Deborah suggests that we consider
as the year makes its turn from Solstice into New Year. With a solid 3 weeks until the next Convivium, my [thoroughly predictable] inclination is to embark on an orgy of reading and writing loosely inspired by her challenge. I have a pile of things to weave together, and no doubt will discover others as I go. I intend to keep track of my day-by-day wanderings in this space, as usual with the primary objective of my own edification, but also in hopes that some of what I find/articulate/puzzle over will interest and amuse and maybe provoke the discoveries of other Conviviants. I'll date things as I progress.
The reading-and-writing program includes the following persons and sources at this point:
There are others who will probably be implicated/imbricated, mostly from reading in the last 2-3 years:
- Gaia (James Lovelock, Lynn Margulis, others)Symbiotic Planet: A New Look At Evolution Lynn Margulis
Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Microbial Evolution Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan
Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth James Lovelock
The Surprising Archaea: Discovering Another Domain of Life John Howland
Gaian Systems: Lynn Margulis, Neocybernetics, and the End of the Anthropocene Bruce Clark
- Ursula Le GuinThe Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination
No Time To Spare: Thinking About What Matters
Lao Tzu : Tao Te Ching : A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way
- Rachel CarsonThe Sea, The Sea (Rebecca Giggs, NYRB 22xii22), reviewing The Sea Trilogy Under the Sea-Wind / The Sea Around Us / The Edge of the Sea
And No Birds Sing : Rhetorical Analyses of Silent Spring
- Thomas MertonThe Seven Storey Mountain (which I read with who knows what comprehension when I was 14)
The Way of Chuang-Tzu
Beholding Paradise: The Photographs of Thomas Merton
and appearing in On the Road with Thomas Merton in Emergence Magazine
Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Thomas Merton's "notes, opinions, experiences, and reflections")
- Amitav Ghosh The Nutmeg's Curse and The Great Derangement
- Arundhati Roy Azadi: Fascism, Fiction, and Freedom in the Time of the Virus
- Merlin Sheldrake Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures
- Peter Godfrey-Smith Metazoa: Animal Minds and the Birth of Consciousness
- Ed Yong An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us
- Siddhartha Mukherjee The Song of the Cell: An Exploration of Medicine and the New Human
- Andrea Barrett Natural History: Stories
- Barry Lopez Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World and About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory
- Michael Hathaway What a Mushroom Lives For: Matsutake and the Worlds They Make
- Suzanne Simard Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest
- Stewart Brand Whole Earth Discipline: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands, and Geoengineering Are Necessary and Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand (John Markoff) and From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (Fred Turner)
- Elizabeth Kolbert Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future and The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
- Eric Kandel In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind
- Bernardo Kastrup Dreamed Up Reality: Diving into the Mind to Uncover the Astonishing Hidden Tale of Nature
- Veronica O'Keane A Sense of Self: Memory, the Brain, and Who We Are
- Maria Popova Figuring
- Richard Powers The Overstory
- Maria Dermout The Ten Thousand Things (which is set on the Indonesian island of Ambon, and invokes Rumphius)
- ...and who knows what others?
When I reread the original message, it seemed that Deborah proposed that we consider benevolent, but I'm already quite a way down the benevolent universe track, and the prospects ahead look inviting, so I'll continue with the modified noun. But of course we have to explore both of those terms, and I'd like to consider 'universe' first.
At each of those points from minuscule to vast (and presumably others along the way ) there are curiosities and conundrums and (especially where Life is part of the pageantry) vastly complicated interlinkages. At any level, are we to see its Universe as One Thing that contains all, or as a grand complexity of The Ten Thousand Things? Either/or seems inadequate to the challenge, so the answer is 'yes'.
We might consider 'Universe' to refer to the Terrestrial world of living processes and interlinking beings, that which we walk around in as if it was our universe of the senses, and is alive with what we know, and what we suspect, and imagine. A model for the One Thing is the Lovelock/Margulis invocation of Gaia, but it is the processes of Life within that are the focus of our attention and curiosity.And is there some overall order or direction/trajectory? Is it useful to think of a Tao, a dynamic balance, an emergent equilibrium, to summarize the processes of Life?
