To that end I will speak to what I have been reading lately.
Earlier today, I had a little time on my hands, so I took out my favorite book of late, entitled Eating The Sun, by Oliver Morton. The book is wonderful in many many respects. I have read about a third of it so far, and it's first third is mostly concerned with the gradual discovery of the underlying structures and biological machinery behind photosynthesis. Among the genuine surprises for a person who already considered himself appraised of the basic facts on the subject, were the number of facts that only recently were uncovered. The precise molecular makeup of the inside of a Chloroplast (the cells in which chlorophyll resides, sort of) wasn't completely modeled until 2000, whereas the first reasonably accurate predictions of its structure were proposed thirty years ago. There is a wonderful part of the book that brings to mind all kinds of things, but fits perfectly in my enthusiasm for a somewhat dandy rogue genius: a particular scientist is searching hard to determine the structure of a portion of a plants chloroplasts. He keeps running into problems, however. The structure of the chloroplast can, at the time, only be determined by making slices of the cell, crystalizing the slices, and then performing x ray diffraction. Besides the usual herculean issues in the laboratory, this procedure is made especially difficult due to the physiology of a chloroplast: membrane within membrane, and organelles attached to each membrane. Crystallizing the sections poses massive, if not impossible, problems. When a colleague suggests to our hero that he in fact is attempting the impossible, our hero puts up a print by MC Escher of Birds turning in diamonds and says, "If duck can be Crystallized, so to can this Chloroplast." His moxy is rewarded as something other than hubris, and he succeeds after all.
Personally I find that just so great. Scientists are so strange when regarded from outside the dictates of their discipline. The dictates, disagreements, envy, and pure absurdity of venturing into an unknown corner of the world (whatever its scale, or dimension) in such a fashion as a scientist so often is forced to satisfy... it is enthralling to imagine. Though surely very stressful to base your life upon. And every narrative of the development of a branch of scientific understanding includes tens, if not hundreds, of hard working scientists who will never be remembered for a discovery of substance. But then, whom among us will be remembered? Even on the back page of a newspaper? "Andy Coffey hammered his thumb, and sometimes nails. Says his sister, 'Goodbye Corn-Dog!'"
Among the other fascinating things Eating the Sun points to are the nutrients that allow for life to exist, or are required, but very very dear in certain corners of the world. Parts of the ocean are completely starved for iron. Alot of microscopic life in sea water, which every year we seem to discover more and more of, is highly evolved to hang onto iron (where terrestrials would never need to be, given the copious quantities of available iron in our plant life, and soil). Even with the highly evolved iron scavengers, and parsimonious microscopic life, there are sections of the ocean that are warm, sunny, and nonetheless deserts in terms of their biological content. This explained, in part, to me why areas of the ocean close to river deltas are so full of life: rivers carry enormous quantities of sediment, which hold minerals oceans have been scavenged of. It has been suggested by well meaning, but frankly, I think, dangerous scientists (or pseudo-scientists possibly) that we could seed the oceans with hundreds of tons of soluble ferrous Iron. In effect give the ocean a vitamin. This would certainly stimulate a massive growth of photosynthetic algae and other microscopic organisms. The thinking goes that these organisms would consume huge quantities of CO2, helping to arrest the global warming issue. Wiser heads, I think, have so far prevailed in pointing out that mere initial sequestration of CO2 in the biomass of microscopic ocean life does not eliminate CO2 from the carbon cycle. And besides, who the hell knows what will happen to the ecosystems of the earth were we to start fertilizing enormous sections of the planet. We already "fertilize" in such a manner, through agriculture and industry, that nearly every metric that measures anything produced by man, from pharmaceuticals, to anhydrous ammonia (bio-available nitrogen), to something as seemingly innocuous as teflon coating, is outsized in its impacts versus your average person's expectation. The old habit of viewing the world as a place from which to extract resources, as opposed to a place with a kind of algebraic tendency to cross the equal signs (and make a difference right back at you) dies very, very hard in the materialist western mind. An even worse example was thrown in the mix by a TED talk I watched the other day. It was suggested that we dust off an old hypothesis that we could arrest the impact of the sun the way volcanoes do: throw a bunch of sulphur in the upper atmosphere. The sulphur ostensibly could lower the mean temperature of the earth (even as far as causing an ice age, if we wanted to!) a few degrees very cheaply. Well, I sure am glad that solutions to systemic environmental problems are on sale!! The underlying message being that cheap, heroic solutions are preferable to living an environmental ethic. I couldn't agree more, in terms of my personal preference. I love easy and cheap. It's just that cheap heroics are what got us into the mess we're in, and I don't think the institutional and educational effort of millions of westerners should be wasted on newfangled methods, when our brains and hearts can be had at such a bargain. I love TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Talks as much as the next geek. Some of the talks, however, merely trawl this human fascination with novelty and futurism. Where there stands a person who sees the world anew, novelty is of little use.
