Tag Archives: gaia

We are all citizens of the world

A longer post this week because I was invited to write an article for the Citizens of Everywhere project being organised by the Centre for New and International Writing at the University of Liverpool. The article is reproduced below:

Scientists seek to discover and describe knowledge, while engineers seek to apply and deploy the same knowledge by creating technology that supports our global society.  In their quests, both scientists and engineers are dependent on each other and on those that have gone before them.  On each other, because scientists increasingly need technology in order make discoveries, and because engineers need new scientific discoveries to drive innovation; and both groups stand on the shoulders of their predecessors, to mis-quote Isaac Newton who said he was able to see further by standing on the shoulders of his predecessors.  Scientists and engineers have to build on the achievements of their predecessors, otherwise nothing would be achieved in a single lifetime.  This process is enabled by the global dissemination of knowledge and understanding in our society, which does not recognise any boundaries and flows around the world largely unimpeded by the efforts of nation states and private corporations.  As Poincaré is reputed to have said ‘the scientist does not study nature because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful’.  The feeling of delight is a reward for hours of intense study; but, the realization that you are the first to recognise or discover a new scientific fact generates so much excitement that you want to tell everyone.  Scientists have always met to share their findings and discuss the implications.  As a young researcher, I had a postcard above my desk showing a photograph of the attendees at the 5th Solvay Conference in 1927 at which 29 scientists from around the world met to debate the latest discoveries relating to electrons and photons.  Seventeen of the 29 attendees at this conference went on to receive Nobel prizes.  Not all scientific meetings are as famous, or perhaps as significant, as the Solvay conference; but, today they are happening all around the world involving thousands of researchers from scores of countries.  Besides the bureaucratic burden of obtaining visas, national boundaries have little impact on these exchanges of scientific and technological knowledge and understanding.  If you are a researcher working in the subject with sufficient funding then you can attend; and if your work is sufficiently novel, rigorous and significant, as judged by your peers, then you can present it at one of these meetings.  You can also listen to the world’s leading experts in the field, have a discussion over a coffee, or even a meal, with them before going back to your laboratory or office and attempting to add to society’s knowledge and understanding.  Most scientists and engineers work as part of a global community contributing to, and exploiting, a shared knowledge and understanding of natural and manufactured phenomena; and in this process, as global citizens, we are relatively unaware and uninfluenced by the national boundaries drawn and fought over by politicians and leaders.  Of course, I have described a utopian world to which reality does not conform, because in practice corporations attempt to protect their intellectual property for profit and national governments to classify information in the national interests and sometimes restrict the movement of scientists and technologist to and from states considered to be not playing by the right set of rules.  However, on the timescale of scientific discovery, these actions are relatively short-term and rarely totally effective.  Perhaps this is because the delight in the beauty of discovery overcomes these obstacles, or because the benefits of altruistic sharing outweigh the selfish gain from restrictive practices.  (Of course, the scientific community has its charlatans, fraudsters and free-loaders; but, these counterfeiters tend to operate on a global stage so that even their fake science impacts on the world-wide community of scientists and engineers.)  Participation in this global exchange of ideas and information makes many of us feel part of a world-wide community, or citizens of the world, who are enfranchised by our contributions and interactions with other citizens and international organisations.  Of course, along with everyone else, we are also inhabitants of the world; and these two actions, namely enfranchisement and inhabiting, are key characteristics of a citizen, as defined by the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.  Theresa May in her speech last October, at the Conservative party conference said: ‘If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.’  If she is right, then she rendered many scientists and engineers as aliens; however, I don’t think she is, because citizenship of the world does not exclude us from also being citizens of other, local communities; even though politicians may want to redraw the boundaries of these communities and larger unions to which they belong.  However, in practice, it is hard to avoid the fact that we are all inhabitants of planet Earth and have a responsibility for ensuring that it remains habitable for our grand-children and great-grandchildren; so, we are all citizens of the world with its associated responsibilities.

