Sunday, May 11, 2014

From the epilogue of Ted Nield's "Supercontinent"

Posting this a little long excerpt from Ted Nield's Supercontinent,  I beg forgiveness. It will soon be deleted from this blog; I only put it up here  and only post a link on the blogs (Larry Moran's "Sandwalk")   or the Bathroom Wall at Pandas Thumb relating to a current discussion.

In a couple of weeks time, it will be erased! In the meantime, I urge interested people to buy the book. I fouind it a very interesting read. I knew some about the subject but it was a real excitement to learn how much more was known and understood in 2007, not to think of how science must have moved on in the seven years since that, putting some more icing on that fascinating cake. How can we understand the Earth and ourselves without knowing the true story?.

(Pages 265 - 270):

 Useful knowledge

Science historian Naomi Oreskes has written: 'Scientists are interested in truth. They want to know how the world really is, and they want to use that knowledge to do things in the world.' It was this same impulse that drove Eduard Suess to design and build his clean-water scheme for Vienna, or Henno Martin and Hermann Korn to find water for Namibia, or John Joly to apply radiotherapy to the treat­ment of cancer.
Earth scientists often complain, with reason, that politicians underuse the full potential of their subject, especially for the bene­fit of vulnerable (for which read 'poor') people living in unsafe housing in unstable places. But, in times like the tsunami's aftermath, this feeling rises to a pitch higher than mere frustration. That feel­ing is despair: that the world is still so ruled by the short-term, by superstition, inertia and irrationality, and that their humane, possi­bilist long-term view of the world is not only ignored but even denied.

If today there is fresh water on Namibian farms and in Vienna, and an emerging tsunami early-warning system in the Indian Ocean, it is because geologists in the past have done the science that brings a closer understanding of deep time and the inner workings of the Earth. You cannot pick and choose with science. A seemingly rarefied geology that reconstructs the lost supercontinents of Earth's deep past is the same science that (with political will) can save hundreds of thousands of lives in the Indian Ocean when the next tsunami strikes. The arcane business of how our Earth's atmosphere evolved during the Precambrian under the influence of evolving life is the same sci­ence that now helps us understand the massive, uncontrolled climate experiment in which the human race is currently engaged. But to deny one part of science is to deny it all. Science hangs together. It is a supercontinent.

It is also progressive, as its ideas approach ever more closely the actual truth of nature as revealed in the great palimpsest of the geo­logical record. 'Progress' may be an unfashionable Enlightenment notion, but in science it is real; and the test of that progress's reality is the ever-increasing power that science puts in our hands. Just as the history of the Earth is made up of both repetitive cycles and direc­tional arrows, as the wheels of science tum, throwing up the same ideas time and again throughout intellectual history, the train to which they are fixed moves forward.

When thy judgments are in the Earth

Therefore how grotesque was it to read, just seven days after the tsunami struck, in the Sunday Telegraph, whose front pages were given over to detailed geological explanations of the earthquake and tsunami, of a new folly being made ready for its first visitors in Petersburg, Kentucky, USA. Called the Museum of Creation and costing about the same as Hyderabad's tsunami early-waming centre, the theme of this particular park is the literal truth of the Old Testament creation myth, which it seeks to uphold against all (genuine) scientific evidence. Just as the Tamil devotees appeal to outmoded nineteenth-century science to bolster the idea that their national myth is literally true, here the Old Testament creation story is bolstered by what the museum's backers call 'creation science'.

This non-subject, devised by young-Earth creationists to lend cred­ibility to their prejudices, is alas much more than some regrettable but harmless local dispute about the romantic tales of ancient poets. Overenthusiastic appeals by Tamil politicians to a few outdated sci­ence references may occasionally be embarrassing for their academics; but it remains, at most, a little local difficulty. On the other hand, the purpose of 'creation science' is to misrepresent real know­ledge in a crusade to replace free enquiry with slavish adherence to simplistic dogma - with belief in the Word before the world.

