Big Think Interview With Peter Ward
Peter Ward has been active in Paleontology, Biology, and more recently, Astrobiology for more than 40 years. Since his Ph.D. in 1976, Ward has published more than 140 scientific papers dealing with paleontological, zoological, and astronomical topics.
He is an acknowledged world expert on mass extinctions and the role of extraterrestrial impacts on Earth. Ward was the Principal Investigator of the University of Washington node of the NASA Astrobiology Institute from 2001-2006, and in that capacity led a team of over 40 scientists and students. His career was profiled by the Pulitzer Prize winning reporter William Dietrich in The Seattle Times article "Prophet, Populist, Poet of Science."
Peter has written a memoir of his research on the Nautilus for Nautilus magazine's "Ingenious" feature entitled "Nautilus and me. My wonderful, dangerous life with the amazing Nautilus."
His books include the best-selling "Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe" (co-author Donald Brownlee, 2000), "Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What They Can Tell Us About Our Future" (2007), and "The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive?" (2009).
Peter Ward: Peter Ward, W-A-R-D. Department of Geology and Department of Biology at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Question: Based on your findings in Antarctica, how do you \r\nassess the future of the planet?\r\n
Peter Ward: Well, the earth has certainly gone through a lot \r\nof hot times and cold times back and forth, and forth and back. And \r\nwhat I do is study deep time by looking at CO2 levels and relative \r\ntemperatures and we are coming out of a cold time and moving into a hot \r\ntime. However, for this particular time in history, we should be moving\r\n back into a cold time.\r\n
If we take the entire ice ages in the last 2 ½ million years, we’ve \r\nbeen in a 10,000 year calm of warmth, and it’s time to go cold again, \r\nand yet it doesn’t seem to be in our cards because of all the carbon \r\ndioxide we have put into the system. In fact, we are now at levels that\r\n the world has not seen for the last 40 million years and we will soon \r\nbe at carbon dioxide levels that were 100 million years ago when we had a\r\n true hothouse world.\r\n
So, the game has been changed.\r\n
Question: What specific research did you conduct during \r\nyour Antarctic expedition?\r\n
Peter Ward: Our Antarctic work is to look at the nature of \r\nglobal temperatures at the end of the Cretaceous Period. Cretaceous \r\nended 65 million years ago. The **** end, and I do believe this is that\r\n large asteroid hit us in the Yucatan Peninsula causing the mass \r\nextinction. But we’re trying to see what happened in the 10 million \r\nyears prior to that because we know at that time; there was a gigantic \r\nvolcanic event in India. These are a big flood basalts they’re called. \r\n It’s not a single point source volcano, but imagine enormous areas of \r\nthe earth, creeping lava coming out of the cracks and flowing slowly all\r\n around scaring dinosaurs to death, probably running in front of this \r\nstuff, probably killed a few dinosaurs, but what it did do was vent an \r\nenormous quantity of volcanic carbon dioxide and other gasses into the \r\natmosphere.\r\n
Now, we wanted to know, was there any precursor to the impact. Was \r\nthe impact just the coup de grace coming on an already affected world \r\nand it does seem to be that? And the best place to look at this – the \r\nbest place to understand anything about global warming isn’t at the \r\ntropics. That’s where temperatures change the least, but it’s at the \r\npoles where you have the greatest absolute change. So, we found a ten \r\ndegrees centigrade change from colder to warmer in the last two to three\r\n million years prior to the impact itself. The place really did warm \r\nup, and fast, from a lot of CO2 in the atmosphere. Now, there’s \r\nobviously parallels to what’s going on in the world today.\r\n
Question: What was your methodology in measuring CO2 levels\r\n in Antarctica?\r\n
Peter Ward: We’re trying to understand past temperatures. And\r\n you can do this in a couple of direct and indirect ways. But the most \r\ndirect way is to take the shells, if it is unaltered. The original \r\nshell of some of the mollusks that lived at that time. The ones we look\r\n at are relative to the chambered nautilus called ammonites; beautifully\r\n pearly shell. And just run an isotope check on it. You can do this \r\nvery simply by crushing it up, turning it into a powder and heating \r\nthat. You get oxygen being driven off. You compare the isotopes. It’s\r\n been known for 50 years that a comparison of the oxygen isotope 18, \r\nwhich is heavier, to the far more normal oxygen 16 is a direct way of \r\nmeasuring ancient temperatures. So, all we try to do is understand, \r\ngee, what happened to ocean temperatures across this 2 or 3 million year\r\n interval.\r\n
So, we collect the specimens, we take them back to our labs in \r\nAmerica, we run them through the machines and came up with a temperature\r\n curve. So, we do have a direct measurement now of say the last 5 \r\nmillion years of the Cretaceous. And the temperatures in the Arctic and\r\n the Antarctic, and sure enough those are the places that should warm up\r\n the most if you had a global warming scenario and in fact, that’s \r\nexactly what happened.\r\n
Question: What distinguishes man-made global warming from \r\npast warming events, and which is likely to be worse?\r\n
Peter Ward: Well, the differences are just simply what is \r\ncausing it? I mean, in the past it was volcanoes and today it’s Volvos,\r\n or any other car you want to say. But the reality, it’s not even the \r\ncars. And this is a misnomer that I see. We think of all those cars \r\nand all the exhaust from them, and surely that is a problem, but it’s \r\nthe power plants that make the steel that make the cars. That’s the \r\nproblem. The power plants are the big problem on this planet. And \r\nthat’s why we really have to think seriously about China with its \r\nbillion or more people of which one in 100 has a personal car. America \r\nhas 300 million people and over 300 million cars. Now, what happens if \r\nthe world has to build a billion cars just for the Chinese? That’s a \r\nlot of carbon dioxide still to go to the atmosphere. A lot of power \r\nplants and the power plants in China are almost invariably fueled by \r\ncoal, and coal is the single worst polluter that humans could use.