And what is the Terrestrial One Thing doing? How is Life sustained?
And where do we fit in? Pilot? Parasite? Sorcerer's Apprentice? Crown of Creation?
Contemplation of Tao is ...playful, analytical, non-judgemental. Ursula Le Guin's rendering of the Tao Te Ching is one nice entrée,Guides to the constituent processes of Life include the writings of Rachel Carson, which I've been rediscovering and marveling at the eloquence of.It is the most lovable of all the great religious texts, funny, keen, kind, modest, indestructably outrageous, and inexhaustibly refreshing (pg x)and I suspect Robert Merton's perspective will be another.
- Be Kind. No Exceptions. is a pretty good general guide, thanks Diane Oelberger
- consider consequences and implications and interrelationships, and the architecture of complexities
- watch and learn to appreciate and track FLOW in systems ...the animators of Life.
- keep an eye out for unintended malevolence <==actions that are HARMFUL to the various denizens, and be prepared to alter own behavior ...sometimes. To develop a sense for how to gauge and minimize the harm one does.
So fit this gulper eeel into 'benevolent':
And what about the Atlas of Blobs? or the Mandelbrot Set? Is 'benevolence' to be found there? Or are these demonstrations of system and pattern essentially cold and un-living, abstract in computational ways that the living human may admire or grasp or mentate, but can't snuggle up to or draw any biological warmth from.
So is will the core of 'benevolence'? Is will something we control (or could control), or (pace Freud) is will a psychical force exemplified in the rawest form by the Id? Perhaps tameable by the Superego? The phrases "Men of Good Will" and "Good Will to All" resonate, but don't exactly describe the major mode of human behavior toward one another.
Is there any benevolence to be found in Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin... or Elon Musk, or the cyberbros of Silicon Valley? Humanity sports a long history of monsters, and produces more all the time (vide Lessons Learned in the Internet's Darkest Corners).
Outside of Humanity, where in the panoply and trophic cascades of Life can we spot benevolence? Perhaps in the protection and maintenance of the young in many species. Possibly in domesticated canines. Maybe in cats like Moochie and Skippy, though Felis are basically self-involved sharp-clawed opportunists...
Of the Tao, there is much to be said. Or perhaps not. My own first encounter with the Tao was via a version of this story, here as Thomas Merton relates it:
Master Tung Kwo asked Chuang: "Show me where the Tao is found." Chuang Tzu replied: "There is nowhere it is not to be found." The former insisted: "Show me at least some definite place Where Tao is found." "It is in the ant," said Chuang. "Is it in some lesser being?" "It is in the weeds." "Can you go further down the scale of things?" "It is in this piece of tile." "Further?" "It is in this turd." (pg 123)My take on Taoism is mightily influenced by the chapter on Taoism in Joseph Needham's magnificent multivolume Science & Civilization in China...
