Tag Archives: ecosystems

Trees are amongst the slowest moving beings with which we share our world

Last month I mentioned that I started reading ‘Overstory’ by Richard Powers on my trip back from the US [see ‘When an upgrading is downgrading‘ on August 21st, 2019].  I only finished it about ten days ago because I have not had much time to read and it is a long book at 629 pages.  It is a well-written book including some quotable passages, but one that I particularly liked which seems relevant in this era of polarised perspectives: ‘The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind.  The only thing that can is a good story.’  And, Richard Powers tells a good story about the destruction of the ecosystem, on which we are dependent, as a result of large-scale felling of ancient forests.  The emphasis should be on ‘ancient’ because time for trees appears to run at a different speed than for humans.  While we can observe the seasonal changes in an ancient woodland, we are barely conscious on the growth and movement of the woodland.  When we read Shakespeare’s lines in Macbeth about ‘Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come’,  we think of it moving over the landscape at the speed of an army of people, whereas woods move so slowly that we do not live long enough to notice the change.  For instance, there is a spruce tree in Sweden that is 9,500 years old.  Our spatial understanding of a tree also leads to a misconception because we can only see the overstory, i.e. what is happening above ground; so, we think that each trunk is an individual tree, whereas for many types of tree many apparently individual trunks belong to the same organism with an extensive understory below ground which might be thousands of years old.  All trees are involved in a substantial understory communicating with each other in ways that we can barely imagine let alone comprehend.  Most of the ancient forests in Europe were cut down before science revealed the scale and complexity of life in them; yet, we still continue to fell forests as if there was an inexhaustible supply rather than one that could take as long to replicate as humans have been recording our history.

If you would like to arguments about trees then read ‘The Hidden Life of Trees’ by Paul Wohlleben, London: William Collins, 2017 (my title is a quote from this book).  If you are unconvinced then read the ‘Overstory’ by Richard Powers, London: Penguin (Vintage), 2019.

Limits of imagination

What’s it like being a bat?  ‘Seeing’ the world through your ears, or at least a sophisticated echo-location system. Or, what’s it like being an octopus?  With eight semi-autonomous arms that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago [see ‘Intelligent aliens?’ on January 16th, 2019]. For most of us, it’s unimaginable. Perhaps, because we are not bats or octopuses, but that seems to be dodging the issue.  Is it a consequence of our education and how we have been taught to think about science?  Most scientists have been taught to express their knowledge from a third person perspective that omits the personal point of view, i.e. our experience of science.  The philosopher, Julian Baggini has questioned the reason for this mode of expression: is it that we haven’t devised a framework for understanding the world scientifically that captures the first and third person points of view; is it that the mind will always elude scientific explanation; or is that the mind simply isn’t part of the physical world?

Our minds have as many neurons as there are stars in the galaxy, i.e. about a hundred billion, which is sufficient to create complex processes within us that we are never likely to understand or predict.  In this context, Carlo Rovelli has suggested that the ideas and images that we have of ourselves are much cruder and sketchier than the detailed complexity of what is happening within us.  So, if we struggle to describe our own consciousness, then perhaps it is not surprising that we cannot express what it is like to be a bat or an octopus.  Instead we resort to third person descriptions and justify it as being in the interests of objectivity.  But, does your imagination stretch to how much greater our understanding would be if we did know what is like to be a bat or an octopus?  And, how that might change our attitude to the ecosystem?

BTW:  I would answer yes, yes and maybe to Baggini’s three questions, although I remain open-minded on all of them.


Baggini J, The pig that wants to be eaten and 99 other thought experiments, London: Granta Publications, 2008.

Rovelli C, Seven brief lessons on physics, London, Penguin Books. 2016.