Question: What non-greenhouse extinction events have happened in the past, and are they likely to recur?\r\n
Peter Ward: Well, we certainly know that we were hit 65 million years ago by a very large rock from space, Hollywood knows this with the two blockbusters, “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact,” so it must be true. It was really interesting, in ’95, Spielberg sent his minions to a conference to where a number of us were attending about this particular hit and indeed, there is a great danger out there. We are surrounded by asteroids, some become berth crossing. Jupiter has a way of perturbing comets and sending them from stable orbits to earth-crossing orbits. We will get hit again. How big the hit will be is only a matter of time until we get something the same size that killed off the dinosaurs, should humanity last long enough that is. But that size hit looks like only once every 100 million years, or more. We haven’t had a hit that size for the last 500 million years. So, it does look like it is a rare event to have something that big; a 10 kilometer asteroid hit us.\r\n
Question: Given the low number of extinction events in recent Earth history, are we “due” for another?\r\n
Peter Ward: Well, no, it’s just the whole sense of when is it going to happen again and it appears that most of the big mass extinctions have been caused by these nasty volcanic events. The last one didn’t cause a mass extinction. It was in the Tertiary Period. This was in my own home state, Washington State, the Columbia River Basalts. Out came all this basalt, as liquid lava, and a lot of the carbon dioxide came out too, but not enough to cause the earth to go into a really nasty mass extinction. The mass extinctions caused by the basalts, again, are simply by heating the world. Now when you heat the world you heat the pole more than you do the equatorial region. When that happens, you start losing circulation. The only reason you have wind now is you have a hot spot and a cold spot and they’re trying to equilibrate. Well, an ocean current you have the same thing. You have a cold Antarctic and then you warm them up, the ocean circulation system is dampened down; there’s much less heat difference.\r\n
So when we heated the poles to the point that there is no longer – or already in a very sluggish ocean circulation, the ocean is going oxic, they lose their oxygen. They only keep oxygenated now because of this vigorous mixing. Well, even when you have oxygen in the atmosphere and contact with the surface, once you slow down any circulation, that whole basin can lose this oxygen. The Black Sea is the same case. It’s sits under a 21% oxygen atmosphere, and yet the Black Sea, except for the top several meters, in anoxic. It’s black because it’s producing a lot of sulfur-producing bacteria and there’s very nasty gases that are produced.\r\n
We now think the big mass extinctions were caused by global anoxia. The oceans themselves so sluggish that the hydrogen sulfide bacteria are produced in huge areas of the ocean bottom bubbles up to the surface and starts killing things; rotten egg killing. It would be extremely nasty. Hydrogen Sulfide poisoning is a horrible death. Two hundred hydrogen sulfide molecules among a million air molecules is enough to kill a human. I mean, just breathing in 200 of those little things amid all the million you’ve got in oxygen, and boom, you’re down, horribly down.\r\n
So this is a really nasty poison, and it was certainly present in past oceans during these short-term global warming events. That’s why it’s really spooky what we’re doing now.\r\n
Question: What is our best hope for reversing course on climate change?\r\n
Peter Ward: Our best hope is, we just saw our best hope. It was the global recession that we just saw. Because economic activity dropped to where we had carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere through emissions, and yet that recession has caused, what, untold misery for a whole lot of people. Ten percent unemployment in the United States, this could be endemic for a long time it looks like. That’s misery. But the misery that will be caused, the economic chaos that will be caused if we melt ice sheets in any significant manner is something that I have never yet seen outlined, and it scares the heck out of me.\r\n
Let’s think about just a 3-foot sea level rise. If we never put another CO2 molecule into the atmosphere, it’s still going to rise three feet. If it rises three feet, what happens to all the ports and all the docks on the planet where ships come in and offload? Now, that high tide is going to take that ship three feet higher than it ever did before. All of a sudden, that dock isn’t quite in the right spot. When you have a lot of other docks all over the planet, you start talking about billions of dollars. In fact, CNN came out with a report in the last month that simply a 3-foot sea level rise will cost trillions of dollars around the planet on simply fixing the wharfs. Now what else is a 3-foot sea level rise do? You can say good-bye to JFK Airport, you can say good-bye to LaGuardia, you can say good-bye to Hawaii, San Francisco, Auckland. Where else have I been. All over the planet we put airports right on sea level. Airports cost billions of dollars. So, you’ve got trillions of dollars in airport rebuilding.\r\n
A 3-foot sea level takes out a significant portion of the world’s crops. A great amount of foodstuff is produced at sea level, or within three feet of it. The San Joaquin Valley, the greatest food stuff producer in America for vegetables; a 3-foot sea level rise will cause huge amounts of salt going into that system, which is already vulnerable to it anyway. The economic impact of a 3-foot sea level rise is incalculable, except the 3-foot is just the start.\r\n
Question: What is the best-case scenario for the future of human survival?\r\n
Peter Ward: Well, I think we’re going to survive. I don’t think climate change can make us go extinct. Unless we produce so much CO2 in the atmosphere that, once again, we shut down the conveyor belt currents. These are the largest scale currents in the ocean. They are from the surface to the bottom currents, not just sideways currents. And so, there the current conveyor that takes oxygen from the top and takes it to the bottom, if we lose that, then the bottoms of the ocean go anoxic and you start down this road towards what we call a greenhouse extinction, which is the hydrogen sulfide events. It would take tens of thousands of years to get to that. But we as a species who have only been around for a couple of hundred thousand years, the average mammal lasts 5 million years. Are we anything less than average? So, we should have a few million years left even if we’re average, and we’re not average. We could be living fossils that last 500 million years. There’s nothing genetically within us that says we have to go extinct, unfortunately, I have these genes in me that are going to kill me and all your listeners too. But as a species we don’t have those genes. Species don’t age out of existence, species are killed off, lose competition, they go extinct because they’re driven to extinction. It’s not inherent. It’s not within them.\r\n
