As the curator swirls the tiny water-filled test tube, the rusty orange sediment lifts off the bottom and begins to swirl, a mesmerizing message in a bottle that has been brought to the Earth’s surface after more than a billion years underground.
The ancient water, which was recently added to the collection of Ingenium, Canada’s Museums of Science and Innovation, provides information about our Earth in its earliest days but is also an artefact that Ingenium Curator Rebecca Dolgoy hopes will make us think more deeply about our relationship with water in the present.
The water was originally collected in 2009 by University of Toronto geochemist Dr Barbara Sherwood Loller and her team, who descended some 2.4 kilometres below the earth’s surface to collect the samples from the Kid Creek Mine near Timmins, Ont.
The team discovered the mind-blowing truth that the water was a billion years old by looking at its geochemical and radiogenic fingerprints — measuring the quantities of certain isotopes of noble gases and analyzing the rock-eating microbes that lived in the water. This ancient water was salty (three times the salinity of seawater) and sulphurous, around in a geologic era inhospitable to most lifeforms we know today.
But as a curator, Dolgoy sees the water’s significance far beyond the science.
“There are so many messages in this bottle. There are messages about climate change, about our impact on the environment in such a short space of time, about our stewardship responsibilities for this earth. For me, this water is very emotional,” she says. “Thinking about this water in geologic time versus human time is a very emotional experience.”
She hopes that, post-pandemic, museum curators will be able to engage the miners who work underground beside this ancient water, the Indigenous people who have always lived on this particular land, and school groups, seeking a myriad of ideas and meanings around this billion-year-old discovery.