(more will surely go here)
A collection of bits for consideration:
from Thomas Merton The Way of Chuang TzuChuang is critical not only of Confucians who are too attached to method and system, but also of Taoists who try to impart knowledge of the unnameable Tao when it cannot be imparted, and when the hearer is not even ready to receive the first elements of instruction about it... Tao cannot be communicated. Yet it communicates itself in its own way. When the right moment arrives, even one who seems incapable of any instruction whatever will become mysteriously aware of Tao.(pg 31)
The whole Chuang Tzu book is an anthology of the thought, the humor, the gossip, and the irony that were current in Taoist circles in the best period, the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C. But the whole teaching, the "way" contained in these anecdotes, poems, and meditations, is characteristic of a certain mentality found everywhere in the world, a certain taste for simplicity, for humility, self-effacement, silence, and in general a refusal to take seriously the aggressivity, the ambition, the push, and the self-importance which one must display in order to get along in society. (pg 11)
Instead of self-conscious cultivation of this good (which vanishes when we look at it and becomes intangible when we try to grasp it), we grow quietly in the humility of a simple, ordinary life, and this way is analogous (at least psychologically) to the Christian "life of faith." It is more a matter of believing the good than of seeing it as the fruit of one's effort. (pg 23)
The secret of the way proposed by Chuang Tzu is therefore not the accumulation of virtue and merit taught by Ju, but wu wei, the non-doing, or non-action, which is not intent upon results and is not concerned with consciously laid plans or deliberately organized endeavors (pg 24)
The Dao of the Daodejing (addendum to Zhuangzi: the Essential Writings)In the Daodejing, the term dao is singled out, scrutinized, and given a new meaning, one that plays on the traditional meaning while ultimately reversing it. The present Daodejing text begins with the well-known paradox usually translated as something like, "The Way that can be spoken of is not the Eternal Way." But in the context of early Chinese thought, and given the basic meaning of the term dao (see Introduction, pp. xiii-xvii), its original sense is probably something closer to, "Guiding courses can be taken as guides, but they are then no longer sustainable as guides." That is, they do not successfully guide one to the attainment of real value once it is made explicit that they are specifically formulated for the purpose of attaining that value. When a course of practice, a means for attaining virtuosity, a guide for behavior, is made explicit as a guide, it ceases to effectively guide. The point is that the esteeming of and commitment to a particular value perspective, regarding certain things as valuable and tailoring one's activities to the purpose of attaining them, is precisely what undermines the attainment of the desired value.
In the Daodejing and subsequent Daoist texts, "Dao"—the Course—now comes to be used in the precise opposite of its original sense: it is a marker that points to the spontaneous, nonevaluative side of things, the neglected and negatively valued, from which the valued and the evaluative emerge. Given the premise that whatever we look at is being carved out of a larger whole which is neglected by this act of attention, and that this seeing implies also a valuation and an incipient desire and action, we can give a very simple definition of the Dao: The Dao is simply whatever we are not looking at, whatever we're not interested in, whatever we place no value on. From this simple definition, it derives all its traditional attributes:
- It is the unseen and unseeable source and destination of all concrete things (e.g., of whatever we are looking at, interested in, valuing), from which and toward which they flow.
- It is also the course of all things, in the sense of embodying their tendency to "return," in a bell-shaped pattern, to that unseen source. The source is by definition unseen, but it is made evident through its function as a center of gravity toward which things return. Hence it is manifested as the "course of things."
- It is also the stuff of which all things consist. This is because the valued object is conceived on the model of a vessel carved out from some unhewn raw material. The unseen and unattended to, the "unhewn raw material" (pu) of the valued object, has a crucial double meaning. It is both: ( a) The detritus that is left over and discarded after the object has been carved out; and also (b) The whole of that unvalued, uncarved stuff itself, prior to the cutting.
Strictly speaking, dao here has come to mean precisely the opposite of what it had previously meant: the term is, initially, used ironically. It is analogous to walking into an extremely messy room and saying not "Wow, what a messy room," but rather, "I love the way you've decorated the place." "Decorated" here means just the opposite of its literal meaning: it means that the place has not been decorated, arranged, or organized at all. The Daoist use of dao is similar: it means that there is no dao in the original sense—e.g., of an organized set of explicitly prescribed practices, involving preferences and choices, leading to some predetermined goal. But the further irony is that it is precisely this lack of arrangement that arranges things, that provides the matrix from which any specific arrangement really attains its being and value.
26xii22 Boxing Day
As so often before, John-the-son absolutely nails it with today's response to my sending him the link to the above:
Benevolence can be found when you see the absolute unavoidability of symbiosis. Every bloody eukaryote is a nested symbiosis, and even in cases of predation, or even awful parasites, it's still within a broader push and pull web of life that does not tear, or rather tears so often and adjusts so immediately that I can only conclude and be encouraged by this underlying ebullient dynamism of life. This is if course very earth centric, but fundamentally that's all we can know. Sure we can send probes one place or another, or even people, but we have no idea what life looks like besides the familiar forms, so I see very little chance of recognizing it, and I would not be surprised if we are in fact totally missing it even now, constrained by our pinhole awareness. Now this brings me to consciousness... Maybe there is some degree of consciousness in every particle, maybe not. But again I think we are ill equipped to even conceive of a consciousness that does not resemble our own, and I'm inclined to assume that there are multitudinous unknowable consciousnesses.
