings-on under the surface of the earth. Having felt that judder, smelt that sulphur and dangled over the vertiginous cleft in the earth's crust, you want to know more about this extraordinary phenomenon. Like the best television, these displays are launching pads for learning.

And man is not forgotten. On the greater scale, hominids may be a blip, but Dynamic Earth takes full account of our disproportionate impact on the planet. From the building of dams to the overfishing of the oceans, the galleries recognise the way we have shaped our world. Visitors are left to draw the conclusions.

If there is any complaint about Dynamic Earth, it is that there is so much going on. Somewhere between the yellow submarine, with its stunning windows on the undersea world of coral reefs and polar waters, and the tropical rainforest with its whooping primates, it would be nice to come across a bio-geographic zone that contained somewhere quiet to have a cup of tea.

The closest I got was the iceberg in the polar regions gallery. Cold, blue-tinted, and somehow reassuring in the middle of this whirlwind of technical marvels, it sent me on my way refreshed.

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