Sunday, January 1, 2012

Connectedness and complexity

In Science, when I was a kid, you studied One Thing At A Time. Geology. Biology. Oceanography. Meteorology. True, they all had engaging specialties like Volcanology or Entomology, but they were still nicely autonomous. You grew up to be a Geologist. Or a Biologist. At Oregon State, the Geologists rarely spoke to Oceanographers down the hall. Things were Clearly Defined. (This, until the 1960's, extended to matters of race, and until the dawn of the 21st century, seemed to apply to matters of sexuality as well. The great unraveling of strict categories is perhaps more universal than the labels of scientific disciplines.)

With greater scrutiny, (and greater understanding) the complexity of the world around us is more apparent. Now we have the highly respected field of paleobiogeochemistry, and many others that reflect the intricacy and connectedness of planetary systems.

Two recent discoveries epitomize this. First, the trigger for many major earthquakes, including the 2010 Haiti devastation, is fingered as tropical cyclones by University of Miami marine geophysicist Shimon Wdowinski. His proposed mechanism is something of a Rube Goldberg process: cyclone saturates land, uproots trees, and otherwise destabilizes large portions of the surface. Landslides and floods ensue, changing the weight distribution of landmasses above a major fault. This shift places new stress on the system, and it responds, voile' with a sometimes significant temblor. This does not happen overnight. Wdowinski finds that two to five years transpire between major cyclones/rain events, and the subsequent quakes--which often occur on unknown faults. But it is one more indicator of how closely systems on the planet are connected--and often large systems at that. A new field--geometeorolgy looms.

Then there are the magnetic bacteria in Death Valley's Badwater -- the lowest place in the Western Hemisphere. (photo above) More properly, they are called magnetotactic bacteria. They spend their lives like miniature, living compass needles, swimming north and south, following the Earth's magnetic field through life. These organisms actually produce the mineral magnetite--their own compass. The ones in Death Valley breathe sulfur rather than oxygen and produce a magnetic iron sulfide (greigite). Life, adapted to a world without oxygen, and forever following a magnetic field, seems not only bizarre, but also another example of interconnectedness--organisms that depend upon geophysics for their survival. Who would have guessed. (Of course, we also depend--or at least depended in pre-satellite eras--on the magnetic field for guidance and navigation--but not to the same degree of compulsion!)

I look forward to the new discoveries of 2012--perhaps more interconnected than ever.

PS: I may be changing my blog from Blogger, which seems a bit antiquated and unconnected, to support from Wordpress. See you more often in the year ahead!

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