add a comment
This post reproduces a book review that I wrote for Science. (4 NOVEMBER 2016 • VOL 354 ISSUE 6312).
W hen esteemed geologist Walter Alvarez and his colleagues searched the lowlands of Eastern Mexico for ancient debris that had been ejected from the Chicxulub impact crater, they were following in the footsteps of renowned early-20th-century paleontologist Charles Doolittle Walcott. In his own time, Walcott wandered the Canadian Rockies seeking Cambrian-aged fossils that could shed light on this crucial time period when multicellular life began to flourish. As recounted in his obituary, “One of the most striking of Walcott’s faunal discoveries came at the end of the field season of 1909, when Mrs. Walcott’s horse slid in going down the trail and turned up a slab that at once attracted her husband’s attention. Here was a great treasure—wholly strange Crustacea of Middle Cambrian time…. Snow was even then falling, and the solving of the riddle had to be left to another season.” Serendipity combined with persistence eventually led Walcott to one of the most important discoveries in the history of geology—the softbodied fauna of the Burgess Shale.
In the case of the Alvarez group, two broken jeeps on the last day of the field season of 1991 nearly prevented the researchers from reaching the strange sand bed that Alvarez had chanced to read about in a book about the geology of the region published in 1936. As they “bounced along the rough road following the Arroyo el Mimbral, worrying as the Sun got lower in the sky,” they came upon a layer of glass spherules exposed in a steep bluff along the dry river bed. They suspected that the spherules were droplets of impact melt—“the most wonderful outcrop I have seen in five decades as a geologist,” writes Alvarez in his new book, A Most Improbable Journey: A Big History of Our Planet and Ourselves.
Alvarez is best known for helping to establish that a meteor struck the Yucatán, causing the mass extinction of half the genera of animals on Earth. In A Most Improbable Journey, he tells the story of the cosmos, Earth, life, and humanity using the interdisciplinary approach of Big History, which combines traditional historical scholarship with scientific insights. Alvarez aims to instill in his readers a sense of wonder that, despite enormous odds, there exists a planet (Earth) supremely suited for life. At the same time, he seeks to cultivate an expanded view of the nature of history, replete with contingency and consequent improbability, and to foster appreciation for the enormous stretches of time and space across which history has unfolded.
In each section of A Most Improbable Journey—“Cosmos,” “Earth,” “Life,” and “Humanity”—Alvarez uses both broad questions (have there been recognizable patterns, regularities, cycles, and contingencies in the history of continental motions?) and “little Big History” (how did the Spanish language come to dominate the Iberian Peninsula and then much of Latin America?) to help us comprehend “our whole situation.”
Throughout the book, Alvarez uses evocative phrases and images: History is “violent and chancy,” rocks “remember [their] history,” and mountains “are not wrecks—they are sculptures.” Compelling images of rock and architectural engravings, relief and sketch maps, and historical photographs and drawings enrich the discussion but, unfortunately, are not referred to directly in the text.
Alvarez invites his audience to read the book chapters in any order. Though I chose to read the book cover-to-cover, each chapter does indeed stand alone and therefore lends itself to this type of engagement. The book contains an appendix of resources that Alvarez annotates thoroughly, and it acts as an additional chapter that readers will likely enjoy perusing.
The paleontologist and historian of science Stephen Jay Gould wrote in an essay about the discovery of the Burgess Shale fauna, “So much of science proceeds by telling stories…. Even the most distant and abstract subjects, like the formation of the universe or the principles of evolution, fall within the bounds of necessary narrative” (1). In A Most Improbable Journey, Alvarez harnesses such narrative, enabling readers to experience the power of Big History.
REFERENCES 1. S.J. Gould,“Literary Bias on the Slippery Slope,” in Bully for Brontosaurus (Norton, 1992).
Tags: Israel, Palestine, Study Trip, Vassar
add a comment
Google doodle celebrates fossil collector and paleontologist’s 215th birthday as reported in The Independent.
And since Google is celebrating Anning, whom I’ve always associated with ammonites, an extinct group of marine invertebrate animals (phylum: mollusca; class: cephelopoda), I’ve posted below a photograph of two of my students from our March 2014 study trip in which we visited the famous “Ammonite Wall” in the Negev Desert.
Pliny the Elder referred to these fossils as the “horns of Ammon” because their coiled shape was reminiscent of the ram’s horns worn by the Egyptian god Ammon. The photo below shows the remarkable exposure of a laterally extensive sedimentary layer chock full of ammonite fossils. That’s yours truly standing on the steeply dipping bedding plane.
add a comment
Here’s a quick letter to the editor (not published as far as I know) regarding the New Yorker’s recent piece on the scientific exploration of Mars. The cover of the New Yorker issue that contained the piece is pictured here. The cover epitomizes the essay.