So we keep track of Mother Earth and do some good engineering and we’re not going to go extinct. But extinction and misery are two different things. Not going extinct doesn’t mean you’re not going to be miserable, and by misery I mean, wholesale, enormous human mortality.\r\n
Question: Why do you believe multicellular life is suicidal in the long term?\r\n
Peter Ward: Well, I think all life is suicidal. I thought up tongue-in-cheek, sort of, the Medea Hypothesis, Medea, Jason’s wife, was probably the worst mother in Greek History. She murdered her children because of Jason’s infidelities. Jason was probably not very good at anything, apparently, except making women fall in love with him. He was good at that. He got the fleece back, he wasn’t much of a captain, he wasn’t a fighter, whatever. The Gaia Hypothesis suggests that Mother Gaia, who is the Greek Mother, will sustain life, keeps life going, the kernel of that hypothesis is that life makes the world better for itself. That the regulation of a number of systems, life is increasing habitability. It’s kind of like, I’m at a hotel right now and in my hotel, before I leave I paint the walls and I put in a better stereo system, or something. I’m making the place better for having been there. Well, that’s really what the Gaia Hypothesis suggests. Whereas, if you really look at the history of life on this planet, you see a lot of biologically produced catastrophes. And that’s really what Medea is suggesting, that life is the global warming that starts the process, but the killing comes from the hydrogen sulfide, and where’s that come from. That comes from microbes, from life itself. So, life is the bullet if the gun itself is the volcano.\r\n
Question: Does the emergence of intelligent life dampen or fuel this suicidal tendency?\r\n
Peter Ward: Intelligence is the only way out. I would suspect that all life is inherently Medean and the reason being, if we think of the definition of life, it metabolizes, it reproduces, and it evolves through Darwinian selection. Now, that’s the NASA definition.\r\n
Darwinian selection means that you produce more offspring than can possibly live, so competition is built into life. You compete not only with other species, but with yourself. The competition in this entire system leads to one species trying to take over the whole planet. It’s built in to every species wishes it could be dominant. It’s built into the system. It’s part of the basic fabric of life.\r\n
The only out on this, because the ultimate end result of one species taking over, is eventual life – the death of all life on the planet itself. The only out is intelligence. Only an intelligent creature can realize how this system works and begin the engineering that can keep planetary life-giving systems, like carbon cycles, nitrogen cycles, all of those going. When unless intelligence is there, it’s going to completely break down, and that’s the end of life on this planet.\r\n
Question: Why do you believe life may be exceptionally rare in the universe?\r\n
Peter Ward: Well, when we thought up the Rare Earth Hypothesis, it was simply taking a look at what happened on this planet that allowed us to have multi-cellularity. Part of it was that we had conditions allowing habitability for billions of years. It took a long time to get to something as simple as a two-celled creature; a long time.\r\n
How do you get a long time? You do it because system of temperature, systems of oxygen, systems of all the gasses and the carbon movement remains stable. If you get too hot, too cold and only a little bit to hot and a little bit too cold on a planetary sense, you can kiss it all good-bye. So, what is it about the earth that allowed those things to continue for such long periods of time? The most important is plate tectonics. This is the movement of the surface of the earth over the top of a mobile softer rock substrate beneath it. So, the continents skate around like bumper cars. The part of that process is a continental and ocean recycling. And that recycling system is inherently – is the absolutely necessity to keep a long term temperature constancy. We have this feedback system, a thermostat system. What makes the earth warmer is carbon dioxide, what makes the earth cooler, interesting enough is the removal of that carbon dioxide. Volcanoes put it in the air, but weathering removes it. If you take a granite, or any rock that had a volcanic material in it and let it chemically weather, one of the byproducts takes Co2 out of the atmosphere. The warmer it gets, the faster that process works. So, the warmer it gets the faster the breakdown removes Co2. If you get down to an area, or a level at which you can no longer chemically weather the volcanoes refill you up. Now that bang, bang feedback system has been in service for over 3 ½ billion years or more. That has kept us at a stable temperature. How often does a planet have plate tectonics? By looking at the nature of the rock, we barely have it. If you want to think about the end of the world; the end of the world is going to happen when the co-efficiency of sliding rock, when the friction co-efficiency over exceed the type of rock we have, we no longer have these subduction zones. The end of the world is also going to be when our core, we have this liquid molten core. It’s going to freeze because the earth is slowly dying and cooling. When that freezes, we lose our magnetic field. So we also have consequences for plate tectonics, losing magnetic field, losing plate tectonics is – will definitely be the end of life on this planet. So, those two things are geologically produced. How often do you find both of them on the same planet? Theoretical studies say, not very often.\r\n
Question: Do the outer planets in the solar system affect these calculations also?\r\n
Peter Ward: Oh there’s just so many things. The gas giants outside of you. What if we had, not a Jupiter-sized, where Jupiter is, but a Saturn-sized. Would the impact rate have been higher? Probably.\r\n