When I was a student, thirty years ago, James Lovelock published his famous book, ‘Gaia’ in which he postulated that the world was a unified living system with feedback control that preserved its own stability but not necessarily the conditions for the survival of the human race.  More recently, Max Tegmark, in his book ‘Our Mathematical Universe’, has used the analogy of spaceship Earth stocked with large but limited supplies of water, food and fuel, and equipped with both an atmospheric shield and a magnetic field to protect us from life-threatening ultra-violet and cosmic rays, respectively.  Our spaceship has no captain; and we spend next to nothing on maintenance such as avoiding onboard explosions, overheating, ultra-violet shield deterioration or premature depletion of supplies.  Lovelock and Tegmark are part of a movement away from a reductionist approach to science that has dominated since Descartes and Newton, and towards systems thinking, in which it is recognised that the whole is more than the sum of the parts.  It’s hard for most of us to adopt this new thinking, because our education was configured around dividing everything into its smallest constituent parts in order to analyse and understand their function; but, this approach often misses, or even destroys, the emergent behaviour of the complex system – it’s like trying to understand the functioning of the brain by physically dissecting it.  Recently reported statements about citizens of the world and about climate change, suggest that some world leaders and politicians find it easier, or more convenient, to use reductionism to ignore or deny the potential for complex systems, such as our global society and planet Earth, to exhibit emergent behaviour.

Thomas L. Friedmann in his book, ‘The World is Flat’ warned that ‘every young American would be wise to think of themselves competing against every young Chinese, Indian or Brazilian’.  He was right; we cannot turn back the globalisation of knowledge.  The hunger for knowledge and understanding is shared by all and courses provided over the internet are democratizing knowledge to an unprecedented level.  For instance, I recently taught a course on undergraduate thermodynamics – not normally a popular subject; but, it was made available globally as a massive open on-line course (MOOC) and taken by thousands of learners in more than 130 countries.  The citizens of the world are becoming empowered by knowledge and simultaneously more networked.  Large complex networks are systems that exhibit emergent behaviour, which tends to be unexpected and surprising, especially if you only consider their constituents.

 

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.

Sources:

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.

 

 

Is Earth a closed system? Does it matter?

 Earth's annual global mean energy budget,  from Kiehl and Trenberth 1997

Earth’s annual global mean energy budget, from Kiehl and Trenberth 1997

The dictionary definition of a system is ‘a set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network; a complex whole’. So it is easy to see why ‘systems engineering’ has become ubiquitous: because it is difficult to design anything in engineering that is not some kind of system.  Perhaps the earliest concept of a system in post-industrial revolution engineering is the thermodynamic system, which is a well-defined quantity of matter that can exchange energy with its environment.

Engineers define thermodynamic systems by drawing arbitrary boundaries around ‘quantities of matter’ that are of interest, for instance the contents of a refrigerator or the inside of the cylinder of a diesel engine [see my post entitled ‘Drawing Boundaries‘ on December 19th, 2012].  These boundaries can be permeable to matter in which case the system is described as an ‘open system’, as in the case of an diesel engine cylinder into which fuel is injected and exhaust gases ejected. Conversely, the boundary of a ‘closed system’ is impermeable to matter, i.e. the refrigerator with the door closed.  The analysis of a closed system is usually much simpler than for an open one.  In his Gaia theory, James Lovelock proposed that the Earth was a self-regulated complex system.  Is it also a closed thermodynamic system?  It is clear that energy exchange occurs between the Earth and its surroundings as a consequence of solar radiation incident on the Earth (about 342 Watts/square meter) and radiation from the Earth as a consequence of reflection of solar radiation (about 107 Watts/square meter) and its temperature (235 Watts/square meter).  This implies that we can consider the Earth as a thermodynamic system.  The Earth’s gravitation field ensures that nothing much leaves; at the same time the vast of emptiness of space means that collisions with matter happen only very occasionally, so the inward flow of matter to Earth is negligible.  So, perhaps we could approximate Earth as a closed thermodynamic system.

Does it matter?  Yes, I believe so, because it influences how we think about our complex life support system, or spaceship Earth that sustains and protects us, as Max Tegmark describes it in his book ‘Our Mathematical Universe’.  In a closed system there is finite amount of matter that cannot be replenished, which implies that the Earth’s resources are finite.  However, our current western lifestyle is focused on consumption which is incompatible with a sustainable society in a closed system.  Even the Earth’s energy balance appears to be in equilibrium based on the data in the figure and so we should be careful about massive schemes for renewable energy that might disturb the Gaia.

Sources:

Kiehl, J.T., and Trenberth, K.E., 1997, Earth’s annual global mean energy budget, Bulletin – American Meteorological Society, 78(2):197-208.

Thess, A., The Entropy Principle – Thermodynamics for the Unsatisfied, Springer-Verlag, Berlin, 2011.

Tegmark, M., Our Mathematical Universe, Penguin Books Ltd, 2014.