Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sustaining Life

Recently, I had the pleasure of listening to a talk by Eric Chivian on life, sustainability and medicine, subjects that have interested me for over 45 years as writer, designer and one who has always been fascinated by science and the research that comes from it. Witty, intelligent, perceptive and wise, Eric took us on a journey of just how interconnected we are on planet earth and how we must make the effort to protect the planet and the life it supports before it's too late. One of best parts for me was his discussion about how everything has a cost, something BRT has talked about at length as there is no free lunch when it comes to technology and how it impacts civilization.

To illustrate this fact, Chivian eloquently described how "the vultures of southern Asia, for instance, are threatened with extinction because their natural diet-carrion-has been poisoned with medicine routinely prescribed for livestock and humans." something not envisioned by the creators of the drugs intended to improve the health of cattle prior to their going to the great beyond. Because nature abhors a vacuum, Eric told us how feral dogs took the vulture's place, thus altering the environment and people's lives in ways unimagined as long as the law of unintended consequences (Blowback + The Butterfly Effect) is not factored into the equation.

Other topics covered included biodiversity and the immense impact it has on medicine, man's place in nature and the vastness of the cosmos. His take on Cone snail toxins, frog poisons and the relationship of same to pain relief, cell specificity and cancer reminded me of the Random Walk and how scientists use it as a powerful research tool to better understand the inner workings of economics, ecology, physics and computer science.

Chivian's ability to link medicine to ecology was absolutely the best in showing how scientists at the highest level are, in fact, artists, insatiably curious to learn how the world works and willing to take chances to see where deep relationships lie. From this perspective, it was refreshing to hear someone talk of holistic connections and why the concept of Consilience ("The word is borrowed from William Whewell, who in his 1840 synthesis The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences spoke of consilience as a "jumping together" of knowledge by linking facts and theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation) is more than just a valid approach to improving man's lot in the world in which we live.

The end of the talk really hit home and I quote:

"Look again at that dot, That's here, That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives....Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary master of a fraction of a dot.... Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity,in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves....It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits that this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known." - Carl Sagan.
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