Sunday, July 31, 2011

Getting to know Gaia 3

In this post, I am continuing to review in my own unique fashion James Lovelock's  Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (OUP, 1979, 1987, 1995, 2000).  One of the things I like about this book is that the author got a lot of his inspiration for this wee classic while walking on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean on the west coast of our small island country, Ireland:

When I started to write in 1974 in the unspoilt landscape of Western Ireland, it was like living in a house run by Gaia, someone who tried hard to make all her guests comfortable.  I began more and more to see things through her eyes...  (Op. cit., p. ix)

I have already expressed my definition of spirituality as the thrust towards unity or union or communion within the human heart or soul or mind or consciousness, use whatever term you wish here.  Undoubtedly, there is also a thrust towards unity in all of creation or the universe even, as the theory of the Big Crunch suggests (Big Bang to Big Crunch to Big Bang and so on and so forth...).  Anyway, not to meander too far from the task at hand, I love the thrust towards unity in Lovelock's theory and in his writing.  He is at once a scientist and a poet wishing to get to know the planet he inhabits on both a scientific and a personal/poetic level, as the following wonderful paragraph, with which he ends Chapter 1, illustrates:

The Gaia hypothesis is for those who like to walk or simply stand and stare, to wonder about the Earth and the life it bears, and to speculate about the consequences of our own presence here.  It is an alternative to that pessimistic view which sees nature as a primitive force to be subdued and conquered.  It is also an alternative to that equally depressing picture of our planet as a demented spaceship, forever travelling, driverless and purposeless, around the inner circle of the sun.  (Ibid., p. 11)
Some Interesting Scientific Facts (to me at least!)

1.  Methane and Oxygen are present in our atmosphere (which is just perfect to promote life).  In sunlight these two gases react chemically to give carbon dioxide and water vapour.  The rate of this reaction is such that to sustain the amount of methane always present in the air, at least 500 million tons of this gas must be introduced into the atmosphere yearly.   In addition addition, there must be some means of replacing the oxygen used up in oxidizing methane and this requires a production of at least twice as much oxygen, i.e., at least 1000 million tons. (See ibid., p. 6)

2.  The atmosphere is a dynamic extension of the biosphere itself. (see ibid., p. 7)

3. The basic chemical elements of life which come immediately to our minds are: Carbon, Nitrogen, Oxygen and Phosphorus.  Then come some trace elements, namely Iron, Zinc and Calcium.  However, Hydrogen is the most ubiquitous element in the universe - in fact most of the universe is made from it, and in fact it is contained in all living matter.  It is the most versatile of elements and it is an essential constituent of any compound formed by the other key elements of life.  Essentially Hydrogen is the fuel trhat powers the sun and the infinity of stars.

4.  The Redox potential is also based on the presence of Hydrogen in the atmosphere.  The phrase or term "Redox potential" is a shorthand for Reduction-oxidation potential, which is the measure of an environment to oxidize (where an element takes up oxygen, thus iron rusts) or to reduce (i.e., in a reducing, hydrogen-rich, environment an oxide compound tends to shed its oxygen load, thus rust turns back to iron.)

5.   Time is a great oxidizer - even a planet will wither and become barren as that life-essential element hydrogen escapes into space.

6.  An important gas for life of the early atmosphere of our planet was Carbon-dioxide.  Indeed this compound served as the gaseous greenhouse that kept the planet warm.

7.  It is incredible to believe, but scientifically true and verifiable, that since the beginning of life 3.5 aeons ago the average temperature of the environment fell within the narrow bounds of the horizontal lines between 10 and 20 degrees Centigrade.  Life would have been eliminated if our planetary temperature depended only on the abiological constraints of the sun's output which stretched as far as 100 degrees C at the upper limit and - 55/60 degrees at the lower extreme.  Even if a middle course between the two extremes were followed there would still be no life.  (This is my interpretation of a diagram on page 20)

8.  A comparison between the composition of the air of our present world and that of a hypothetical chemical equilibrium world is quite astonishing to contemplate:  Our world is made up of  78% Nitrogen, 21% Oxygen and 1% Argon and Carbon dioxide 0.03% while a hypothetical equilibrium world would possess 98% Carbon dioxide, 1% Nitrogen, 1% Argon and 0% Oxygen.

The American mathematician Norbert Wiener first gave common use to the word 'cybernetics' (from the Greek word for 'steersman', 'kubernetes'), to describe that branch of study which is concerned with self-regulating systems of communication and control in living organisms and machines.  The derivation seems apt since the primary function of many cybernetic systems is to steer an optimum course through changing conditions towards a predetermined goal.  (Ibid., p. 44)

10. Lovelock ends chapter eight with an interesting quotation from a paper in Scientific American in 1970, written by the two scientists Tribus and McIrvine who developed the theme of knowledge being, in fact, considerable power in a most significant and unique way of looking at things:  "They showed among other things that the beneficence of the sun could be regarded as a continuous gift of 10 to the power of 37 words of information per second to the Earth, rather than 5 by 10 to the power of 7 megawatt hours of powerr per second." (Quoted ibid., p. 131)

11.  Intelligence belongs par excellence to the human species, but obviously there are levels of intelligence in various other forms of animal life as well as in vegetable life even at a primordial and basic level - all my words to express Lovelock's view of intelligence as expressed in his epilogue to this wonderful little classic.

12.  Now what follows is not a scientific fact, but rather a good question, both a good philosophical question and a scientific one.  Lovelock suggests that if we are a part of Gaia then it becomes interesting to ask as to whether we might possibly be a sort of Gaian nervous system and a brain, which are shown in our collective intelligence, which can consciously anticipate environmental changes.  Now isn't that a wonderfully provocative and mind-blowing question! (See ibid., p. 139)


1 comment:

Christopher Dos Santos said...

Namaste brother, another fine post.

I AM, the Alpha and Omega.

In Lak' ech, brother prosper in truth...