Venice, ItalyI woke early this morning. It was still dark and the neighbourhood was quiet. At first I thought that blocked sinuses had snagged me awake at an unearthly hour until a kookaburra shattered the silence with a raucous laugh.

It always seems to be the loudest bird that begins the chorus. In Africa its fish eagles that squawk you awake if you camp anywhere near water. In my sleepy Sydney suburb it is kookaburras.

Being an early bird myself, I knew sleep was done, so I propped myself up a little to ease the sinuses and contemplated.

There is nothing wrong with contemplation. As the mind rambles, brushes on the existential, or just chatters along, all that goes on in the brain is made well by even a moment of observation by our true self — the quiet observer all things.

It is a shame that this silent observer is so often drowned out by all our noise that we forget it is there.

In my own early morning quiet I began to imagine the lives of everyone — the almost countless numbers of people that during the day ahead would go about their business.

Those in my street and suburb were easy enough. Almost all of them would be sleeping and coming to the end of another night’s rest in home comfort. My mind’s eye wandered toward the city of Sydney, stretched out on the plain below us as dots of light at this hour. I tried to imagine over 4 million souls, most of them sleeping too. Suburb after suburb of houses, each with one, two or a few folk resting with the doors locked.

Randomly my mind jumped to Haiti, a country on the other side of the world that I have never visited. Why Haiti I did not know for the contemplating mind has a will of its own. There were more people of course, and it would be towards the end of their day, many would be eating and evening meal. I could only guess at the menu other than to let my conditioned imagination suggests there were few banquets.

As you do when contemplating, I asked myself if these people really existed. I have never seen them and can only assume that they were there eating supper. Haiti is labeled on any map of the world and the country will be on Wikipedia lists, so logic says it exists, and by extension, so do the people. And, sure enough, Wikipedia says that today there are 10.1 million people in Haiti, double the number that lived there in 1974.

In the quiet that followed the kookaburra alarm call as my thoughts settled on my imagined Haitian village, I felt the magnitude of us all  — the ever so very many people on earth.

And it was a surprisingly neutral feeling. I was neither scared nor fearful. I did not feel worried, nor was I sad or frightened. Equally I was not jumping with joy at our numerical success. After all, it is what it is.

Many people, living many lives that make more people.

By now the rest of the dawn chorus had joined in as the growing light confirmed the reliability of the kookaburra’s internal clock. The moment passed and it was okay to be worried again, to let my mind chase every petrified thought of lack, and to settle onto a persistent fear for the future.

Sounds crazy #7 | Hidden hazards in the backyard

produce-01This ‘sounds crazy’ is an absolute ripper.

This bottom column headline and grab appeared on the front page of the weekend Sydney Morning Herald this week…

Hidden hazards in the backyard — Families are unwittingly exposing their children to the risk of sickness and even brain damage from lead hidden in backyard soil and paint… 

Fair enough. No doubt there is many an older inner city property that has not been renovated since the time lead was in most paint stock and some of that old stuff is peeling away and ending up in garden soil across the suburb.

Any city dweller knows that cities are not exactly pristine. The air is heavy with particulates from brake dust to builders waste and on a rainy day it washes all over your shoes. It comes with the territory.

The grab continued…

Lead experts fear the trend towards home vegetable patches and community and verge vegetable gardens is also putting children at risk.   

So at a time when all our electronic conveniences have deprived our youth of knowing anything about life giving soil, we must put the fear of god into those with the umph and initiative to get back to sharing produce they have tended.

Thousands of generations of good folk grew vegetables in their backyards. They planted, watered and cared for their crops and then fed their families wholesome fresh food. The extra they exchanged with their neighbors or sold at a local market helping to create the very essence of community that is so central to our wellbeing.

And they did this even when cars were spitting out lead, when the pipes were made of lead and when DDT was the pesticide of choice.

Did those dangers stop them? Not at all, they prospered and went ahead to multiply by the millions. So much so that today we need to double global food production in the next 30 years just to keep up with demand and will need every square foot of productive space we can find.

All I can say is shame on those ‘experts’, university academics with a career to build, and shame on the media for printing such fear mongering [and this time you can’t even blame Rupert].

For heavens sake, growing veggies in the backyard is a good news story.

I just wish the possums would stop eating mine.

Pinnacles of knowledge

Teaspoon of soilSuper-specialization by individuals sets humans apart from all other species — more so even than language and technology.

No other species has a system where individuals can first figure out what their innate skills are and then focus on them to train, strive and perhaps one day become the best at them. It is a luxury afforded by taking away the need to spend our waking hours searching for provisions and we have basked in it. The result is extraordinary greatness in every field of human endeavor from art to archery.

Science is fertile ground for this specialization. Given that what we already know about nature is both broad and deep, advances in science require highly detailed understanding and no small amount of technical expertise.