To the editor:
Burkhard Bilger’s piece “The Martian Chroniclers” (April 22, 2013) came just at the right time for me and my Vassar students in STS/WMST 375, “Gender, Race and Science.” We ‘d been reading all semester feminist histories of science in an attempt to track changes in the culture of science and had just arrived at the issue of the so-called “leaky pipeline” that is, why so many women leave science even after they obtain advanced degrees.
In communicating the tremendous excitement of discoveries of the Martian rover “Curiosity” since its spectacularly successful landing this past summer–I’m a geoscientist who studies what sediments reveal about planetary history–Bilger also inadvertently conveys much about subtleties in science culture that make it difficult for women to persist over the long-term in scientific research.
Bilger’s depiction of mission engineer Adam Steltzner captures the gendered bravado, swagger and profanity (“We think we’ve crushed this fucker”) that characterizes big-money science and puts off people who feel uncomfortable with masculinist discourse. Bilger plays into the gender divide in science. Although he lauds the work of geologist John Grotzinger (who Steltzner derides as “fairly charming but not brash”), he plays up the enthusiasm for the “arsenal of instruments” that ” slender, effervescent” rover driver Vandi Tompkins has for her scientific endeavor. And he resurrects the birthing trope commenting that “the Sky Crane was Steltzner’s baby….the landing also happened to coincide with another long-term project of his, now approaching its final descent: his wife, Trisha, was nine months pregnant.”
What would science look like if scientists and those who report on it worked actively to end this hierarchically gendered structure?
Jill S. Schneiderman, Professor of Earth Science, Vassar College
Not Standing Still: A Solstice-time Reflection from a “Geologian” December 21, 2012Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in contemplative practice, Ecozoic, environmentalism, geologian, meditation, mindfulness practice, science, Thomas Berry.
Tags: environment, liberal arts college, lotus position, science
add a comment
Among my favorite cartoons is one my mom gave me by the cartoonist and author of The Soul Support Book, Deb Koffman. Entitled “Sitting with Awareness,” in each of sixteen small square frames Koffman depicts a person sitting in lotus position wearing, what we call in my house “at–homes”– in other words sweatpants. (Click here to visit Koffman’s site — you’ll find the image under “Mindfulness Prints.”) Phrases beneath each frame taken together constitute the following poem. I sure can relate to it, and maybe you can too:
I’m aware of my posture, I’m aware of my knees, I’m aware of my hands, I’m aware of a breeze.
I’m aware of my breath, I’m aware I feel cold, I’ve got a pain in my side, I’m getting old.
The clock is ticking, my eye has a twitch, my stomach is grumbling, my back has an itch.
My foot fell asleep, my pants are too tight, someone is coughing, am I doing this right?
Why do I relate to this poem? Because as I pursue my work as a geoscientist–educator at a liberal arts college — reading, teaching, and striving at the intersections of earth science, gender studies, environmental studies, and history of science — I often wonder, “Am I doing this right?”
In answer to that question, I’m encouraged by news that The University of Virginia received a multimillion dollar gift this year to establish a Contemplative Sciences Center. One purpose of the center will be to promote awareness about the potential benefits of training one’s mind and body. David Germano, a professor of religious studies in the College of Arts and Sciences who will help lead the center commented, ”Hopefully, like drops in the ocean, this training can lead people to greater reflexivity, greater understanding, greater caring, greater efficiency and greater insight.” Huzzah to that.
This means greater validation for the kind of work I try to do as a contemplative educator in my science classes. Not that I doubt the benefits of contemplative practices in higher education. Students continue to write to me post-graduation, amidst real-life struggles about how the contemplative approaches I’ve taught them while they were in college have been among the most sustaining practices they’ve used to deal with everyday living. It’s just that professional scientific societies offer much advice about the fact that geoscientists — as educators and Eaarthlings — must involve ourselves in addressing “critical needs for the 21st century.”
For example, we are urged to prioritize efforts to ensure reliable energy supplies in an increasingly carbon-constrained world; provide sufficient supplies of water; sustain oceans, atmosphere, and space resources; manage waste to maintain a healthy environment; mitigate risk and build resilience from natural and human-made hazards; improve and build needed infrastructure that couples with and uses Earth resources while integrating new technologies; ensure reliable supplies of raw materials; inform the public and train the geosciences workforce to understand Earth processes and address these critical needs. It’s a long and lofty list.