Another subject that I have been very interested in lately is Geology. It began in my garden last spring, sitting on my knees. I mentioned a bit about this above. Well, my initial interest in clay, soil, and the various things you can learn investigating at the library was satisfied to near completion, and I have broadened my interest in Geology by reading one of the most wonderful books I have even read, John McPhees Annals of the Former World. As the title suggests, the former world, and I mean former world, comes alive in McPhee's discussion of the careers of the important Geologists on the american scene over the last forty years of his reporting and writing life. The book is a tour de force. Celebrates knowledge. Celebrates interstate 80 and its scars into hillsides and mountains across the country. Wow. But, even reading Annals of the Former World, I did not learn (or think to wonder) much about my beloved Indiana. Except for a little note here and there about the boring geology of the northern section of the state. Then I was reading a geology textbook I bought for a quarter (that's twenty five cents to you, bro/sister) years ago, and hadn't cracked much. I was laying on my bed just trying to read myself to sleep when it all backfired. I came across a section about the type of geological landforms called Karst. I had known for a long time that Bloomington, where I live, is a characterized by sinkholes, limestone, and caves that all are features of a Karst landscape. Classical Chinese landscape is Karst as well, just at a more advanced state of erosion. Hence flat topped mountains and deep eroded "valleys". I was just kind of looking at the section congratulating myself on how I had found something vaguely related to my own experience and geological heritage, when all of the sudden I saw a sentence that stopped me in my tracks. The soil of Karst regions is called "terra rosa". Terra Rosa! Red soil.
Of course, Bloomington's soil is red. I first noticed it when I came to town and got my first job on a construction site. The contrast between green and red is always a beautiful one, and that spring, I scarred the earth with a shovel and pulled up a chunk of what shocked me in its contrast to what I had grown up with. Central Indiana (where I was born and grew up) has deep brown soil. Brown clay and dark brown topsoil. Bloomington I discovered, has red dirt. It was a revelation. Well, after all this reading about Geology, reading about billions of years of truly bizarre tectonic behavior, laramide erogeny and all that jazz, I finally read about something so very close to my garden's dirt. The soil is red because of, surprisingly or not, limestone. When limestone is formed it has in it a lot of clay sediment as well. Then, when that limestone bedrock is eroded it usually leaves behind the classic Karst terra rosa. Red soil. This is fascinating to me. I only realized a few years ago that the southern portion of Indiana had no lakes (like the northern portion) due to the tendency of sinkholes and "lost creeks" to drain any growing body of water. How they filled our states largest reservoir (Lake Monroe) is a mystery that will have to wait till later. For now, my unanswered questions that I desperately pursue, surround the quixotic relationship between iron oxide and these clays of limestone. Why ferrous Iron in limestone? Is there iron oxide in Indianapolis clay? The White River, which to say the least is directly responsible for the place upon which Indianapolis is sited, is said to be named for the Native American's name for the river, which never mind the particular language or tribe it is translated from, nonetheless means white river: in other words the bottom of the river, before it was dammed and dredged and silted up by flood controlling, Army Corps of Engineers effort, was white. The bottom of the river was limestone, stark white limestone, which in Indiana, at least, looks pretty white. So.... why isn't central Indiana considered Karst (I know it isn't from maps that say, but don't explain, in PICTURES...ha!). Besides, for crying out loud there is no Terra Rosa. Can something be Karst without Terra Rosa? Last, but not least, isn't it interesting that there is a serious shortage of iron in the oceans, but the rock that is precipitated from ocean life itself, the rock that is nothing but fossil, is pure white, but erodes over time into a red dirt. More research, I know you are thinking, must be done soon. I will humbly comply.
Don't even get me started on the whole fascinating debate, ect. about when oxygen first became available to oxidize iron in the earths crust because of photosynthesis. Yeah, I was reading about that today. Forgot to mention it. Go back far enough, and I mean far (billions of years) and you will find a time before serious oxygen production, when iron could hope to remain dark and lustrous with no danger of rusting. Just imagine, leave your bike in the rain for a million years, and it remains rust free. Such were the days before photosynthesis. But don't worry: at the rate we're going, maybe we will be able to see an end to rust within our lifetimes!! Hold fast to your dreams. And pollute.