What if we didn’t have a good Jupiter, but had a bad Jupiter. Well, then you could; really kiss it all good-bye. A highly elliptical Jupiter ends up either causing the inner planets, the rocky earth-like planets, to be ejected into space or pushed into the starts itself. I mean, obviously that’s a death sentence either way. You’ve got to have a good Jupiter. The other complete unknown is, how much ocean do you get from asteroids coming in? The oceans we have on this planet are a byproduct, no just of water on the earth when it was formed, but lots of comets that came in earlier with history. Now, if we have too much water, let’s say we had an additional ocean, to the point that we don’t have land sticking out of the water, then this feedback system, the temperature system doesn’t work. You’ve got to have – what’s really scary is that you might have to have ocean land mixes of this two-third, one-third, or even have half to make this whole system work. You have to have rock out; you have to have oceans to have water, but how much of each? And the model is just starting, and it’s a little spooky. And it really does look like there’s not going to be a lot of earth-like planets.\r\n
Let’s take the last part, our moon. Here’s a scary deal. So in Cal Tech new calculations, let’s say we have no moon, and obviously looking at this solar system, Venus doesn’t have a moon like ours. Mars doesn’t, Mercury doesn’t. We’re the only one that has an earth-like planet with a moon that’s an appreciable size to the planet itself. If that moon is not here, our day is four hours long; two hours of daylight, two hours of dark, two hours of daylight. Our spin rating increases so much, the moon is a break on our spin. What happens to climate when you have a spinning earth that has a four-hour day instead of a 24-hour day? The entire climate system is radically different. Would it sustain life as it does now? Well, the models are just kicking in, but this one itself might have actually been something hugely important in allowing that there to be as much complex life as there is now.\r\n
Question: What further research could confirm or disconfirm the Rare Earth hypothesis?\r\n
Peter Ward: Well, the Kepler missions, the satellites that are going to go out there will tell us how many earth-like planets there are by blotting out images of the stars that are near so that we could actually see discs. What’s interesting now is for an earth-like planet, it looks like earth is on the small end of what we now call earth-like planets. We’re seeing far more, what we call super earths, which are about two times earth, but they have a lot more gravity. There’s going to be no way you would have complex life of our shapes in much higher gravity. You’re certainly not going to have things flying around as we have. You’d probably have different shapes of fish. You could get complex life, but it would certainly not look like the stuff we have now just from the physics, the differences in water and air.\r\n
Question: What do you estimate are the chances that we are the only intelligent life in the universe?\r\n
Peter Ward: I bet that’s near zero. How couldn't there be? The numbers are out there. How could there not be lots of them out there? But what is the possibility that there are so few that the distances involved make it so, not only SETI could find anybody else. I mean, SETI, we already know from the SETI work to date that there’s nobody near us. This blasting out the sort of messages that the movie “Contact” is suggesting. I mean, that’s not happening. SETI itself agrees that, gee if we don’t find anybody in the next 30-40 years, there could be a pretty good chance there’s nobody close enough to us that we would ever be able to either talk to them, let alone get out there and see them.\r\n
Question: Do you predict that humans will ever make contact with life elsewhere?\r\n
Peter Ward: I suspect the chances are that we will not, at least in the next few centuries. Perhaps our technology will get to the point that we could pinpoint, not just the immediate area, which is all that we’re good for now, and spotlight the entire galaxy. Or perhaps we’ll get good enough that we can really start looking at other galaxies. I think then we’ll start picking up evidence that there’s other life out there, but if you’re talking about places hundreds of thousands of light years away, there’s no conversation you’ll want to have waiting 100,000 years to get your response. And then it comes back to you and says, “Message garbled, please repeat.”\r\n
Question: Could the “Fermi paradox” simply stem from the difficulty of communication across vast distances?\r\n
Peter Ward: Well, it could be an aspect of communication, but it also could be just another indication that Medea is correct. The life gets going on a planet and then kills itself off through colossal blunders. A friend of mine said, I should call it the Medea Hypothesis, but evolution is more like Mr. Bean; Mr. Bean blundering into one situation after another. Let’s hey, let’s make oxygen, that’ll be cool; and then poisoning almost every bit of life around it. Or, hey let’s make photosynthesis; and then reducing carbon dioxide so much that we go into a snowball earth. Or, hey, let’s make forests; and then reducing CO2 even further and producing a gigantic, almost global ice age in the carboniferous. Let’s do this, says Mr. Bean.\r\n
Question: Does personality shape scientists’ interpretation of data?\r\n
Peter Ward: Well, science is certainly affected by how scientists perceive it should be, we’re all human. And human nature being what it is, it’s really a shame that science as we know it now discourages scientists talking to people other than scientists. Carl Sagan knew much about this. We invented a word, Saganized, or Saganization, in which your fellow scientists frown on you for attempting to talk to the masses.\r\n
The way it comes down, it’s just sort of a prim down turning of the mouth, but the reaction is, why have you wasted your time. That’s time that could have gone into doing your science and you have taken it away and done something else. Well, you have not come to your full potential as a scientist. I personally am pretty upset about this in the sense that I think the reason that we only have half of American’s believing in evolution, the reason we have so many Americans thinking that there’s a political motive in global warming is that the science communication coming out of the professional scientists, most of whom are university professors, is abysmal.\r\n
And as an example, when you come up for a job interview, you have been vetted from a hundred candidates. And the way that we cut down is to look at their scientific output. If this is a post-doc, or someone with a brand new PhD, we’re looking entirely at research productivity. If research productivity is marred by there’s an outreach component to this that sets that person in deficit compared to that other person who’s got that one more scientific article.\r\n