But critically absent from the “critical needs” list are endeavors equally critical to achieving this balance on Earth. For example, for my personal list of critical needs as a science educator, I’ve added the following imperatives:
- Tell a scientific story of the universe that has a mythic, narrative dimension that elevates the story from a prosaic study of data to an inspiring spiritual vision;
- Articulate our dream of the future Ecozoic era, defined as that time when humans will be present to the Earth in a mutually enhancing manner;
- Circumvent the problem of anthropocentrism that is at the center of the devastation we are experiencing;
- Allow acknowledgment that currently, human beings are a devastating presence on the planet; supposedly acting for our own benefit, truthfully we are ruining the conditions for our health and survival as well as that of other living beings;
- Promote hope through contemplation of how tragic moments of disintegration over the past centuries were followed by hugely creative moments of regeneration;
- Recover the capacity for subjective communion with the Earth and identification with the cosmic-Earth-human process as a new mode of interdependence;
- Nourish awareness for a vision of Earth-human development that will allow a sustainable dynamic of the modern world;
- Foster development of intimacy with the natural world.
I developed this list as a result of reading the work of Thomas Berry (1914-2009), a leading scholar, cultural historian, and Catholic priest who spent fifty years writing about our relationship with the Earth. “The universe,” he said, “is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” Berry, had a doctorate in history from The Catholic University of America, studied Chinese language and Chinese culture in China and learned Sanskrit for the study of India and the traditions of religion in India. One of his earliest books was a history of Buddhism. Having established the History of Religions program at Fordham University Berry published numerous prophetic books including The Dream of the Earth, The Great Work, and his last work The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty-First Century. This last writing especially fuels my conviction that science done well is also a spritual discipline. Berry called himself a “geologian” and wrote:
Our new acquaintance with the universe as an irreversible developmental process can be considered the most significant religious, spiritual, and scientific event since the emergence of the more complex civilizations some five thousand years ago…. if interpreted properly, the scientific venture could even be one of the most significant spiritual disciplines of these times. This task is particularly urgent, since our new mode of understanding is so powerful in its consequences for the very structure of the planet Earth. We must respond to its deepest spiritual content or else submit to the devastation that is before us (The Sacred Universe 119-120).
The notion that that my geology may be at once both scientific and spiritual has me also adopting the moniker, “geologian.” And that the University of Virginia is moving forward with its Contemplative Sciences Center fuels my hope that engaging science as a spiritual discipline in order to encourage embodied paths to wisdom and social transformation is in itself a worthwhile practice.
We’ve almost arrived at the winter solstice here in the northern hemisphere. On the year’s shortest day, the sun appears to halt in its progressive journey across the sky. From Earth it seems that the sun hardly changes its position on this day, hence the name solstice meaning ”sun stands still.” But despite appearances, the sun is changing its position relative to the Earth inasmuch as, speaking scientifically, the Earth circles the sun each year while it rotates on a tilted axis and creates the changing seasons (the hemisphere that faces the sun receives longer and more powerful exposure to sunlight). For half of each year the North Pole is tilted away from the sun and on the winter solstice the tilt makes the sun seem most faraway. This astronomical event announces the onset of winter in the northern hemisphere.
Speaking as a “geologian” I observe that these are indeed the darkest days of the year. But as I pause, as the sun seems to, at this point in my yearly journey around the sun, I note that in the darkness is the promise of the gradual return of more light. As you circle the sun and participate in the turning of the wheel of the year, what do you notice and to what do you bow?
Citizen-Scientist and Meditator November 16, 2012Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in contemplative practice, meditation, mindfulness practice, science.
add a comment
A recent Scientific American article reports on a new study published in Annals of Family Medicine that found that adults who practiced mindful meditation or moderately intense exercise for eight weeks suffered less from seasonal ailments during the following winter than those who did not meditate or exercise.
Participants who had meditated missed 76 percent fewer days of work from September through May than did the control subjects while those who had exercised missed 48 percent fewer days during this period. The severity of respiratory ailments also differed between the two groups. Those who had meditated or exercised suffered for an average of five days while the colds of people in the control group lasted eight. According to Scientific American, lab tests confirmed that the self-reported length of colds correlated with the amounts of antibodies in the body, something considered to be a biomarker for the presence of a virus.
I’m not surprised by this report. But I am taken by the fact that, once again, your average meditating Jo, is supposed to feel validated by the fact that science confirms what she already knows to be true. That we have been forced to wait for scientists to confirm observations that are obvious, such as the fact that water that omits odors is contaminated with toxic chemicals has gotten us human beings into quite a few predicaments. I need to look no further than the Hudson valley where I live as the U.S. EPA stops for this season it’s dredging of Hudson River sediments long contaminated with PCBs.