I have tried in this book to show something of how ideas in science often grade into - perhaps even sometimes derive from - ideas in myth, and I have done this to show how important it is to know the difference between the two. The truth is that we, as a species, can no longer atford the luxury of irrationality and prejudice. We are too many and too powerful to live in dreams. And the greatest and most irrational of the prejudices from which we must free ourselves is one identified by Lucretius in the last century BC: the belief that the world was made for us.

The supercontinent story tells us, like no other in Earth science, that she was not made for us - any more than she was made for the trilobites that grubbed around in vanished Iapetus, or for the Glossopteris tree or the little Mesosaurus, whose fossils reunited Gondwanaland, or the tiny feeding-trace Oldhamia, on whom John Joly mused. Douglas Adams picked up this theme in what I call his 'parable of the puddle':

... imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking. 'This is an interesting hole I find myself in. It fits me staggeringly well; must have been made to have me in it!'   This is such a powerful idea  that as the sun rises in the sky ... and the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it's still frantically hanging onto the notion that everything is going to be all right because this world was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch-out for ...

We can, if we choose, either fret over our lost futurity or comfort ourselves with the thought that one day our species may shuck its bonds and spread throughout the galaxy; and that our space-going descendants may, millions of years in the future, rediscover our pwn home planet after the greatest racial diaspora of all. Maybe that way, our direct offspring will see the next supercontinent on Earth. But this is a long shot. Until we can live without her, Earth is not a part of our story - we are a part of hers.

As the poet Hugh MacDiarmid put it:

What happens to us
Is irrelevant to the World's geology
But What happens to the World's geology Is not irrelevant to us.

The last dethronement

Science has been trying to humble the hubris of humans from the start, in a series of what Sigmund Freud referred to as 'dethronements'. The first dethronement was of the Earth as the centre of the universe. Second was our own dethronement as a unique creation in the image of God. Third (in Freud's opinion) was his demystification of the human mind's deepest motivations.

Science is not often thanked for delivering such slights to our collective ego; though in fact these blows have been nothing like crush­ing enough. For when, like Douglas Adams's puddle, we find ourselves standing on the brink of destruction it will be our arrogance, as much as the ignorance on which it feeds, that will prove our undoing.

Science cannot tell us everything that matters about being human, but it provides us with the only practical knowledge of the natural world in which we have any reason to believe. We know this because it works. But science also teaches us another important lesson - that there is no absolute knowledge of any kind - either about the Earth, or anything else. True, science can put some things past reasonable doubt: organic evolution or the age of the Earth are now well beyond that point. Despite what they may tell you in the Museum of Creation, the likelihood such basic scientific ideas being simply wrong is precisely nil. But the key word here is reasonable. Nothing ever remains beyond unreasonable doubt, especially to the fanatical adher­ents of outworn creeds who desire only to enslave. 

The discovery of deep time is perhaps the greatest single liberating eontribution that Earth science has made to wider culture. Conceiving of a timeframe large enough to encompass many repeti­tions of a cycle that can span 500 million years or more changes one's perspectives - especially on how properly to judge the relationship between ourselves and the Earth. As our species becomes more numerous and powerful, our last chance of long-term survival will depend on embracing yet another dethronement. We have to realize that we are the puddle, at the mercy of circumstances, but at least able to figure out how to keep ourselves alive and comfortable if we use the capacities with which evolution has equipped us.
Lucretius, speeulating about the age of the Earth, came to the mis­taken conclusion that it was new. For if not, he asked, where were the works of the poets who sang before Homer? Twenty centuries later John Joly wrote in reply:

We do not ask if other Iliads have perished; or if poets before Homer have vainly sung, becoming a prey to all-consuming time. We move in a greater history, the landmarks of which are not the birth and death of kings and poets, but of species, genera, orders. And we set out these organic events not according to the passing generations of man, but over scores or hundreds of millions of years. We are ... in possession today of some of those lost Iliads and Odysseys for which Lucretius looked in vain.

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