Benevolent universe? I say it is most assuredly, and the very fact of the existence of life in all its mind boggling forms is an indication that there's so much more.
Plus what's the alternative? Can you come up with something that is not benevolent, in the face of the symbiosis seen everywhere? (So long as you're not attached to a particular expression of life, which would be silly since each is always changing and utterly temporary.)
And Tim Minchin sums it all up:
And Andy Ilachinski is continuously provocative in these shark-infested waters, here with a quote from Gregory Bateson.
And back to the Tao for another pass:
There's no such thing as 'Taoism', or anyway not one: it's a label stuck onto a broad range of thoughts and (possibly real) people from the 3rd and 4th centuries BC of Chinese civilization, when Confucianism and Legalism were disputing how human affairs ought to be ordered. Those concerned with the supra-human Tao worked at another and basically proto-scientific way of articulating Order in the profound wonder of the world as experienced. In the 24 (or so) centuries since Lao Tzu and Chuangtzu, all sorts of barnacles have grown on the foundation texts, and the language in which they were written has ...evolved.
Rachel Carson has been a vastly delightful rediscovery. The Library of America edition of The Sea Trilogy should be in every home, to be opened at random whenever there's a spare 10 minutes. Results for this procedure are absolutely guaranteed: your life will be vastly enriched. A few examples from my own use of this stochastic method of discovery:
In a sudden awakening, incredible in its swiftness, the simplest plants of the sea begin to multiply. Their increase is of astronomical proportions. The spring sea belongs first to the diatoms and to all the other microscopic plant life of the plankton... Almost at once their own burst of multiplication is matched by a similar increase in the small animals of the plankton... Hungry swarms of these little beasts of the plankton roam through the water, feeding on the abundant plants and themselves falling prey to larger creatures. Now in the spring the surface waters become a vast nursery... Under the steady and voracious grazing, the grasslands of the surface are soon depleted. The diatoms become more and more scarce, and with them the other simpler plants. Still there are brief explosions of one or another form, when in a sudden orgy of cell division it comes to claim whole areas of the sea for its own... (pages 226 and 227)
...By midsummer the large red jellyfish Cyanea may have grown from the size of a thimble to that of an umbrella. The great jellyfish moves through the sea with rhythmic pulsations, trailing along tentacles as as likely as not shepherding a little group of young cod and haddock, which find shelter under its bell and travel with it. (page 228)
...The tides present a striking paradox, and the essence of it is this: the force that sets them in motionnis cosmic, lying wholly outside the earth and presumably acting impartially on all parts of the globe, but the nature of the tide at any particular place is a local matter, with astonishing differences occurring within a very short geographic distance... local topography is all-important in determining the features that our minds make "the tide". (pg 334)
Time spent this year with Rachel Carson and Barry Lopez has renewed my taste for "nature writing", and Thomas Halliday's Otherlands: A Journey Through Earth's Extinct Worlds just wandered in to divert me into a paleontological digression.
Tuesday morning finds me deep and deeper into the weeds of paleontology, via the absolutely riveting Otherlands: A Journey Through Earth's Extinct Worlds, which I'm reading via Kindle (it will be released in paperback in February). It's a great corrective to the natural tendency to anthropomorphize —to see everything through the lens of application to human perceptions and interests. And an invitation to rethink the ambit of benevolence, perhaps in the direction of equilibria maintained by life processes, which will bring us to Gaia and Lovelock and Margulis. Several books are expected this week...