As a person who sits 30-minutes daily, I know that I am quite aware of what is going on with my body. This is not news to anyone who has a regular sitting practice. Thus, when I read the Scientific American report of the study of meditators and those who exercise regularly, I hardly thought it was news. An intuitive explanation for the fact that those who meditated or exercised suffered for a shorter period of time the colds or flus they contracted is easily explained as follows. A person who meditates is much more likely than one who does not to note the fact that she is feeling unwell; such a person then has the opportunity to choose to take the time for rest and renewal and thus shorten the period of illness. This is common sense.
I have no complaint with looking to science for confirmation of reality but I think we need not depend on it to the exclusion of one’s own basic powers of observations, which are of course enhanced by mindfulness practice.
add a comment
As a follow-up to my op-ed yesterday, “Science Fiction Science Fact,” I’d like to call to readers’ attention the Op-Ed in today’s New York Times by Orrin Pilkey. Orrin of course hits all the salient points. Blessings to him for never tiring of trying to get people to face the reality of beach erosion.
Significantly for me, the illustration that accompanies Orrin’s op-ed directly answers my final imploring question: “Will an artist please render that scientific fact?” [The fact of inevitable beach erosion]. Graphic artist Henning Wagenbreth has done so. His image shows a dark storm cloud exhaling wind above a stormy sea whose waves tickle the feet of a fleeing beach house that carries with it an uprooted tree and automobile. With words and images, Pilkey and Wagebreth bring science and art together to once again try to capture the reality of today and tomorrow.
Listen! The Earth Breathes! November 8, 2012Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Anthropocene, climate change, earth system science, Ecozoic, environmentalism, global warming, Hurricane Sandy, hydrologic cycle, science, sea-level rise, Teilhard de Chardin.
This piece appears in Shambhala SunSpace.
Like many millions of people around the world, I was captivated by President Barack Obama’s election night victory speech. And my heart cheered when I heard the President say, “we want our children to live in an America that…. isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.” Maybe the Earth has now, finally, made itself heard on the issue of the disastrous implications of global warming for all beings that live on this planet.
I’ve always favored scientist James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis that organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a self-regulating complex system that contributes to maintaining conditions for life on the planet. And I’ve also been a big fan of Vice-President Gore’s book, An Inconvenient Truth, especially because he makes so clear that the Earth actually breathes. “It’s as if the entire Earth takes a big breath in and out once each year,” he wrote in referring to the Keeling Curve, the diagram by scientist Charles David Keeling that shows not only the overall increase in CO2 in the atmosphere starting in the late 1950s based on measurements of atmospheric CO2 at Mauna Loa, Hawaii but also the annual cycle of increase and decrease of CO2 in the atmosphere that results from the growth and decay of vegetation.
And now at the risk of committing the sin of anthropomorphism (attributing human motivation to an inanimate subject), I’ll suggest that Earth itself cast a vote in this election.
Some pundits say that “Superstorm Sandy” helped the President win the election partly because of his compassionate and competent response to the crisis. I’m no poll, so I don’t know. I hope only that this election marks our movement into a new geologic Era thatJesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) once proposed: the Ecozoic, a new era of mutually enhancing human-earth relations.
In The Long Road Turns to Joy, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote:
You will be like the tree of life.
Your leaves, trunk, branches,
And the blossoms of your soul
Will be fresh and beautiful,
Once you enter the practice of
May the re-election of Barack Obama usher in the Ecozoic Era, a period in which we listen attentively to what the Earth tells us and live the understanding that we breathing humans are the breathing Earth.
From Science and Art, Global Warming is Real November 2, 2012Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Anthropocene, art, climate change, disasters, global warming, Hurricane Sandy, science, sea-level rise.
add a comment
So what if global warming isn’t directly responsible for “superstorm Sandy”? Let’s not get hung up on that minor detail.
Because the planet has warmed–the average surface temperature of the Earth rose 1.08°F to 1.62°F (0.6 to 0.9 °C) between 1906 and 2006— the cryosphere has melted, moving H2O from the ice caps to the oceans.
Markers show the dramatic retreat of the Athabasca Glacier, photo Judd Patterson
And seawater has literally expanded. As a result, sea level has risen—worldwide measurements of sea level show a rise of about 0.56 feet ((0.17 meters) during the twentieth century.
Earlier this week Hurricane Sandy pushed the sea onto land in coastal regions that are today more “low-lying” than they were a century ago. Images are still coming in of the devastation caused by such mass movement of water along parts of the northeastern coast. Earth behaved as predicted and revealed the increased risk to which we have subjected ourselves.