A visit to any modern analytical laboratory will show you that the lab coated ones must be as adept with electronics and computers as they once were with a pipette and petri-dish. They must be highly focused on their topic and their techniques.

We have also had several generations of this specialization. As each generation passes the body of scientific knowledge broadens thanks to the increasing numbers of focused scientists. The handful of Universities with a five hundred-year plus heritage have been joined by thousands more, most of them in the last 100 years. The lab coat manufacturers are doing pretty well

Specialization has also filtered down the academic system. Modern undergraduates no longer enroll in a general science or even a biology degree. They will major in microbial ecology or wildlife management, specialisms that did not exist in times past. The brightest students that progress through the degrees into research and academia of necessity become super-specialists. The best of them climb steadily onto a pinnacle of knowledge that is often so narrow that only one person can stand on it.

This should be good. The body of knowledge is already vast and all the obvious things are known — it takes focus and tenacity to add anything meaningful to the pile. If the system failed to promote specialization we would rarely find out anything new.

And unless the pinnacle is tall, steep-sided and isolated on the plain of human knowledge he, or these days she who scales it would not be seen by everyone else [just because a person wears a lab coat does not mean they are exempt from normal human needs for adulation and success].

Not surprisingly then, specialization has flourished.

The soil biologist

Suppose that you are want to be a scientist and you happen to be interested in soils, specifically in the importance of biological activity for the delivery of nutrients to plant roots. This is a pretty specialized niche to begin with, albeit essential knowledge at a time when global food production must double again in the next 30 years.

This area of interest may seem quite focused yet it has a number of pinnacles. You might choose to scale the one related to arbuscular mycorrhiza fungi, AMFs. These are a specific type of fungi in the soil that penetrate the roots of vascular plants and make it easier for the plant to capture certain nutrients.

It is easy to see that the AMF specialist will soon be so focused that the biology undertaken by his colleagues who study soil nematodes is very different to his.

Techniques wise the soil biologist will also need to specialize. Instrumentation to uncover patterns in the DNA of those AMFs is not the same as those used to understand what happens to nitrogen that these microbes help to fix. It would take training and many years of experience to be able to drive all the necessary machines to be an AMF generalist.

The downside of the pinnacle

A pastry chef might be able to rustle up a passable vindaloo but it is unlikely that he would be familiar enough with the flavor combinations to create a gourmet curry dish.

Similarly whilst the AMF specialist will know more than most about soil biology

his intellectual comfort zone is narrow. Monitoring for soil quality that is in part determined by the activities of AMF, for example, requires skills in sampling design [what to sample, where, when and how often] that are not usually in the toolbox of the laboratory specialist.

Once perched on the scientific pinnacle of AMF DNA the specialist may have a fine view of the plain of soil biology below and in the distance see the landscape of challenges to apply the hard won skills. Only to do anything about them requires descending once again to the plain of generality.

At this point Sir David would whisper commentary about lemurs not wanting to cross the bare soil between isolated trees and having to first pluck up courage and then dance across the dangerous open space to the safety of the next tree.

You see the point. Complex environmental challenges need the knowledge and skills from many specialisms. In an ideal world this would mean gathering up the requisite specialists into a team and setting them to work.

Our human made world is never ideal and we are at serious risk of super-specializing our way out of the ability to adapt.

Slow, slow, quick, quick | Postscript for the contentious mind

CO2 enrichment Cumberland Plain WoodlandA recent upbeat post on the importance of soil biology ‘slow, slow, quick, quick’ went by without comment.

Except that loyal readers wouldn’t imagine that Alloporus could really let a taxpayer spend of $40 million on infrastructure and operating costs of $1.5 million per year just for the CO2 for one experiment to pass without comment — especially when you look closely at the image to see that the patch of woodland is so small that the enrichment plots and controls will be subject to huge edge effects.

If significant funds are to be spent on a given research topic then there will always be those for and those against its import. On balance we could concede that understanding the effects of climate change on plant growth and ecosystem dynamics will be important. Findings will help lay the foundations for selecting the most effective responses to climate across ecosystems we rely on. We might say research on some of the more acute effects of climate change [temperature, severe weather, seasonal shifts] might yield better bang for buck, as would a focus on adaptation, but for the moment we could concede these points too.

When I visited the CO2 enrichment experiment at the Hawkesbury Institute of the Environment it was a windy day, the air was moving through the ‘cages’ freely and rapidly. We were told that high-tech control systems monitor wind and try to match the delivery of CO2 to maintain consistent enrichment levels. But I could not see it myself.

The experiment is sited in a small, naturally open patch of woodland constrained far more by moisture and temperature extremes than CO2, blitz occasionally by fire and with plant growth potential moderated by old soils. For me it was simply the wrong manipulation, implemented at the wrong scale and at a site too small for what was being tested.

So it’s not actually about the money. What seems unacceptable is the quality of the science.