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Open Science: Why I Blog January 20, 2012

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in science.
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On a recent airplane trip I watched Contagion, director Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 thriller in which traveler Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) contracts a deadly virus in Hong Kong and transports it home to the U.S. while other people spread the infection to China, the U.K., and Japan. I couldn’t resist; I was flying and the movie cried out, “Watch Me!” I thought I was called to it as a disaster flick centered on public health and scientific responses to pandemic. But what really grabbed me was the back-story about bloggers.

In the film, Jude Law plays Alan Krumwiede, a freelance Internet journalist or “semi-crackpot blogger” who disparages print journalism and blogs about the pandemic from its inception. Early in the film, Krumwiede is dismissed by Professor Ian Sussman (Elliot Gould) a research scientist working to provide a cell line that might facilitate development of an effective vaccine. Sussman quips “Blogging isn’t writing, it’s graffiti with punctuation.” Though Krumwiede turns out to be a villain in the film, as a blogger I was sympathetic to his plight.

Of course I’m a college professor–a geoscientist–whose job is ostensibly to educate students about earth processes and to publish original research that adds to our understanding about the planet.  Also, at the liberal arts college where I’m a professor, interdisciplinary scholarship is valued so I teach and write about gender, history of science, and “the environment.” If tenure and promotion are any guide (and I’m open to debate on that score), I’ve done well over the 25 years I’ve endeavored in this realm. But I’ve encountered the limits of educational liberalism as I’ve grown into a blogger over the last couple of years.

In a regular blog for Shambhala SunSpace I address topics at the intersections of earth science, dharma (teachings of the Buddha), and mindfulness practice. Sometimes the blog takes me into political realms, at other times I reflect on historical and current events, and occasionally I write a book review–all of it infused with a geological gaze. Although my institution’s response to this robust engagement with the blogosphere has been tepid, my enthusiasm for this public arena continues unabated. Here’s why.

To me, blogging is a practice that facilitates my aspiration to be present in the moment. When I blog, I engage with thoughts on the front burners of my brain, if you will. Very often these ideas relate to contemporary environmental issues, problems that affect all beings and require mindful awareness and attentive exchanges. Blogging supports my intention to stay grounded in wisdom and inclined towards benevolence. The Academy may feed my head but the blogosphere also nourishes my heart. Posts have put me in dialogue with some of the most progressive thinkers of our day. I’ve been honored to have had opportunities to think together with artists from Marfa, Texas and musicians in Minnesota, as well as acclaimed journalist and author Naomi Klein and Heinz Award winner Sandra Steingraber–chances that never would have presented themselves had I not put my ideas out into the world in real-time. And my site stats for my personal website, EarthDharma.org, keep me going.

In contrast, though I’m always passionate about fresh topics, devotion wanes as the present becomes the past. In 2010 I researched, wrote and had accepted for publication a peer-reviewed paper on the somewhat forgotten literary naturalist John Burroughs. And although I’ve had the pleasure of discussing the life and work of Burroughs–early champion of Walt Whitman, travel companion of President Teddy Roosevelt, and close friend of historical giants including John Muir and Henry Ford–with a few dozen scholars at conferences, my paper languishes in the queue for print publication.  When the paper does eventually appear (promised now for 2012), the handful of people who read “Journeys, Contemplation, and Home: Reflections on John Burroughs in the Caribbean” in peer-reviewed journal that has accepted it, will be a narrow audience out of sync with my intellectual passion and I’ll be well onto other subjects. Does being in sync with my intellectual passion matters to anyone but me? Perhaps.

As reported in the New York Times yesterday, other scientists are drawn to “open science” and the fast communication of ideas that it offers. I’ll be following with interest the sixth annual ScienceOnline conference that begins tomorrow at North Carolina State University. Sessions such as “Networking Beyond the Academy” or “Undergraduate Education: Collaborating to Create the Next Generation of Open Scientists” might put me in touch with other interdisciplinary scientist-educators attracted to post-disciplinary open science.

After blogging for two years, I’m working on turning my posts into a book that examines the dharma as taught by Earth. I know this makes me sound marginal. But that’s okay. According to the theory of punctuated equilibrium, evolution by natural selection occurs when vast periods of stasis are punctuated by the innovations of isolates along the periphery of ecosystems. The disciplinarily-bound Academy has operated the same way for centuries and in our troubled times innovation such as open science operating at the margins of the educational system may be among the changes needed to assure survival of 21st century species.

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Cherishing Living Beings — Seen and Unseen January 9, 2012

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Antarctica, Buddhist concepts, earth community, earth system science, environmentalism, fracking, hydraulic fracturing, hydrosphere, ocean pollution, oil spill, science, yeti crab.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.

(Image from the first-ever video footage of the newly found Yeti Crab.)

The first time I chanted the Metta Sutta — the Buddha’s teaching on lovingkindness — I was a retreatant at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts and I got caught up in the inflection marks that appeared above the words; I couldn’t quite figure out when my voice should go up and when it should go down. I felt self conscious about not getting it right and awkward each time we chanted thesutta (in Pali, the language of the Buddha, sutta means “thread” and its presence in the title of a text indicates that it is a sermon of the Buddha or one of his major disciples). Still, at each sit I looked forward to the collective chant. I listened carefully and chanted along with the group following the rhythm, tempo,  and pitch. Eventually the sutta seeped into my bones, resonated in my body. In short order, I loved it.

These days, one of my favorite aspects of a retreat with Sylvia Boorstein and Sharon Salzberg is our coming out of silence by reciting together this sutta and discussing the lines we love. Usually my mind settles on “contented and easily satisfied” or “so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings.”

For there, seven thousand feet beneath the sea surface, are  “black smokers” — hydrothermal vents in the ocean floor — that spew hot, mineral-rich water into cold deep and build chimneys of a sort. Around them, living beings seen and unseen, cluster–species of giant tube worms and clams feeding on microscopic organisms, species sharing this spot on Earth over millions of years.

Not that I’m trying here to suggest that either the microscopic organisms or the larger animals at the vents are sentient and feel what human beings call contentment; rather, these critters are simply eking out a living — making the best out of their (sub)station in life. And I guess that to me, this is another manifestation of the wisdom of the Earth System; at these black smokers we see other beings that live within the constraints of their situation –”contented and easily satisfied.”

I’m inspired by these beings that make their own food not from sunlight (photosynthesis) but from chemicals in the water (chemosynthesis)! They’re not grazing on golden hills like the deer Sylvia has described that wander near Spirit Rock Meditation Center. They are what biologists call extremophiles. They dwell under pressure, in the dark, making their food from the Earth’s hot effluent!

Amazingly, but perhaps not surprisingly given that three-quarters of the Earth is ocean and we’ve explored precious little of the floor beneath, there seem to be plenty of living beings we’ve yet to meet. A few days ago, published research on newly discovered deep sea hydrothermal vents in the Southern Ocean near Antarctica revealed some entirely new species. Check out this previously unknown species of hairy-armed crustaceans called “yeti crabs” living tightly packed together on and around the vents.

In the aftermath of various insults to the salty portion of the Earth’s hydrosphere such as the recent oil spill off the Nigerian coast, and in anticipation of damage from hydrofracking to unknown beings that undoubtedly reside in deep regions of the lithosphere, I offer these observations.

Perhaps one day we may, in the words of the sutta, cherish with a boundless heart all living beings, omitting none.

This entry was created by Jill S. Schneiderman, posted on January 9, 2012 at 11:04 am and tagged. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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