At a time when scientists have been convicted of not making good predictions may I be the first to congratulate Dr. Jianjun Yin, a climate modeler at the Center for Ocean-Atmospheric Prediction Studies (COAPS) at Florida State University, and colleagues Michael Schlesinger of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Ronald Stouffer of Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory at Princeton University? In 2009 these folks published their analysis of data from ten state-of-the-art climate models and warned that, considering its population density and the potential socioeconomic consequences of such changes, the northeast coast of the U.S. is one of the areas most vulnerable to changes in sea level and ocean circulation.
Yin and his colleagues advised that, since much of the New York City metro region is less than 16 feet above mean sea level—with some parts of lower Manhattan only about 5 feet above it—a sea level rise of eight inches could be catastrophic. New York City would be at great risk, they added, for damage from hurricanes and winter storm surge (emphasis mine). Yin et al are the Hurricane Sandy analogs of scientists at Louisiana State University whose models of storm tracks led a reporter for Scientific American to presage in 2001 “New Orleans is a disaster waiting to happen.”
Yin’s study, “Model Projections of Rapid Sea-Level Rise on the Northeast Coast of the United States,” produced this artist’s rendering of a flooded Manhattan.
But the images below are no artist’s rendering. They are photographs of water inundating the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s new South Ferry Terminal.
The trees and map along the walls are part of a site-specific art installation, See it Split, See it Change (2005-2008) made of fused glass, mosaic marble, and stainless steel by Doug and Mike Starn. The work of these artists has articulated themes of impermanence and transience.
Let’s heed the message from both science and art. Can we all just pay attention to the Earth?
1 comment so far
Published on Wednesday, October 24, 2012 by Common Dreams and October 25 by Truthout.
Militaries, Mammals and Spiritual Science October 14, 2012Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Anthropocene, earth community, earth system science, environmentalism, science, slow violence, Thomas Berry.
add a comment
This piece is cross-posted at Truthout.orgThough not as closely related as they are to hippos, whales have much in common with elephants. Speaking scientifically, they belong to different taxonomic orders–whales to the taxonomic order Cetacea and elephants to the order Proboscidea, but they come from a common ancestor with hoofs and are therefore distinct from other orders of mammals such as primates or rodents. Of course, they both are large, intelligent, social mammals and they share a precarious existence.
Therefore, I was glad to read a New York Times op-ed this morning that condemned the plan of the U.S. Navy to carry out tests and exercises using explosives and sonar devices in the Earth’s major oceans during the five-year period 2014-2019. The Navy estimates that this military activity will negatively affect 33 million marine mammals. Reading this caused my mind to wander back to the stories I read in the Times last month about the widespread slaughter of elephants by members of African militias who remove the ivory tusks and sell them to purchase weapons. Though the butchery of elephants by African militaries is bloodier business than effects such as temporary hearing loss and ruptured eardrums of marine mammals that the U.S. Navy deems “negligible,” I can’t help but think that Earth is in the dire shape it is today because of this type of behavior.
Listen to Krista Tippett’s interview with Dr. Katy Payne, an acoustic biologist attributed with discovering that humpback whales compose ever-changing songs to communicate, and understanding that elephants communicate with one another across long distances by infrasound. One can’t help but be heartbroken at the suffering experienced by these sophisticated beings as a result of such unjustifiable military activities–legal and illegal, in the sea or on land, by developed or developing nations. Dr. Payne comments:
“My sense is that community responsibility, when it’s managed well, results in peace. And peace benefits everyone. That taking care of someone or something to which you are not immediately genetically related pays you back in other dimensions, and the payback is part of your well-being. Compassion is useful and beneficial for all.”
In my opinion, human societies must grow a generation of spiritual scientists who, like Katy Payne, respond emotionally to their scientific work and can try to help change the path down which this planet is headed.
I don’t know if he knew her but I bet Thomas Berry (1914-2009) would have loved Katy Payne. Berry, a leading scholar, cultural historian, and Catholic priest who called himself a “geologian”, spent fifty years writing about our relationship with the Earth and urging humanity to save the natural world in order to save itself. In his last book, The Sacred Universe, he wrote that we must respond to its [the Earth’s] deepest spiritual content or else submit to the devastation that is before us. He dreamed of a new geological Era, the Ecozoic, in which “humans will be present to the Earth in a mutually enhancing manner.”
When it comes to other beings on planet Earth, scientists must do more than articulate their observations of other organisms as if with objectivity. Elephants and whales, along with other marine mammals, are more than “stocks” of resources, as some governments would have us believe. They are living beings with systems of communications and social relations to whom we are connected. Recognition of such connection puts us in touch with the fact that, in Berry’s words, “the universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” Can someone please tell the Navy?