I’m not entirely sure what press releases are for or do (other than get ‘released’ to the press). So I’m not entirely sure what will happen once the press release that has been written for Iain’s and my PLOS Computational Biology paper is released. Most probably nothing. But just in case you have stumbled across this page from another website and would like to know more about the work then this conference paper has the bones of the model while much of its mathematical aspects can be understood as descending from Andy Watson’s and Jim Lovelock’s Daisyworld, first published in 1982. You can get a review of all the developments of Daisyworld from various researchers up to 2008 here. The press release is reproduced below.
It seems somewhat eccentric if not a little absurd to suggest that a planet is a living thing. It has life on it yes, but it’s not a biological organism. Any theory or argument that would conclude that Earth has life-like properties or even is alive could be safely put into the ‘not even wrong‘ waste bin.
So when James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis first proposed the Gaia Hypothesis in their 1974 paper Atmospheric homeostasis by and for the biosphere: the gaia hypothesis some seized on the possible implication that the Earth is a form of biological organism; the Earth is alive? Nonsense! Moreover, planetary homeostasis would appear to require foresight or planning on the role of the biosphere (the dreaded ‘teleology‘ word that biology had worked very hard to remove from the study of life). Just as worse was the seemingly fundamental incompatibility with evolution via natural selection (e.g. see Dawkins’ comments in The Extended Phenotype).
Since the early 1970s Lovelock has published numerous scientific papers and books that have developed the original hypothesis. What has remained constant throughout all of this is the that life, via its interactions with its environment, is a component of a system (the planet Earth) that can be regarded as a homeostatic system (a system that adapts in response to shocks and perturbations) in such a way as to reduce their impact. This is analogous to how you respond to changes in ambient temperature (if you are too cold you shiver and so produce heat in your muscles, if you are too hot you bring blood to the surface of your skin and sweat) so as to ensure that your core body temperature remains within quite narrow bounds.
How the Earth would do this is via biogeochemical processes (life has fundamentally affected many aspects of the Earth). Why the Earth does this is a very interesting question! In short, there doesn’t seem to be any reason why planets with life should be any more homeostatic or stable than planets without life, or that planets with life should be any more likely to continue to have environments that are conducive for life. When I say reason, I could easily say mechanism. No one has proposed any mechanism or general law or theory that could explain how Gaian homeostasis could, or perhaps even should, emerge.
Last week I gave an evening lecture at Intech in Winchester. If you haven’t been to Intech I can really recommend it. Great for kids (small and about my size…) with many hands-on exhibits about science and engineering. The lecture was in their planetarium which was a fabulous venue. I was told it was all state of the art and it looked it. The lecture itself was recorded and may end up online someday. Afterwards I was interviewed by ICM Reporting.
One thing that I forgot to mention in the interview is that one way that I would like people to get more involved in the issues I talked about is to sign up to the Global Challenges online course – when it is actually online. The current module is going very well and I am planning on opening it up for those that would like to study remotely. Please stay tuned for developments.
Read, listen or watch the news and you may come to the conclusion that the Earth is going to hell in a handcart. We Homo sapiens as a species are about one million years old, but it’s only been in the last few hundred years or so that we have really been making a mess of the place. It’s now widely understood that the tremendous, indeed exponential increase in science, technology, and industrialisation has come at significant cost to a range of natural processes that are vital to our survival. Human-induced climate change is perhaps the most famous, along with the hole in the ozone layer. Add to these the destruction of nearly 50% of the world’s forests in less than 50 years, collapse of fisheries, evaporation of lakes such as the Aral Sea and an extinction rate hundreds if not thousands of times higher than pre-industrial periods. Well, it’s not a glowing endorsement of our planet husbandary abilities.
How are we going to continue to live with the Earth, not just live on it? How do we achieve sustainable development so that everyone alive will benefit from the fruits of industrialisation now and into the future? What is it that we want to sustain? What must we keep and what must we lose or exchange? What contributions can we make as individuals, teachers, parents, citizens?
On March 17th 2013 the very first TEDxSouthamptonUniversity will be held at, yes you guessed it, the University of Southampton. During the day, 15 speakers (and some music makers) will give their take on sustainability. Come along and find out what role hairy crabs, deep sea vents, hairdressers, martial arts, old televisions, roundabouts and a skip full of junk have to play in our transition to a more sustainable world.
Details about the day and how to get a ticket can be found at:
See you there!
On Saturday 2nd March I will be attending the Climate Forum Futures Festival. Some details about the event can be found on the Facebook page here. I’m going to talk about denial in the context of climate change. Perhaps in a way that you have never thought about before.
Denial, the refusal to engage with facts or arguments, to hold onto an idea or way of thinking in the face of overwhelming evidence not only impedes our understanding of the natural world, but leaves us in danger of failing to act on issues such as climate change.
It will probably be impossible to convince some inhabitants of the ‘denialosphere’ that humans are importantly responsible for significant and dangerous changes in the Earth’s climate. But what about the rest of us? I believe that many people are in a fundamental state of denial about climate change and many of the other global scale challenges that we and future generations face.
This denial is grounded on notions of progress and development and contains the implicit assumption that we gift future generations the ability to provide solutions to these challenges via our current exploitation of resources. What we can often be in denial about, is that it is this exploitation of resources which is the root cause of the problem. At best we are borrowing from the future. At worse we seem to be at war with it.
Another week, another website. But this one comes curtesy of some productive and very nice folk at the University of Southampton. Have a look at it here.
I want to make as much of the course available online as possible. Already we have some very nice guest lecture videos and an increasing list of associated links and reading. I’m certainly learning a lot.