When we come up for promotion, we never look at; say hey, two scientific Americans, no, we saw, wow three papers in science, okay. That’s what goes. You don’t get promoted for the side stuff. When I write books, I’ve done 16 now. They don’t go to my promotion packets. These are the sort of ugly little aside that tried us that the person has been doing as a hobby, but is not part of the professional meat. It has nothing to do with me as my professorship position. That outreach stuff, that’s somebody else. I actually give it an entirely different name. And that’s the way it is across all the first rate science places.\r\n
A lot of people do outreach, but not enough. We need to make that any PhD thesis, one chapter is outreach for the public, the other three or four are for the scientists and that this has to become institutionalized, then you can’t do it for one person, it’s got to be an entire recognition. That’s not happening.\r\n
Question: What more can be done to improve scientific literacy among the public?\r\n
Peter Ward: Well, if you look at PBS shows, and look at the audience of the PBS science shows. They all have the hair color I do, grey. It’s an aging graying audience. The reason, the way we have to work now, and I fully believe this, is that we scientists have to stop writing the books we write or being on the TV, or even being on program like this and start writing video games. I’ve got a 12-year old son. The only way to get to him is a video game. That’s what he wants to do all the time. Video games are the way to get into his and all his friends’ brains. Make happy, really cool, first person shooters, but at the same time get across good science. That’s the way to do it. I mean, I’ve really come to the conclusion that writing these books does virtually nothing. You’ve got to get to people who don’t get it otherwise. Video games to me seems the logical way.\r\n
Question: What can be done to increase the number of women in science?\r\n
Peter Ward: Well, there’s the old stereotype that women did more poorly in mathematics and that has held for a long time. But to be honest, I don’t believe, certainly in my career I have seen the women in science problem diminish enormously. We have more women graduate students in my two departments than men. It’s been that way for years now, so, whether that’s translating to the job market. Are we hiring as many women scientists and men scientists, well there’s still a function of there may be more men scientists in particular areas, but again, that’s diminishing. So, I’m hopeful that that particular aspect has changed. It seems to be.\r\n
Question: What’s a dangerous scientific misconception that even informed lay people hold?\r\n
Peter Ward: Well, there’s a lot of misconceptions out there. Dangerous misconceptions, the one I’m closest to is this Gaia Hypothesis; the misconception is, if we can only go back to nature somehow there is the sense that if we can get rid of all the civilized trappings that the world will heal itself. I think everybody has the sense that we have dented the world; we have certainly put our footprint upon it. It may not be in the best particular way, but on the other hand, do you want to see the child misery, the childhood diseases? Do you want to see one out of every two babies die of early childhood death, and that’s the way it used to be before we began the technology, the technology in medicine and the technology in transportation and the whole thing. Do we want to go back to that? I personally don’t. And if we don’t want to go back to that, then we’re going to have to recognize that we’re going to have a heavy footprint on this planet.\r\n
The reality of this situation is that the world and everybody in the world wants to raise their standard of living. That in Africa, where I spend a great deal of time and Asia, there is this longing. There are cell phones everywhere not. You cannot the spread of the understanding of what other cultures have. Everybody wants it. And with this universal communication ability, you may have a cell phone, but you don’t have a car. Well, you’ll want that car. You can see the ads. You’ve got it all. You’ll want that stuff. We’re going to have to figure out how to raise standard of living in a gentle energy fashion, or as gently as we can in terms of what’s going to happen to the atmosphere. And this is where I personally think there’s no stopping the rise in sea level, that it’s going to happen, that we’re going to have to deal with it, we’re going to be moving cities, and that the next two to three thousand years of human civilization shall be the movement of humans to higher ground. That will be the major motive. We’re not going to conquer the solar system. We’re not going to have the resources to do it. We’re going to be way too preoccupied with changing the positions of our cities.\r\n
Question: Who are your heroes, scientific or otherwise?\r\n
Peter Ward: My heroes were actually the great dinosaur hunters of the American Museum, Roy Chapman Andrews, Granger and those guys. Sagan is certainly a hero. I have a lot of heroes within my own disciplines that are probably too arcane, but Stephen J. Gould is perhaps my greatest hero. I knew him very well. I knew him well enough that I got in trouble a lot with him. He sort of viewed me as his cantankerous younger brother. He once told me, “Peter, you’ll never be great, but you’re pretty good.” Now, that’s quite a slap in the face, right? We all want to be great. But it was from Steve, so I’m great and you’re not as great as me, but I like the fact that you’re doing good work. It was that sort of relationship, okay. But I miss him. I miss his voice. He was the greatest single public speaker I’ve ever, ever heard. He was also the smartest man I’ve ever known. I’ve known quite a few intelligent people, but his processing speed was beyond belief. It’s a great voice lost.\r\n
Question: What keeps you up at night?\r\n
Peter Ward: The greatest single threat to us, again, is this rapid global warming, in the sense that I am really kept up at night worrying about the slowing of the circulation systems of the oceans and kept up at night worrying a great deal about sea level rise.\r\n
I have a book coming out called, Our Rising Sea, or Our Flooded World, I haven’t finished it yet. We’re doing a TV show about it; we’ll start filming in March. But even two meters, but after being in Antarctica, look, we’ve **** Antarctica we’ve got 240 feet of sea level rise. So where I’m sitting here in Manhattan is about 100 feet under water. There’s just going to be a whole change in geography of this planet due to industrialized humans. I think there’s no stopping it.
Recorded on January 11, 2010
Interviewed\r\n by Austin Allen
An interview with the biologist and paleontologist at the University of Washington in Seattle.
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The author of 'How We Read' Now explains.
During the pandemic, many college professors abandoned assignments from printed textbooks and turned instead to digital texts or multimedia coursework.
