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News Release

June 4, 2008


John Sanford, News Service: (650) 736-2151,

A 10-minute tutorial on plate tectonics

More than 200 people converged on Roble Field Saturday afternoon to reenact a half-billion years of plate tectonics.

The reenactment, which was filmed, begins 250 million years ago with the supercontinent Pangaea and ends 250 million years from today, when Pangaea is expected to re-form. The entire geological process lasted about 10 minutes on Roble Field.

Kat Hoffman, a co-terminal student in Earth systems, spearheaded the project, which was inspired by a 1971 short film, narrated by Nobel laureate and Stanford biochemist Paul Berg, showing students as "human pixels" acting out protein synthesis. That film is now used in high schools and medical schools across the country.

"I make movies for fun," Hoffman said. "I saw the protein synthesis video a few years ago and thought it would be a good idea to make a sequel."

Hoffman went about recruiting participants by sending a mass e-mail about a month ago to assess interest on campus. The response was overwhelming. "Within a week, over a hundred people responded," she said.

Immediately, she began planning the logistics. The Earth Systems Program provided some funding for equipment, and about 20 students took on positions as continent leaders and were assigned to organize participants into groups.

Scattered across the field, students and a handful of faculty donned outfits of various colors to represent the different continents. A leader for the South American cohort, Mesa Schumacher, was dressed head-to-toe in purple. "I was obsessed with the protein synthesis video in high school, and when I found out this was happening, I told Kat I wanted to help out," she said.

There were many notable faculty appearances, mostly by professors with academic ties to the subject matter. Professor Rob Dunbar, the director of the Earth Systems Program, joined the Antarctica group, which was wearing white shirts under black jackets to represent penguins and to simulate the formation of ice caps. Dunbar, who does research on the continent, led students in opening and closing their jackets during the "present day" segment of the video, recreating the glacial and interglacial periods of that time. Other participating professors and lecturers included Peter Vitousek (Biology), Robert Siegel (Microbiology and Immunology), David Howell (Earth Systems), Meg Caldwell (Law) and Deborah Sivas (Law).

Hoffman stood on a 43-foot-high lift to film the reenactment. She shouted instructions through a megaphone that might have perplexed unassuming passersby: "Oceans, you need to learn which direction you are flowing!" and "North America, you are way too north right now."

Highlights of the sequence included dinosaur extinction, an asteroid collision in the Gulf of Mexico and a series of volcanic eruptions—all played by small groups of costumed students. Hoffman sought and received approval to use emergency smoke flares from the Coast Guard (although the smoke was ultimately not visible enough, she discovered, for the film).

Over the summer, Hoffman will edit the video, adding music and narration. She hopes it will be used educationally in a variety of contexts. "It's a pretty fun way to represent plate tectonics," she said.

Arielle Lasky is a science-writing intern at the Stanford News Service.


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