But meanwhile the inflow of delicious materials continues. Today's Popova post introduces me to the wonders of Argonauta argo, a variety of octopus:
Here's a sample of Otherlands:
The world has ended. Two years ago, a piece of rock at least 10 kilometres long appeared high in the sky to the north, travelling southwards and westwards at thousands of metres per second. Almost immediately after lighting up the stratosphere, it collided with the shallow seas at Chicxulub, in the Yucatán of modern-day Mexico. The crust shattered and melted with the impact, and hot magma splashed high into the sky. In the cool air, the droplets of rock solidified, raining hot glass spherule bullets over half of North America over the course of three days. The accompanying pulse of heat burned forests, globally killing two thirds of tree species, down to the last specimen, and causing deforestation as far away as New Zealand. Seismic vibrations rang around the planet, and on the opposite side of the Earth from the impact side, ridges in the Indian Ocean cracked open. Shockwaves annihilated nearby ecosystems on land, while massive tsunamis churned the seabed. Rearing over 100 metres high, the waves crossed the gulf in under an hour, and flooded not just the coasts but far inland, destroying established communities throughout the Caribbean region. Across the shallow seaway that covers part of North America, a standing wave sloshed back and forth as if it were merely a bathtub. Beneath the meteorite-punched hole, 100 kilometres in diameter, oil long buried in the earth beneath the impact site was instantly incinerated. The resulting fires threw smoke and soot into the atmosphere that, spread by high-altitude winds, quickly concealed the Earth in a particulate blanket. In the months immediately following, rainfall declined to a sixth of what it had been. The sky darkened and, without light from the sun, plants and phytoplankton stopped producing energy.Where's the benevolence in Chixculub? Or is benevolence to be found in the recovery of terrestrial life? In the Tao that restores balance?
After two years of darkness, two years without photosynthesis anywhere worldwide, two years of rain infused with nitric and sulphuric acid entering the oceans, populations have failed. Warm-adapted species could not survive, and large-bodied herbivores and carnivores alike, deprived of a reliable supply of food, have starved. Decomposers have taken over, with fungi digesting the remains of dead and dying communities under the day-black sky. For three quarters of species on Earth, every male, every female, every adult and every child is dead. It is the winter that lasts a generation.
A layer of iridium, a chemical element found in high concentrations in meteorites, is found all around the world, dusted into rocks laid down 66 million years before the present, an alien signature of the death blow.
It is as if life on Earth has been reset. Lichens, algae, mosses and especially ferns spread across the new landscape, recapitulating the early evolution of plants, the circumstances asking the world to choose again its inhabitants. After disasters, it is the opportunists that rise first, and among plants ferns are some of the greatest opportunists of all. Able to cling on in nutrient-poor soil, quick to grow and versatile, fern spores germinate and succeed where others do not. Worldwide, there is a spike in fern populations, as they throw their distinctive spores into the wind, each cell a cheap investment in new real estate, a foothold on a devastated landscape, gaining a quick win while others suffer. These are the disaster taxa, the pioneer species, the modifiers of the environment that make the world more habitable. Sometimes these are species that shore up the environment, for example by developing more fertile soils, creating conditions that other less adaptable species can thrive in. Other times, the successful species are more actively competitive, simply fast-growing species that take rapid advantage of free resources. They exclude others for as long as they can, but ultimately succumb as slower-growing, more risk-averse species out-compete them. Whatever the mechanism, succession ultimately restores the ecosystem to its former diversity.
Another trenchant bit from Otherlands:
It is all too easy to read human motives, however unsubconsciously, into past events, and we must avoid putting our own ahistorical spin on what was, although certainly dangerous and unlikely, a journey guided entirely by chance. (pg. 68)
Much of the day on Gaia, in and out of
Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Microbial Evolution
Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan
Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth
Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence
James Lovelock's last book, at age 100...