As a professor of linguistics, I have been studying how electronic communication compares to traditional print when it comes to learning. Is comprehension the same whether a person reads a text onscreen or on paper? And are listening and viewing content as effective as reading the written word when covering the same material?
The answers to both questions are often “no," as I discuss in my book “How We Read Now," released in March 2021. The reasons relate to a variety of factors, including diminished concentration, an entertainment mindset and a tendency to multitask while consuming digital content.
Print versus digital reading
The benefits of print particularly shine through when experimenters move from posing simple tasks – like identifying the main idea in a reading passage – to ones that require mental abstraction – such as drawing inferences from a text. Print reading also improves the likelihood of recalling details – like “What was the color of the actor's hair?" – and remembering where in a story events occurred – “Did the accident happen before or after the political coup?"
Studies show that both grade school students and college students assume they'll get higher scores on a comprehension test if they have done the reading digitally. And yet, they actually score higher when they have read the material in print before being tested.
Educators need to be aware that the method used for standardized testing can affect results. Studies of Norwegian tenth graders and U.S. third through eighth graders report higher scores when standardized tests were administered using paper. In the U.S. study, the negative effects of digital testing were strongest among students with low reading achievement scores, English language learners and special education students.
My own research and that of colleagues approached the question differently. Rather than having students read and take a test, we asked how they perceived their overall learning when they used print or digital reading materials. Both high school and college students overwhelmingly judged reading on paper as better for concentration, learning and remembering than reading digitally.
The discrepancies between print and digital results are partly related to paper's physical properties. With paper, there is a literal laying on of hands, along with the visual geography of distinct pages. People often link their memory of what they've read to how far into the book it was or where it was on the page.
But equally important is mental perspective, and what reading researchers call a “shallowing hypothesis." According to this theory, people approach digital texts with a mindset suited to casual social media, and devote less mental effort than when they are reading print.
Podcasts and online video
Given increased use of flipped classrooms – where students listen to or view lecture content before coming to class – along with more publicly available podcasts and online video content, many school assignments that previously entailed reading have been replaced with listening or viewing. These substitutions have accelerated during the pandemic and move to virtual learning.
Surveying U.S. and Norwegian university faculty in 2019, University of Stavanger Professor Anne Mangen and I found that 32% of U.S. faculty were now replacing texts with video materials, and 15% reported doing so with audio. The numbers were somewhat lower in Norway. But in both countries, 40% of respondents who had changed their course requirements over the past five to 10 years reported assigning less reading today.
A primary reason for the shift to audio and video is students refusing to do assigned reading. While the problem is hardly new, a 2015 study of more than 18,000 college seniors found only 21% usually completed all their assigned course reading.
Maximizing mental focus
Researchers found similar results with university students reading an article versus listening to a podcast of the text. A related study confirms that students do more mind-wandering when listening to audio than when reading.
Results with younger students are similar, but with a twist. A study in Cyprus concluded that the relationship between listening and reading skills flips as children become more fluent readers. While second graders had better comprehension with listening, eighth graders showed better comprehension when reading.
Research on learning from video versus text echoes what we see with audio. For example, researchers in Spain found that fourth through sixth graders who read texts showed far more mental integration of the material than those watching videos. The authors suspect that students “read" the videos more superficially because they associate video with entertainment, not learning.
The collective research shows that digital media have common features and user practices that can constrain learning. These include diminished concentration, an entertainment mindset, a propensity to multitask, lack of a fixed physical reference point, reduced use of annotation and less frequent reviewing of what has been read, heard or viewed.
Digital texts, audio and video all have educational roles, especially when providing resources not available in print. However, for maximizing learning where mental focus and reflection are called for, educators – and parents – shouldn't assume all media are the same, even when they contain identical words.
Humans may have evolved to be tribalistic. Is that a bad thing?
- From politics to every day life, humans have a tendency to form social groups that are defined in part by how they differ from other groups.
- Neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky, author Dan Shapiro, and others explore the ways that tribalism functions in society, and discuss how—as social creatures—humans have evolved for bias.
- But bias is not inherently bad. The key to seeing things differently, according to Beau Lotto, is to "embody the fact" that everything is grounded in assumptions, to identify those assumptions, and then to question them.
"Deepfakes" and "cheap fakes" are becoming strikingly convincing — even ones generated on freely available apps.
- A writer named Magdalene Visaggio recently used FaceApp and Airbrush to generate convincing portraits of early U.S. presidents.
- "Deepfake" technology has improved drastically in recent years, and some countries are already experiencing how it can weaponized for political purposes.
- It's currently unknown whether it'll be possible to develop technology that can quickly and accurately determine whether a given video is real or fake.
After former U.S. President William Henry Harrison delivered his inaugural speech on March 4, 1841, he posed for a daguerreotype, the first widely available photographic technology. It became the first photo taken of a sitting American president.
As for the eight presidents before Harrison, history can see them only through artistic renderings. (The exception is a handful of surviving daguerreotypes of John Quincy Adams, taken after he left office. In his diary, Adams described them as "hideous" and "too true to the original.")
But a recent project offers a glimpse of what early presidents might've looked like if photographed through modern cameras. Using FaceApp and Airbrush, Magdalene Visaggio, author of books such as "Eternity Girl" and "Kim & Kim," generated a collection of convincing portraits of the nation's first presidents, from George Washington to Ulysses S. Grant.
Modern Presidents George Washington https://t.co/CURJQB0kap— Magdalene Visaggio (@Magdalene Visaggio)1611952243.0
What might be surprising is that Visaggio was able to generate the images without a background in graphic design, using freely available tools. She wrote on Twitter:
"A lot of people think I'm a digital artist or whatever, so let me clarify how I work. Everything you see here is done in Faceapp+Airbrush on my phone. On the outside, each takes between 15-30 mins. Washington was a pretty simple one-and-done replacement."
