Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Paying attention to Big History

I made a suggestion about presenting a course focusing on Big History for members of the Western Interior Paleontological Society (W.I.P.S., for short). The organization’s president elect liked the idea, so it may become a reality in April of 2012.

What is Big History, you might reasonably ask?

In 2004, David Christian wrote MAPS OF TIME, An Introduction to Big History. He impressed me with his thesis that we need a “mythology” for the 21st century reflecting what we know about the Big Picture: “Life, the Universe, and Everything,” as Douglas Adams described it in the Hitch-Hiker’s SF trilogy. Religion often tackles this Big Picture History, but relies on the pronouncements of prophets and holy literature. Science relies on testing ideas against the real world. Some things humans would like to know, are very hard, if not impossible to test, but science continues to broaden the kinds of things that can be successfully examined.

Both preachers and scientists learn to tell good stories, because nobody can resist them. We learned to learn by telling stories around campfires. What we don’t know, we make up—all in the interest of telling a good story. The resulting “myth” provides a necessary framework for action—for getting on with things while honoring the grand beauties of existence and trying to understand the inexplicable.

Over the last several hundred years, science has revealed many secrets that formerly fell into the inexplicable category. Ignorance, of course, is always a whale teasing the self-absorbed, knowledgeable mouse of human understanding. So, even though scientific laws and theories are empirically based and testable, and have produced a monolithic framework of understanding that would have dazzled our ancestors, they still fall far short of explaining everything. The shear volume and complexity of scientific discovery tends to discourage close examination, hence the need for a short course describing Life the Universe and Everything as science currently understands it.

Christian rightly calls this summary a form of mythology, although scientists might dispute the term, and laymen shouldn’t interpret it as a fanciful tale with no basis in fact. A course on Big History simply delivers a Reader’s Digest version of what we know, suitable for ipads, briefcases, and short term memory. We can then go about building lives, careers, and philosophies for ourselves. Knowledge of Big History may help us and our descendants extend history a bit longer for H. sapiens—a species sometimes prone to embrace ignorance, forget the errors of the past, and accept hearsay as fact.

From the Big Bang to the Blogosphere will cover the following topics:

• Why do we need the perspective of Big History?

            • The first 300,000 years: Primary forces & the organization of matter

            • Stars, galaxies, and the explosive birth of the elements

            • Jogging across the Football Fields of Deep Time

            • Mammal Time: Cenozoic adjustments to disaster and change

            • Several ways to be human & the triumph of H. sapiens

            • Summary, synthesis, & sharing resources

            • The origins of agriculture

            • Cities, states, & civilizations

            • Chance & climate as shaping forces in human history

            • Modern history at a glance & a look at how it could have been different

            • Comparing references & resources

            • The future of Gaia under human stewardship (or not)

            • Summary, synthesis, and evaluation

I hope to spread this short course over two Saturdays, providing lots of cool timelines, references, and mind-blowing metaphors to help clarify more obtuse points of science. My only claim to competence teaching this course is a lifetime of reading, writing, and speculating on science and the human condition. I expect any students to help keep me honest and surprised. With just a little luck, it could be a lot of fun.

Stay tuned for details.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Hothouse Eocene Eden

Our distant primate ancestors lived in a near tropical Eden 55 million years ago. Ten million years after the extinction of the dinosaurs, the world’s ecologies had settled into a hothouse time. No ice existed at either pole, sea levels were high, and places like Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah sported a unique mix of tropical and temperate plants and a system of great lakes that dwarfed Michigan’s post-glacial waterways.

Lake Uinta, for example, during the Early to Mid Eocene covered over 24,000 square miles—more than three Michigan “Great Lakes”—in a great basin carved amid the general uplift of the Colorado Plateau. This Lake persisted for 17 million years—85 times longer than the 200,000 year-old-history of our species. Deposits of silt ultimately formed the Green River Formation, perhaps the deepest lake deposits in the world, piling up 7,000 feet deep in places.

I’ve created two images of this bioscape, one for The Deep Time Diaries (Fulcrum, 2000) and one that was published in a 2003 symposium program for the Western Interior Paleontological Society whose theme was “Volcanoes, Camels, and Carnivores.”

“Eyes in the Forest” depicts a lemur-like human ancestor named Notharctus. She lived in a forest of palms and alders, sycamores and chestnuts. Pythons curled in the branches. A six-foot-tall predatory bird, Diatryma, occupied the apex of the food chain. Her eye glows red in the picture’s background.

“Eocene Eden” shows more of the forest and it’s inhabitants, including the primitive and tiny horse, Hyracotherium. Our human future lies latent here. This paradise will midwife countless species of mammals, flowering plants, and birds before the world grows colder and dryer. Grazing-tolerant grasses will spread from enclaves like this and carpet vast areas of the planet during the Miocene.

Today, climatologists predict we are heading toward a similar hothouse world—largely due to human activities that have boosted atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide not seen since the Eocene. We are accelerating the rate of change, however, from millions of years to decades and centuries—something that will severely stress biodiversity and the biosphere’s capacity to cope.