So I'm working at repairing my deficiencies in bacteriology and evolution and taxonomy and geochemistry and ... Here are a few especially trenchant bits:
Neither plant nor animal appeared on Earth until bacteria had undergone at least 2000 million years of chemical and social evolution. (Margulis 56)
Bacteria evolved first. They branched into many different forms: red, purple, and green; fermenting, photosynthetic, and respiring; sulfide-producing and oxygen-producing; oval, eel-shaped, and rod-shaped... they also invaded and came to dwell inside each other... Having neither immune systems nor rigid external barriers, in attempting to feed [bacteria] merged internally. and with and without their viruses, they exchanged genes... (64)
Feeding, moving, mutating, sexually recombining,
photosynthesizing, reproducing, overgrowing, predacious,
and energy-expending symbiotic microorganisms
all animals and all plants
by at least two billion years
(Margulis and Sagan 17)
...diaphanous nervous-system fragments of humanity,
evolved beyond recognition as the organic components of reproducing machines,
might survive beyond the inevitable explosion and death of the sun. (19)
The day began with this ray of light from Maria Popova's Marginalian:
We live between the scale of gluons and the scale of galaxies, incapable of touching either, irrelevant to the fate of both. Forged of the dust of dying stars, we move through a universe of impartial laws with our dreams and desires, passionate pawns in the hands of grand-master chance, daily watching the world spin counter to our wishes, daily watching ourselves bend against our own will....which points to an earlier Marginalian post Art as Living Amends, which quotes Nick Cave most usefully:
I remain cautiously optimistic. I think if we can move beyond the anxiety and dread and despair, there is a promise of something shifting not just culturally, but spiritually, too. I feel that potential in the air, or maybe a sort of subterranean undertow of concern and connectivity, a radical and collective move towards a more empathetic and enhanced existence... It does seem possible — even against the criminal incompetence of our governments, the planet's ailing health, the divisiveness that exists everywhere, the shocking lack of mercy and forgiveness, where so many people seem to harbour such an irreparable animosity towards the world and each other — even still, I have hope. Collective grief can bring extraordinary change, a kind of conversion of the spirit, and with it a great opportunity. We can seize this opportunity, or we can squander it and let it pass us by. I hope it is the former. I feel there is a readiness for that, despite what we are led to believe....which makes a pretty good beginning for more from Margulis and Lovelock.
To which Popova adds:
In my own experience, nothing seeds cynicism more readily than the withholding of forgiveness — forgiveness of others, of the world, of Father Chance and Mother Circumstance; above all, of oneself. Self-forgiveness is indeed the most potent antidote to cynicism I know.
Bryan Appleyard's Preface to Lovelock's The Novacene gives a succinct summary of the idea of Gaia:
Life and the Earth are an interacting whole and the planet can be seen as a single organism. There you have it. (x)
[Lovelock] uses the term 'cosmos' rather than 'universe' because he takes the former to mean everything we can know or see; he sees 'universe' as potentially meaning something larger of which we know and can know nothing. (xii)
The distinguishing feature of human intelligence is that we use it to analyze and speculate about the world and the cosmos and, in the Anthropocene, to make changes of planetary significance. As I have said, I believe only we do this, only we are the way in which the cosmos has awoken to self-knowledge. (23)
Last night I started reading The Biosphere Vladimir I. Vernadsky (1926), available in English from 1998... First encountered in Margulis and Sagan 1997, where they mention "Vernadskian Space", a 25km-deep spherical layer, 15km upward to the top of the troposphere, 10km downward to the Abyss beyond which Life hasn't ventured.
Inside this living system we are all embedded: to escape it is tantamount to death. (23)
The Biosphere. Our universe, or perhaps 'cosmos' would be a better fit
..... Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky and his Revolutionary Theory of the Biosphere and the Noosphere Irina Trubetskova
(the next section will find its way to a separate linked page, real soon now...)
Lovelock's Electron Capture Detector puzzles me. I have no idea how it works, or how it fits into analytical hardware
Lovelock's detector (Andrea Sella)
...he began working on an ionisation-based detector, having heard of something similar being used in the Shell research labs – if he could ionise some of the molecules leaving the column, he might get a current he could measure. He brought the flow from a column into a small cylindrical chamber through a central brass tube that served as an anode. The chamber was lined with a sheet of silver coated in strontium-90 that acted as both the cathode and a source of ionising β-radiation. For reasons of safety on the one hand, and cost on the other, Lovelock could not use either hydrogen or helium as the carrier gas. Using nitrogen, however, he struggled to get his detector to work and Lovelock began to fear that his invention might be doomed. He also found that certain inert solvents, especially CCl4, inexplicably killed the current in the detector.