Ulysses S Grant https://t.co/L1IGXLI3Vl— Magdalene Visaggio (@Magdalene Visaggio)1611959480.0
"Other than that? I am not a visual artist in any sense, just a hobbyist using AI tools see what she can make. I'm actually a professional comics writer."
Did another pass at Lincoln. https://t.co/PdT4QVpMbn— Magdalene Visaggio (@Magdalene Visaggio)1611973947.0
Of course, Visaggio isn't the first person to create deepfakes (or "cheap fakes") of politicians.
In 2017, many people got their first glimpse of the technology through a video depicting former President Barack Obama warning: "We're entering an era in which our enemies can make it look like anyone is saying anything at any point in time." The video quickly reveals itself to be fake, with comedian Jordan Peele speaking for the computer-generated Obama.
While deepfakes haven't yet caused significant chaos in the U.S., incidents in other nations may offer clues of what's to come.
The future of deepfakes
In 2018, Gabon's president Ali Bongo had been out of the country for months receiving medical treatment. After Bongo hadn't been seen in public for months, rumors began swirling about his condition. Some suggested Bongo might even be dead. In response, Bongo's administration released a video that seemed to show the president addressing the nation.
But the video is strange, appearing choppy and blurry in parts. After political opponents declared the video to be a deepfake, Gabon's military attempted an unsuccessful coup. What's striking about the story is that, to this day, experts in the field of deepfakes can't conclusively verify whether the video was real.
The uncertainty and confusion generated by deepfakes poses a "global problem," according to a 2020 report from The Brookings Institution. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Defense released some of the first tools able to successfully detect deepfake videos. The problem, however, is that deepfake technology keeps improving, meaning forensic approaches may forever be one step behind the most sophisticated forms of deepfakes.
As the 2020 report noted, even if the private sector or governments create technology to identify deepfakes, they will:
"...operate more slowly than the generation of these fakes, allowing false representations to dominate the media landscape for days or even weeks. "A lie can go halfway around the world before the truth can get its shoes on," warns David Doermann, the director of the Artificial Intelligence Institute at the University of Buffalo. And if defensive methods yield results short of certainty, as many will, technology companies will be hesitant to label the likely misrepresentations as fakes."
Ancient corridors below the French capital have served as its ossuary, playground, brewery, and perhaps soon, air conditioning.
- People have been digging up limestone and gypsum from below Paris since Roman times.
- They left behind a vast network of corridors and galleries, since reused for many purposes — most famously, the Catacombs.
- Soon, the ancient labyrinth may find a new lease of life, providing a sustainable form of air conditioning.
Ancient mining areas below Paris for limestone (red) and gypsum (green).Credit: Émile Gérards (1859–1920) / Public domain
"If you're brave enough to try, you might be able to catch a train from UnLondon to Parisn't, or No York, or Helsunki, or Lost Angeles, or Sans Francisco, or Hong Gone, or Romeless."
China Miéville's fantasy novel Un Lun Dun is set in an eerie mirror version of London. In it, he hints that other cities have similar doubles. On the list that he offhandedly rattles off, Paris stands out. Because the City of Light really does have a twisted sister. Below Paris Overground is Paris Underground, the City of Darkness.
Most people will have heard of the Catacombs of Paris: subterranean charnel houses for the bones of around six million dead Parisians. They are one of the French capital's most famous tourist attractions – and undoubtedly its grisliest.
But they constitute only a small fragment of what the locals themselves call les carrières de Paris ("the mines of Paris"), a collection of tunnels and galleries up to 300 km (185 miles) long, most of which are off-limits to the public, yet eagerly explored by so-called cataphiles.
The Grand Réseau Sud ("Great Southern Network") takes up around 200 km beneath the 5th, 6th, 14th, and 15th arrondissements (administrative districts), all south of the river Seine. Smaller networks run beneath the 12th, 13th, and 16th arrondissements. How did they get there?
Paris stone and plaster of Paris
It all starts with geology. Sediments left behind by ancient seas created large deposits of limestone in the south of the city, mostly south of the Seine; and gypsum in the north, particularly in the hills of Montmartre and Ménilmontant. Highly sought after as building materials, both have been mined since Roman times.
The limestone is also known as Lutetian limestone (Lutetia is the Latin name for ancient Paris) or simply "Paris stone." It has been used for many famous Paris landmarks, including the Louvre and the grand buildings erected during Georges-Eugène Haussmann's large-scale remodelling of the city in the mid-19th century. The stone's warm, yellowish color provides visual unity and a bright elegance to the city.
The fine-powdered gypsum of northern Paris, used for making quick-setting plaster, was so famed for its quality that "plaster of Paris" is still used as a term of distinction. However, as gypsum is very soluble in water, the underground cavities left by its extraction were extremely vulnerable to collapse.
Like living on top of a rotting tooth: subsidence starts far below the surface, but it can destroy your house.Credit : Delavanne Avocats
In previous centuries, a road would occasionally open up to swallow a chariot, or even a whole house would disappear down a sinkhole. In 1778, a catastrophic subsidence in Ménilmontant killed seven. That's why the Montmartre gypsum quarries were dynamited rather than just left as they were. The remaining gypsum caves were to be filled up with concrete.
The official body governing Paris down below is the Inspection Générale des Carrières (IGC), founded in the late 1770s by King Louis XVI. The IGC was tasked with mapping and, where needed, propping up the current and ancient (and sometimes forgotten) mining corridors and galleries hiding beneath Paris.
