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)


Getting to know Gaia 2

In this and the next post I wish to review James Lovelock's little classic book of ground-breaking thought: Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (OUP, 1979, 1987, 1995, 2000). 

More often than not we expect our scientists to be black and white, to say things as clearly as possible with little qualification or nuance.  On the other hand we expect our novelists to be entertaining and highly imaginative and our poets to be forging all types of metaphor and wonderful language in the smithy of their souls - and all of this, unlike science, to be highly nuanced.  We also expect our philosophers to keep on asking the big edgy questions in as sharp and as astute fashion as possible.  And yet, there are those like James Lovelock, Carl Gustave Jung, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, William Golding, Ivor Browne, Anthony Storr, William Blake, S.T. Coleridge, Ronnie Laing, James Joyce and Leo Tolstoy who refuse to be categorised and use everything from religion to science to technology to stories and mythology, to spirituality and ecology and back again as grist to their writing mill.  These authors simply refuse to be pigeon-holed and like to express their opinions - often educated and good ones at that - on any subject under the sun.  They simply do not mind trespassing on the area of another man or woman's expertise.

If James Lovelock did anything in his big theory - his Gaia hypothesis was to refuse to be constrained by and confined to a reductionist notion of what science is or can be about.  This is his great achievement.

Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, is unique in scientific writing in that it is written in a style that combines scientific research with metaphysical musings.  In this great little book, Lovelock explains his theory or hypothesis with the on-going guiding-hand of Professor Lynn Margulis whom he generously thanks in his later preface (p. xix). Essentially, his theory postulates that the physical and chemical condition of the surface of the Earth, of the atmosphere, and of the oceans has been and is actively made fit and comfortable by the presence of life itself. This is in contrast to the conventional wisdom, which holds that life adapted to the planetary conditions as it and they evolved their separate ways. Let's quote a little from the author's preface:

  • I failed to make clear [in 1979] that it was not the biosphere alone that did the regulating but that the whole thing, life, the air, the oceans, and the rocks. The entire surface of the Earth including life is a self-regulating entity and this is what I mean by Gaia.  (Op. cit.,. p. ix)

  • I began more and more to see things through her [Earth's] eyes and slowly dropped off, like an old coat, my loyalty to the humanist Christian belief in the good of mankind as the only thing that mattered.  I began to see us all, as part of the community of living things that unconsciously keep the Earth a comfortable home, and that we humans have no special rights, only obligations to the community of Gaia. (Ibid., p. ix)

  • ... the Gaia theory in which all life and all material parts of the Earth's surface make up a single system, a kind of mega-organism, and a living planet.  (Ibid., p. x)

  • Gaia is the superorganism composed of all life tightly coupled with the air, the oceans, and the surface rocks.  (Ibid., p. xii)

  • It follows that this book is not for hard scientists... Yet I am a scientist and I am deeply committed to science as a way of life.  I did not write this book to irritate my colleagues... I differed from them because the view from space let me see the Earth from the top down, not in the usual reductionist way from the bottom up.  The external, holistic, view unexpectedly puts me in tune with both the post-modern world and with mainstream science before it started its affair with reductionism. (Ibid., p. xii)

All of the above quotations are brilliant to my mind as they clearly set out not alone his particular scientific method - from top down.  They also show that this man is a broad thinker as well as a narrow purist.  In looking under the microscope one has to be aware of dividing and subdividing and so on, right down to from organs to tissues to cells to molecules and to atoms and as far down to sub-atomic structures.  However, we can also take a telescope and look ever outwards to the expanding universe.  We need scientists with broad ideas as well as narrow ones.  Both ways of thinking, both ways of doing science are important.

  • ... I recognize that scientists now, deep into the reduction of a single page are uninterested in the book, or even other chapters of it.  Broad ideas like Gaia are anathema to them.  They see Gaia as metascience, something like a religious faith and therefore from their deeply held materialistic beliefs, something to be rejected.  (Ibid., p. xii)

  • Even metaphorical phrases such as "gaia likes it cool" to express the observation that the Earth system appears to flourish in glacial times must be cast out... (Ibid., p. xiii)

Science, then, according to Lovelock, despises both myth and metaphor.  However, he also recognizes prejudice and defensiveness on the other side of the debate, too, with those Greens and Environmentalists who say that Gaia is too important to be a subject of observation and dissection by science.  Hence, I would argue with Lovelock that there exists ample space for interdiciplinary and transdisciplinary studies.  Areas of knowledge are not totally divided one from the other - like individual cells they must interact to make up tissues and organs etc to force the metaphor somewhat.  If you are a reductionist scientist you won't like my language here.  Why not let your science allow in some metaphor?

To be continued