One Friday, however, his nitrogen cylinder ran out and his lab assistant informed him that there were only argon cylinders left. 'Whatever,' thought Lovelock, and hooked up the other inert gas. To his astonishment, his detector suddenly gave enormous peaks. Lovelock had stumbled across the Penning effect: the β-radiation excited the argon atoms into very long-lived metastable states, which then transferred their energy to the molecules emerging from the column, producing a cascade of ionisation that hugely increased the current.1,2 The detector generated a flurry of excitement and a version was soon marketed by Pye Unicam in Cambridge.
For capillary chromatography, Lovelock scaled down the cell for the needs of the much smaller and more powerful columns. At the same time he began to investigate the peculiar behaviour of CCl4 and other halocarbons, and found that they captured all of the electrons in the ionisation chamber, wiping out the current. Hence, for these molecules, the device was a thousand times more sensitive than even the 'argon' detector.
The timing was uncanny. Rachel Carson's book Silent spring, published in 1962, highlighted the dangers of organochlorine pesticides such as DDT. The ECD was perfectly suited to detect them and gas chromatography suddenly became the premier tool of analytical chemists looking for trace pollutants in the environment.
In the early 1960s he noticed a haze in the skies around his house in Surrey, UK, when the wind blew from the east. Convinced it was caused by pollution, he set up a GC-ECD in his shed and started measuring the only really stable molecules he thought would have a solely industrial source: chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). The correlation with air turbidity was perfect. Measurements he made at his little cottage on the west coast of Ireland were even more surprising — even on clear days when the wind came from the Atlantic he could detect parts per trillion of CFCs. Could this really mean that CFCs were making it across the Atlantic?
He applied for a National Environment Research Council (NERC) grant to travel by ship to Antarctica to make the same measurements. The referees refused to believe that he could measure at ppt levels and rejected the proposal outright. But the programme manager visited Lovelock at home, and after seeing his setup, quietly secured him an unfunded berth on RRS Shackleton. Lovelock spent most of the time on deck enjoying the sunshine ('I love sea voyages,' he laughs) and making a few measurements each day. Sure enough CFCs were everywhere, but their levels dropped markedly in the Southern hemisphere, consistent with their industrial origins.
Inspired by his experiences with Nasa and his atmospheric measurements, an idea started to form in his mind: that the Earth was a self-regulating system, much like an organism. He called it Gaia and wrote a best-selling book that galvanised the world and made him a household name. It has become a cornerstone of environmentalism and brought the idea of feedback loops into the mainstream.
Much more detail: The Saga of the Electron-Capture Detector (Leslie S. Ettre, Peter J. T. Morris)
Probably the most important selective GC detector is the electron-capture detector, with a very high sensitivity to organic compounds containing chlorine and fluorine atoms in their molecules. The electron-capture detector had a vital role in environmental protection and control — its use helped to prove the ubiquitous presence of chlorinated pesticides in nature and halocarbons in our atmosphere, and made us aware of the global extent of pollution. It was the electron-capture detector that made concentration ranges of parts-per-billion (ppb: 1:109) or even parts-per-trillion (ppt: 1:1012) detectable. Today, these terms are used routinely without realizing how formidable such a sensitivity really is: 1 ppb means that a spaceship (or a UFO, depending upon one's inclination) could pick up a particular family of six from the whole living population of the Earth, and 1 ppt means that it could even find one piece of chewing gum in the pocket of one of the children. Lovelock — the inventor of the electron-capture detector — illustrated its superior sensitivity by the following metaphor (1): If one would pour about one liter of a perfluorocarbon liquid onto a blanket in Japan, and left it out to dry in the air by itself, a few weeks later one could detect on the west coast of England the vapor that had evaporated into the air in Japan from that blanket and carried by the jet stream around the world.
The electron-capture detector is an ionization detector and its response is based upon the ability of molecules with certain functional groups to capture electrons generated by the radioactive source. The detector chamber contains two electrodes and a radioactive foil as the radiation source. Using an inert carrier gas with no affinity for electrons, the ions formed by the ionizing radiation can be collected, creating a steady standing current in the detector. When molecules of certain electron-absorbing solutes enter the detector chamber, they will capture electrons, resulting in a decrease of the standing current, giving a negative peak. In practice, the recorded peaks are made positive by reversing the polarity of the recorder.
