Thursday, February 13, 2014

The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike

I have a review of The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert in The Guardian. Here are a few notes and comments on points which I didn't manage to fit in the review or, if I did, got cut:

The hypothesis that the Chicxulub asteroid struck in June or July was mentioned by Jay Melosh on Radiolab's Apocalyptical, December 2013

Total content of the world’s nuclear arsenals  According to in 2009 there were 23,335 weapons with total yield 6,400MT (pdf).

Permian... a few decades   see analysis by Paul Wignall (video) -- initial pulses of CO2 over tens and hundreds to thousands of years, perhaps triggering a rapid release of methane over a few decades

30 to 50% of species functionally extinct by 2050  Sourced here

Additional input of heat...equivalent to...four atomic bomb detonations per second  See here. As I noted in Minotaur, the additional accumulation of heat in the oceans since the 1870s due to human activity is estimated as equivalent to 10 billion Hiroshima bombs.

exact and beautiful adaptations   Jacob Bronowski's lovely phrase occurs in the first few pages of The Ascent of Man (1973), about which Simon Critchley recently wrote a rather good piece.

artists    an interview with Maya Lin at Yale360. Tove Jannson had other disasters on her mind in 1946 but this still resonates.

extinctions... see these posts on extinction in The Blog of Barely Imagined Beings

... and new discoveries   not just of species, many of which are verging on extinction even as they are discovered (or rediscovered) but also processes in the Earth system itself of which we previously had little or no idea. So, for example, scientists did not anticipate the ozone hole (as is nicely summarised in this piece by Alice Bell). In the event, the international community was able to largely solve this problem.  The discovery of ocean acidification -- or at least the likely rapidity of its occurrence and the potential dangers it poses -- came as a surprise to many if not all.  Unlike ozone depletion, ocean acidification does not appear to have easy answer. A significant future surprise -- an unknown unknown -- may be relatively easy to solve, as ozone depletion appears to have been, or be wickedly hard, as ocean acidification appears to be.

Amphibians   a spark for Kolbert's book was her article about disappearing frogs in The New Yorker in 2009.

It's all pretty grim...  The Guardian cut the rest of the sentence:
...but reading The Sixth Extinction is like riding in a well-engineered German car. With apologies to Edward Behr, it could be titled Anything Here Nearly Extinct and Have a Scientist with First Class Communication Skills as a Spokesperson?
spend... hundreds of millions of dollars to keep the majority in the dark See, e.g.,
Conservative groups spend up to $1bn a year to fight action on climate change and In the Carbon Wars, Big Oil Is Winning

it almost repels thought   in a review, Kathryn Schulz writes:
It could be that dwelling in geologic time, as you must do to write about extinction, is good for perspective but bad for action; the arc of the actual universe is so long it bends toward fatalism. Human time, by contrast, is good for acting but bad for seeing. It is into the chasm between these two timescales that species are dropping like flies.
hyperobject - an accessible introduction

imaginative thinking   Lee Billings (whose recent book I reviewed here) writes:
The great difficulty in all of this is that no one yet knows how the Anthropocene will unfold. Our dominion over the planet may prove brief in the scope of deep time. Or, the Anthropocene could transform the entire planet into some new state that persists for the remainder of the Earth’s existence. Most wildly, the Anthropocene might surpass the boundaries of Earth itself, becoming interplanetary if our descendants extend our geological footprints to other worlds. Knowing that we have our own age to shape may alter what we do with it, with possible outcomes lying somewhere between our immortal reign and imminent demise. 
But a distinct possibility is a “gone-away world [rather] than birth of anything new...Radioactive fallout as fingerprint”

We need new big stories  I had a sentence before this:
We have long since left behind the “places of many generations” known to our palaeolithic ancestors. We need new big stories.
J L Schellenberg asks Why are our imagined futures so shallow?  

what comes next Chris Thomas is optimistic:
We worry about extinction of species in the era of humans. But at the same time we are seeing an evolutionary surge. The seeds of recovery are already visible.
See also Henry Nichols on rats as big as sheep and Robert Krulwich on pregnant brains

a world utterly transformed by synthetic biology   one place to start thinking about that is here

Is it too much to ask...  I made an assertion here not a question: “It is not absurd to ask...” ...whether we can express our humanity...with compassion... These  words are from the palaeoanthropologist Rick Potts as quoted by Lee Billings (see link above).

George Szirtes recently tweeted
It is salutary to remember that we are walking on egg shells from first day to last and that we're not weightless. We walk between storms.

Images: Priceless or Worthless? (pdf);  Manāfi˓-i al-ḥayavā, or The Benefits of Animals (1297-1300) by Ibn Bakhtīshū (via Persian Painting); and Goya's El Gigante o El Coloso (1814-1818)

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