One possible solution to the problem may be to genetically engineer crop plants so that they are perennial instead of annual. This would increase crop yields, reduce erosion, and eliminate tilling, which will turn agricultural soil into a carbon sink. Douglas Kell, chief executive of the U.K.’s Biotechnology and Biological Research Council, has calculated that replacing 2% of the world’s annual crops with perennials each year could remove enough carbon to halt, and eventually, reverse the trend of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide.

An Eocene-like hothouse world would not be an Eden for us.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Near the End of Time

I worked off and on for six years on the YA SF manuscript, A Singular Prophecy. Frustrated with the traditional timeline involved with marketing this work along the usual channels, I decided to jump into online publishing by formatting it for Amazon’s Kindle reader. (For other designers out there, Amazon provides a free download extension for InDesign that allows export to the Kindle format.) Soon, I will also have print-on-demand capability from, both in order to reach traditional readers and provide hard copy for those who want that option in addition to digital reading.

I’m fortunate to be able to design my own book interior and covers. I created a photomontage for the cover using a couple of my photographs, along with bits and pieces of web images and modifying them. I had an idea for a scene from the Prologue/Epilog portions of the book and soon jumped into creating a painting that I called “Near the End of Time.” (My characters reconnoiter there after their adventures.) Unfortunately, although I loved the finished painting, it didn’t really work well with the cover image. I regrouped and built the back cover from another photo that matched the one I had used on the front.

Perhaps someday, if A SINGULAR PROPHECY does well, I may decide to illustrate the interior of the book, but I suspect that I will have moved on to other projects by then. “Near the End of Time” might work well in black and white opposite the Prologue.

In the meantime, I’m curious as to how the painting resonates with others. What does the image below say to you?

Some technical notes for other illustrators:

Near the end of time is mostly acrylic used primarily like watercolor with some colored pencil. It’s painted on a light blue matte board (the color of the blue plain in the middle of the work). Finished size is 16” X 20.”

Sunday, December 4, 2011

A Silurian Bioscape

Several years ago I came across an illustration by Mary Parrish depicting an organism called Prototaxites (pronounced pro-toe-tax-eye-tees). This twenty-foot-tall creature lived from approximately 420 million years ago to 350 million years ago. It literally dominated the first LANDscapes as the largest organism of its day. It shared dry land with a few rootless and leafless, simple plants with rigid, water-conducting stems. Tiny arthropods, like millipedes, speck-sized wingless insects, and mites fed and lived on these plants, as well as on lichens—the symbiotic union of fungi and algae. Various worm species also found niches within plants and in the soil.

Although Prototaxites fossils have been studied for only a century, scientists could never confidently identify them. Some thought it to be a conifer. Others concluded it was some form of lichen, fungus, or algae. In 2007, a team of scientists published a chemical analysis in Geology (published by the Geological Society of America) that indicated that Prototaxites was some form of fungus. Apparently, this fungus could achieve monster proportions because it had no fungus-eating neighbors up to the task of munching it down to size.

I decided to try to recreate a version of this bioscape for myself. I imagined a dramatic, sunset sky and a pillar of fungus coated in lichens, much like those that flourish on rocks today. Perhaps lichens could not have found enough minerals to make a living on these unusual creatures, but who knows? Life is quite good at exploiting relationships with other forms of life. In fact, as I pointed out in an article for Colorado Gardener Magazine entitled “Lichens & the Hidden Architecture of the Living World,” ( today’s world of large, complex organisms is really a biological montage of living creatures, most of them microscopic. Nine in ten cells in the human body, for example, are actually microbes of one variety or another.

I still enjoy contemplating this painting, which is usually a good sign that I’ve created something with some kind of emotional content. It’s good to remember that the world we live in is just a freeze frame of life in constant motion and evolution. Our planet is a 4.6 billion year work in progress.

This painting will also be displayed at the State Museum of New York, in Albany in the Focus On Nature II exhibition from April through December of 2012.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

What is a Bioscape?

Bioscape is short for biological landscape. As far as I know, I invented the term. That’s okay. I consider myself a creative person with a license to invent.

I intend to explore a variety of bioscapes within the context of this blog. Some will serve to explain something I’ve learned about life on modern Earth. Biology is my thing. I hold a Master’s degree in the topic, for whatever that’s worth, have taught the subject to middle school and high school students, as well as adults. Exploring the field for most of my 65 years, I’ve never become bored with it. The more I learn, the more my fascination grows.

Some explorations will delve into the evolution of life and my rants will create bioscapes from Earth’s deep time past. I practice and follow the discipline of paleontology. I’m a firm believer in evolution as the best explanation for the diversity of life on the planet. Science is a self-correcting endeavor, subject to test and revision--an attractive feature for me. Science can't answer all questions a human might wish answered, but it is an elegant and powerful tool that complements other ways of knowing when used respectfully and responsibly.

Some of my bioscapes will be science fictional and fantastic, because I believe such extrapolations represent hypotheses yet to be proven. Human imagination is a tremendous force (for both construction and destruction) that results from the synergy of our rather unique neural pathways.

I am a visual artist and love creating images with paint and pixels, so will post many of those. I hope that other natural science and science fiction illustrators will find some of my digressions on technique of interest.

So, if you suspect you might be a bioscape voyeur, welcome aboard. I will try to keep the tone light, the content high, the information stimulating, and the landscapes filled with entertaining details.