Image: https://www.nps.gov/chis/learn/nature/townsends-bats.htm

Re-engineering engineering

More than a decade ago, when I was a Department Head for Mechanical Engineering, people used to ask me ‘What is Mechanical Engineering?’.  My answer was that mechanical engineering is about utilising the material and energy resources available in nature to deliver goods and services demanded by society – that’s a broad definition.  And, mechanical engineering is perhaps the broadest engineering discipline, which has enable mechanical engineers to find employment in a wide spectrum areas from aerospace, through agricultural, automotive and biomedical to nuclear and solar energy engineering.  Many of these areas of engineering have become very specialised with their proponents believing that they have a unique set of constraints which demand the development of special techniques and accompanying language or terminology.  In some ways, these specialisms are like the historic guilds in Europe that jealously guarded their knowledge and skills; indeed there are more than 30 licensed engineering institutions in the UK.

In an age where information is readily available [see my post entitled ‘Wanted: user experience designers‘ on July 5th, 2017], the role of engineers is changing and they ‘are integrators who pull ideas together from multiple streams of knowledge’ [to quote Jim Plummer, former Dean of Engineering at Stanford University in ‘Think like an engineer‘ by Guru Madhaven].  This implies that engineers need to be able work with a wide spectrum of knowledge rather than being embedded in a single specialism; and, since many of the challenges facing our global society involve complex systems combining engineering, environmental and societal components, engineering education needs to include gaining an understanding of ecosystems and the subtleties of human behaviour as well as the fundamentals of engineering.  If we can shift our engineering degrees away from specialisms towards this type of systems thinking then engineering is likely to enormously boost its contribution to our society and at the same time the increased relevance of the degree programmes might attract a more diverse student population which will promote a better fit of engineering solutions to the needs of our whole of global society [see also ‘Where science meets society‘ on September 2nd 2015).

For information on the licensed engineering institutions in the UK see: https://www.engc.org.uk/about-us/our-partners/professional-engineering-institutions/

No closed systems in nature

WP_20150722_008 (2)While I was away on vacation last month, WordPress sent an email congratulating me on the third anniversary of the start of this blog.  This stimulated me to look at the statistics on the most frequently read, or at least viewed, of the approximately 160 postings that I have written.  Top of the list is an early posting which asks the question ‘Are there any closed systems in nature?’ (see post entitled ‘Closed systems in Nature?’ on December 21st, 2012).  Since this question has generated more interest than any of my subsequent postings, it seems appropriate, after 30 months, to attempt an answer.

Alexander Bogdanov (1873-1928), and independently Karl Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1901-1972), recognized that all living systems are open systems in the thermodynamic sense, which operate far-from equilibrium and require a continual flux of matter and energy to sustain life.  By contrast, closed thermodynamic systems tend to settle into a state of equilibrium, i.e. with no differences in energy, no chemical reactions in progress and no unbalanced forces.

The cybernetist, William Ross Ashby (1903-1972) suggested that living systems are energetically open but operationally closed, i.e. closed to information and control.  In other words, a cell, or any other living organism, needs no information from the environment to be itself. All the information for a bee to be a bee is contained inside a bee (for more on the bee theme see ‘Entropy management for bees and flights‘ on November 5th, 2014 and ‘Fields of flowers’ on July 8th, 2015).  These concepts, of being energetically open and operationally closed, form the essence of the characteristics of biological life as described by Capra and Luisi, whom I have loosely quoted in the previous sentence.

So, to answer my original question, there are no closed living systems in nature.  We can take this a step further: in 1927  Charles Elton defined an ecosystem in terms of the flow of energy and matter from one organism to another. Consequently, the only waste generated by an ecosystem as a whole is the entropy associated with respiration, which allows the system to satisfy the second law of thermodynamics, and the waste is replaced with energy from the sun through photosynthesis.  The sum of all ecosystems is the biosphere.  So, it can be construed that everything on Earth is part of one giant open system – this is essentially the Gaia hypothesis.


Gorelik, G., Principal ideas of Bogdanov’s tektology: the universal science of organisation, General Systems, 20:3-13, 1975.

Bertalanffy, L. von, General Systems Theory, New York: Braziller, 1968.

Ashby, W.R., Design for a Brain, New York: Wiley, 1952.

Capra, F., Luisi, P.L., The Systems View of Life – A unifying vision, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Elton, C.S, Animal Ecology, London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1927 (reprinted 2001, University of Chicago Press).

Lovelock, J., Gaia, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.