Timefulness and ‘Intro’ Earth Science

This semester I’m teaching a ‘Science Breadth’ class, a category of class that all undergraduate students at SMU must take to graduate. While many students are often taking the course reluctantly – as a means to check off this dreaded science requirement – I nevertheless enjoy teaching it because I believe in the importance of a broader awareness of the lessons from Earth Science. At a unique time in Earth history where the rate of impacts of a single species exceed those of natural geological processes, I think it’s important that we all have some awareness of how Earth has responded to geologic changes in the past, and of the timescales involved.

In an talk to the Long Now Foundation, Marcia Bjornerud – the author of the excellent book called ‘Timefulness’ – talks about salient lessons we can learn from studying Geology. One in particular resonates with me: ‘Small is Powerful’.

Take organisms for example. Our species has evolved to be more concerned about large animals, thus we’re fascinated by dinosoars, wooly mammoths, and other large creatures. However, the geologic record shows us that microorganisms (or microbes) have reigned for ~3 billion years. Far from being a passive part of the Earth System, microbes have actively sculpted it. The oxygen in our atmosphere, for example, only came about from microbes. Even after large creatures evolved, they were much more susceptible to mass extinction. Thus, Marcia states in her talk: ‘If the metric of success is longevity, microbes are by far the most successful group of organisms on planet Earth’.

The lesson also applies to raindrops. James Hutton, one of the founding figures of Earth Science (and a Scotsman!), recognized that small things acting over immense periods of time could sculpt the landscape. His theory of uniformitarianism contrasted with the idea that the landscape we see was shaped by biblical events. Huttons insight was that the landscape was sculpted by the same processes we see happening today (such as raindrops contributing to the weathering of rocks), just occuring over long periods of time.

It’s easy to feel a sense of powerlessness around issues like climate change, particularly when we seem to be moving backward as a society. How can we tackle issues that are global in scope if our society is retreating from globalism? Our sense of powerlessness can lead to disengagement. Why vote, for example, when the choices are so poor (and so old!)? Why make personal choices to reduce our individual consumption if it’s just a drop in the ocean of consumption of 8 billion people?

But small is powerful. microbes rule the biosphere and raindrops sculpt the landscape. At their core, democracies are built on this principle, even if that principle is under attack from gerrymandering, voter restrictions, and other cynical actions. Our own actions, however small, do matter. A small thing I can do is share my passion of Earth Science, and the practical lessons we can learn from it.

I highligly recommend reading ‘Timefulness’ by Maria Bjornerus, and watching her entire talk to the Long Now Foundation, available below.

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