Posts Tagged ‘Earth

19
Nov
10

Chinese-born scientist reveals why the future belongs to China

Earlier this week there was an article about a China-born scientist named Yihua Zeng who is a solar weather scientist developing techniques to predict solar storms so we can anticipate the effects the energy outbursts will have on Earth and the finicky satellites swarming around it.

This is a new field and the article related how Ms. Zeng came to her calling. She was born in China after the Cultural Revolution had screwed up the nation and her father’s life for a couple of decades. After 1977 things got better and she started school. The article reports:

She was encouraged in math and science ever since elementary school in a culture that honored the sciences. “Being a scientist is very cool and very sacred,” says Zheng. “It’s almost every child’s dream to be a scientist when they grow up.”

That’s the remark that blew my mind! Imagine — in contrast to the prevailing culture in America — that we too honored the sciences and the dream of children was to be a scientist when they grow up. I can’t even imagine a greater contrast between two societies. Highly educated people in the US have been treated with derision and even suspicion my wholelife. Many names have been given to scientists: nerd, geek, dork, brain, egghead, mad scientist, weirdo, etc. The negative epithets applied to the highly educated and to scientists  have demonstrably damaged the recruitment of capable young students into math and science, especially girls. “A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” but it happens every day.

In America we have idolized the man of action, or the common-sense, two-fisted action figure. Solve problems with muscle, not brains. In Asia and other countries the intelligent, well-educated person is venerated. That, to my way of thinking, is a cultural flaw America that can’t reverse any time soon. We scratch our heads and ask, “How do we fix our schools? Why is our education system broken?” Ms. Zeng revealed why: it’s a cultural thing and cultures are incredibly hard to change. Our grad schools are filled with foreign students, but today countries like China are actively working to repatriate them after graduation unlike a couple of decades ago.

A few months ago I posted about how much China is committing huge amounts of money to educating their population. Add to that the comments of Ms. Zeng and I think the future seems pretty clear. I have long believed that the future belongs to the countries or cultures that make the most of their intellectual capital: the brains of their people. Those cultures deserve to lead the world. Seems to me the leadership in science, technology, and, hence, wealth and culture will shift to other hands.

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21
Apr
10

good news from the abyssal plain

I saw something the other day about life on Earth that gave me a lift. Science Now reported that the Census of Marine Life, after a decade of surveying marine organisms all over the world, has documented that 90% of the ocean’s biomass consists of microbes, larvae, and plankton. The total mass of these little critters is equivalent to 240 billion elephants! Elephant-equivalents. The researchers pulled the creatures from the sea itself, from the mud, from the deep-sea vents, and from the bottom of the abyssal plain. (The phrase “abyssal plain” gives me the chills!)

Using new generation sequences researchers identified 18 million DNA sequences. Mich Sogan, a Woods Hole scientist, says “there could be as many as a billion bacteria and archaea, another group of single-cell organisms like bacteria.” A couple of interesting findings are: 1) the microbial diversity increased the deeper they looked in the water column, 2) but sometimes a microbe’s environment  is simply one other organism.

A bonus interest for me is to learn that the richest marine organism environment is the plateau off the Pacific Northwest Coast where 25,000 to 35,000 different microorganisms live in each litre of sea water. I’m writing this post from Beaverton, Oregon, where my wife and I are planning to move next month. So I can just drive to the coast and wade in the rich microbial soup.

All this lifts me because I relish the thought that here on Earth, whether or not we humans commit to being responsible stewards to the one life-perfect planet we know of, the richness of life code on the planet is ineradicable. Human affairs often discourage me, but life is indomitable. The Earth has occupied a sweet-spot for life for billions of years and will continue to for many more.

17
Mar
10

playing by the rules

Last week I read something disappointing. An article (that I didn’t bookmark) said that in some survey Americans don’t see climate change as as much of concern as a year or two ago. That amazes me. I know it was a horrendous winter on the East Coast, and some hanky-panky dug up about some scientists involved in climate research exposed the all-too-human backside of science; but how can people with bigger stakes in the future than I have become complacent about something with such far-reaching consequences?

I’m 64 so I won’t personally experience the full consequences of climate change; I’ll have  been recycled by the worms well before the whole thing plays out. I don’t have any children, but I do have a couple of young-adult grandchildren by way of marriage who I care about. They call me “Uncle Dave.” But I don’t see how people with responsibility for tomorrow’s children can get blase about what’s going to happen 30 to 100 years from now. As I pointed out in one of my first posts to this blog, the children being born today have a 50/50 chance of living to 100. When I see a tyke being wheeled down the sidewalk in one of those strollers that looks like a spaceship escape pod I feel a pang of sadness to think that he or she might have to live in a badly degraded world with perhaps unprecedented human turmoil.

Then I read an opinion piece from the LA Times that expressed my perception of the situation very well. In a column titled “The Earth has its own set of rules,” B.E. Mahall and F.H. Bormann said the following:

The Earth has its own set of rules, solidly grounded in laws of physics and chemistry and emergent principles of geology and biology. Unlike our economic model, these are not artificial constructs. They are real, and they govern. Earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, tornadoes, 100-year floods, massive wildfires and disease epidemics are dramatic examples of parts of nature, neither all service nor all harm, creating and destroying, and governed by rules that are indifferent to humans. Our anthropocentric economic model for interacting with the world ignores and is proving to be incompatible with Earth’s rules, and is therefore on a direct collision course with them.

To achieve a more accurate model of our relation to nature, we need to see ourselves as part of nature, governed by nature (not economics), beholden to nature for ecosystem services and subject to nature’s disturbances.

Precisely! The Earth is a platform that has occupied a sweet-spot around the sun for several billion years that has permitted the most complex things in the universe we know of to evolve. Humans are at the apex of this process having evolved a capacity to comprehend the workings of Earth’s rules, to have some degree of insight and foresight about what might happen down the road, and a capacity to make choices and decisions that affect the whole. But, overall, a lot of people seem content to continue with business as uaual and just wait to see how it all ends up.

Earth is a unique place for a prolonged, open-ended experiment with life. The outcome is not determined. The universe is neither for us or against us: it’s indifferent to our welfare. It’s up to us to actively make it work out well…or not.




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