...the use of the electron-capture detector provided the infallible proof of the correctness of Carson's conclusions...
For a long time, the electron-capture detector was the most sensitive GC detector, with its unique selectivity. Recently, improvements in GC-mass spectrometry systems have rivaled it. However, GC-electron-capture detection systems still remain the workhorse instruments for routine pesticide determinations in water and soil, PCBs in the transformer oils, and halocarbons in air.
No idea where Convivium will pick up next week, and this 'benevolent universe' may never see the light of day as a discussion topic. No matter, it's been fun to work on it.
1 Feb 2023
Nearly a month of very miscellaneous reading (paleontology, bacteriology, evolution...) since that lest entry, and tonight's Convivium was slated to take up benevolent universe, whatever that has come to mean, but it's postponed until next week, so I have yet more time to gather and ruminate on the core ideas that undergird my take on 'benevolence' : Life and Symbiosis.
During these last weeks I've reconnected with several writers whom I admired in the past, read some others that I should have read long ago, and found some new perspectives that were beyond event horizons of past writers. A few nice bits:
Lewis Thomas 1973:
We live inside a blue chamber,
a bubble of air blown by ourselves...
a summary of the insights of Lovelock and Margulis:
Earth as a self-regulating set of combined living and non-living systems.
'Earth System Science', as it is now known, unites scientific understanding
of the planet, its biosphere, and its changing climate.
The Blue Marble is our 'universe', our Cosmos, that 25km biotic shell of the Vernadskian Biosphere that defines the ambit of Terrestrial Life. Perhaps the most appropriate attitude/emotion for us to adopt would be gratitude to the oxygen producers and the symbionts, that complex web of mutually interactive bionts/beings with whom our lives are inextricably interwoven... or at least we owe them recognition, respect. and the consideration of reciprocity in our relationships with other life forms. Not something we're practised at doing. Our stock-in-trade has emphasized hubris and self-congratulation as the Crown of Creation, and look where that has got us......if we are prepared to give up some of our desire for totalizing knowledge, if we are prepared to treat understanding as a process and a negotiation, rather than as a route to mastery and dominance, then there is much we can learn and understand from the wisdom of others. (Ways of Being, pg 303)
It seems to me that we experience our Cosmos as 'beneficient' toward Homo sapiens because we've FIGURED OUT how to [more or less] (a) understand and (b) manage a wide range of symbiont partnerships (our various domesticates). And we can think "life is good!" and "this is fine!", and direct our engagements with the world into profitable and pleasurable uses of those symbionts... and overlook the symbiotic entanglements outside of that 'wide range' understood or managed.
None of the other beings in those global and temporal symbioses are where we are in understanding or managing their interrelationships and entanglements. There's nobody to touch us for manipulativeness, and we are
too clever by half...
and proud, and arrogant,
and inventive and eloquent
and short-sighted and self-involved
and generous and stingy...
To see how far down this goes, consider this, from the Small Things Considered blog:...microbiologists struggle no less than geologists, geochemists, or lay people with comprehending what the estimated 2.4 x 1028 SAR11/Pelagibacter ubique cells in the world's oceans mean for, say, Earth's carbon cycle (they are probably the most abundant of the small things, considered here by Merry). Or take the Prochlorococcus federation with an estimated ~1027 cells in the oceans, which is, together with the entire photosynthetic picoplankton, responsible for the production of ~50% of the atmospheric oxygen on our planet...
Our data suggest that each sand grain is a small microbial repository from which the major cyclers of carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur transformations typical of marine benthic habitats could be reconsituted.
There you have it, a world on a grain of sand.
And as for how far back, consider this:The oldest known structures built by life on Earth were stromatolites, the reef-like apartment blocks of cyanobacteria, which build successive layers by trapping sand grains washed across them by the primordial ocean... (Sand pg 60)