A delightful hiding place
Also around that time, the dead of Paris were getting in the way of the living. At the end of the 18th century, their final destination consisted of about 200 small cemeteries, scattered throughout the city — all bursting at the seams, so to speak. There was no room to bury the newly dead, and the previously departed were fouling up both the water and air around their respective churchyards.
Something radical had to happen. And it did. From 1785 until 1814, the smaller cemeteries were emptied of their bones, which were transported with full funerary pomp to their final resting place in the ancient limestone quarries at Tombe-Issoire. Three large and modern cemeteries were opened to receive the remains of subsequent generations of Parisians: Montparnasse, Père-Lachaise, and Passy.
The six million dead Parisians in the Catacombs, from all corners of the capital and across many centuries, together form the world's largest necropolis — their now anonymized skulls and bones methodically stacked, occasionally into whimsical patterns. The Catacombs are fashioned into a memorial to the brevity of life. The message above the entrance reads: Arrête! C'est ici l'empire de la Mort. ("Halt! This is the empire of Death.")
That has not stopped the Catacombs, accessible via a side door to a classicist building on the Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, making just about every Top 20 list of things to see in Paris.
An underground economy
However, while the Catacombs certainly are the most famous part of the centuries-old network beneath Paris, and in non-pandemic times draw thousands of tourists each day, they constitute just 1.7 km (1 mile) of the 300-km (185-mile) tunneling total.
Subterranean Paris wasn't just used for mining and storing dead people. In the 17th century, Carthusian monks converted the ancient quarries under their monastery into distilleries for the green or yellow liqueur that still carries their name, chartreuse.
Because the mines generally keep a constant cool temperature of around 15° C (60° F), they were also ideal for brewing beer, as happened on a large scale from the end of the 17th century until well into the 20th century. Several caves were dug especially for establishing breweries, and not just because of the ambient temperature: going underground allowed brewers to remain close to their customers without having to pay a premium for real estate up top.
Overview of the Paris Catacombs.Credit: Inspection Générale des Carrières, 1857 / Public domain.
At the end of the 19th century, the underground breweries of the 14th arrondissement alone produced more than a million hectoliters (22 million gallons) per year. One of the most famous of Paris' underground breweries, Dumesnil, stayed in operation until the late 1960s.
In that decade, the network of corridors and galleries south of the Seine, long since abandoned by miners, became the unofficial playground for the young people of Paris. They explored the fantastical world beneath their feet, in some cases via entry points located in their very schools. Fascinated, these cataphiles ("catacomb lovers") read up on old books, explored the subterranean labyrinth, and drew up schematics that were passed around among fellow initiates as reverently as treasure maps.
As Robert Macfarlane writes in Underland, Paris-beneath-their-feet became "a place where people might slip into different identities, assume new ways of being and relating, become fluid and wild in ways that are constrained on the surface."
Some larger caves turned into notorious party zones: a 7-meter-tall gallery below the Val-de-Grâce hospital is widely known as "Salle Z." Over the last few decades, various other locations in subterranean Paris have hosted jazz and rock concerts and rave parties — like no other city, Paris really has an "underground music scene."
Hokusai's Great Wave as the backdrop to the "beach" under Paris.Credit: Reddit
Cataphiles vs. cataphobes
With popularity came increased reports of nuisance and crime — the tunnels provided easy access to telephone cables, which were stolen for the resale value of their copper.
The general public's "discovery" of the underground network led the city of Paris to officially interdict all access by non-authorized persons. That decree dates back to 1955, but the "underground police" have an understanding with seasoned cataphiles. Their main targets are so-called tourists, who by their lack of knowledge expose themselves to risk of injuries or worse, and degrade their surroundings, often leaving loads of litter in their wake.
The understanding does not extend to the IGC. Unlike in the 19th century, when weak cavities were shored up by purpose-built pillars, the policy now is to inject concrete to fill up endangered spaces — thus progressively blocking off parts of the network. That procedure has also been used to separate the Catacombs to prevent "infiltration" of the site by cataphiles.
Many subterranean streets have their own names, signs and all. This is the Rue des Bourguignons (Street of the Burgundians) below the Champs des Capucins (Capuchin Field), neither of which exists on the surface.Credit: Jean-François Gornet via Wikimedia and licensed under
The cataphiles, however, are fighting back. In a game of cat and mouse with the authorities, they are reopening blocked passages and creating chatières ("cat flaps") through which they can squeeze into chambers no longer accessible via other underground corridors.
Catacomb climate control
Alone against the unstoppable tide of concrete, the amateurs of Underground Paris would be helpless. But the fight against climate change may turn the subterranean labyrinths from a liability into an asset — and the City of Paris into an ally.
The UN's 2015 Climate Plan — concluded in Paris, by the way — requires the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent by 2050. And Paris itself wants to be Europe's greenest city by 2030. More sustainable climate control of our living spaces would be a great help toward both targets. A lot of energy is spent heating houses in winter and cooling them in summer.
This is where the constant temperature of the Parisian tunnels comes in. It's not just good for brewing beer; it's a source of geothermal energy, says Fieldwork, an architectural firm based in Paris. It can be used to temper temperatures, helping to cool houses in summer and warming them in winter.
One catch for the cataphiles: it also works when the underground cavities are filled up with concrete. So perhaps one day, Paris Underground, fully filled up with concrete, will completely fall off the map, reducing the city's formerly real doppelgänger into an air conditioning unit.
Cool in summer, warm in winter: Paris Underground could become Paris A/C.Credit: Fieldwork
Strange Maps #1083
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.